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April 10, 2015

Reasonable but not right: Chinese media coverage of the Chinese restaurant incident in Nairobi

This is the second in a two-part series focusing on media coverage of the incident involving the now infamous Chinese restaurant in Nairobi. This second part focuses on coverage in Chinese media. 


On 15 March a Nigerian journalist visiting Nairobi for a workshop went to for a meal at a Chinese restaurant in the city. He arrived sometime in the afternoon, and shortly after he was admitted the restaurant’s gate was shut, although the institution was still open. He found this slightly odd but thought it was just a security measure of some sort. The next day he invited two of his friends, both Kenyan journalists, along to the same restaurant for dinner. Yet when the party of three arrived at Chongqing Chinese Restaurant in the neighborhood Kilimani, they were refused entry on the grounds that “the time for Africans has ended”, i.e. Africans are not allowed to patronize the restaurant after 5 pm for reasons of security. Last year, staff at the restaurant explained, an armed gang had carried out a robbery of the restaurant and its patrons, and as a result the owner had opted for a blanket refusal to serve Africans at night.

The original story on the front page of the Daily Nation on 23 March.

The original story on the front page of the Daily Nation on 23 March.

On 23 March, the Daily Nation ran a front page story under the headline “Restaurant: Sorry no Africans, we don’t trust them after dark”, outlining the experience of the journalists at the restaurant and the latter’s explanation for the policy. On 24 March, an article was published on the front page of a different Kenyan newspaper, People Daily, reporting that “another controversy has hit the Chinese restaurant”, i.e. that the owner had been arrested for operating without a license.

As these reports in Kenyan newspapers were reported and republished around the world and in various major news outlets, the incident took on global proportions, inciting widespread discussion. Widespread, that is, in English-language media; coverage in Chinese-language media was decidedly limited. One solitary article was published in a Chinese print newspaper on 26 March on the incident, and a handful of online articles addressed it over the period 25-27 March. The following is a brief overview of Chinese media coverage of the incident.

The publication of the report in the Daily Nation immediately inspired a passionate response from a Chinese person living in Africa. On 25 March, an article with the headline “Africans not allowed to enter? Suspicions about discrimination at Chinese restaurant in Kenya provoke widespread anger” was published on the news channel of the Chinese portal Sohu, authored by Yingying, a self-described “post-80s generation (1) Chinese entrepreneur in Africa and founder of Quanfeigou 全非购 (an online platform for Chinese people living and working in Africa) (2) At the start of the article Yingying points out that right after the incident was first reported, she made use of Quanfeigou’s WeChat account to conduct a survey to gauge the opinions of Chinese people in Africa on the actions of the restaurant. 119 of the total 312 respondents disapproved of the restaurant’s policy, and 74 felt the situation should have been handled more tactfully (3).

55 of the 312 respondents felt that Kenyan observers and the Kenyan media were too excessive in their views on the incident, an opinion Yingying clearly shares. In the rest of her article she tries to add some context to the actions of the restaurant, especially related to the owner’s fears on security. She adds, moreover, that this is just an isolated incident, and complains that some observers have associated it with colonialism, human rights and discrimination. Trying at all costs to ensure a safe environment at the restaurant, the owner was just (in their view) trying to do the right thing (4).

Yingying concedes, however, that the owner’s lack of experience, cultural understanding and tact was to blame for the incident.

Also on 25 March, the website of Reference News 参考消息网 (5) published a review of foreign media coverage of the incident. The report is a dry summary of Kenyan newspaper articles and a few other foreign media reports, although the foot of the article does contain only four “hot” comments (a strong moderating policy is likely in force for comments on the site), all posted right after the article was first published and all more or less critical of the owner of the restaurant. One of the comments, posted by someone with the handle “Unmarried lord” (单身贵族), reads, “I’m beginning to understand the reasoning behind the old sign ‘Chinese and dogs not allowed’” (6).

A short article appeared on 25 March on the Chinese-language website of Global Times 全球时报 , a Chinese media outlet whose Chinese- and English-language editions often have a nationalistic take on world affairs, reporting the closing of the restaurant, the arrest of the owner, and the looting of the restaurant by certain “armed gangs”. A longer article appeared on the site on 26 March, which reported that a Global Times journalist tried to interview the owner of the restaurant on 25 March, but was declined. In an effort to provide context for the actions of the owner, the Global Times coverage at length discusses the less than ideal security situation in Nairobi, with Somalian “youth gangs”(who allegedly robbed the restaurant and its patrons in 2014) and Al-Shabaab on the loose. And yet, the 26 March article concludes, “all this is not grounds for discrimination against Africans”. On 26 March, this article was published in the Global Times Chinese-language newspaper, the only article that appeared in print in China on the incident; it was republished in Fuzhou Evening News 福州晚报on the same day.

Two more brief reports appeared on regional news portals on 26 and 27 March, with the latter containing slightly more detail on Al-Shabaab and the “Somalian youth gangs”. But the last word on the issue goes to the website Observer 观察者, which published a short but sharp commentary on 26 March, the last significant commentary on the incident in the Chinese media. “Such discrimination against Africans in Africa”, it reads, “this affair does not sound like the work of Chinese people seeking to do honest business and to serve others.” Instead, it rather sounds like when,

200 years ago, European immigrants to the American mainland discriminated against the native peoples, or European businessmen engaged in a slave trade of the African people. But these people were all aggressors and colonialists brandishing powerful weapons…and native inhabitants had no choice but to be trampled. Yet the causes of this recent incident in Nairobi are completely different.

It is different, the article then explains, because the security situation in Nairobi is so deplorable, with “Somalian youth gangs” regularly perpetrating terrorist acts. It’s no surprise, the article continues, that the Chinese Embassy in Kenya regularly issues warnings Chinese citizens in the country to be constantly on their guard. Irrespective of whether the restaurant was able to avoid the likes of Al-Shabaab with a blanket ban on Africans at night,

it offended a lot of African people…We cannot but blame the restaurant for not thinking clearly about the tactics it employed. In the land of the Africans, you must place yourself in their shoes. Instead, what the restaurant had to do was ensure the safety of all its customers in a secure environment.

Yet this, the article ends by saying, is easier said than done.


(1) That is, born in the 1980s.

(2) This article has been translated into English by Zander Rounds and published in full on the Cowries and Rice blog, which also includes a review of the range of Chinese social media comments on this issue as translated by China House.

(3) The five possible answers to the question “How do you see this issue?” and votes for each question were as follows: Acting like this just creates further difficulties, even though some Chinese restaurants have been robbed in the evenings (119 votes, 38%); Acting like this can easily attract the disapproval of Kenyans, and it should have been handled more tactfully (74 votes, 23%); Locals should also be allowed to use the restaurant in the evenings, and more security should be provided to solve the safety issue (55 votes, 17%); The opinions of Kenyans and Kenyan media reports on this issue are excessive (55 votes, 17%); and The opinions of Kenyans and Kenyan media reports on this issue are appropriate (9 votes, 2%).

(4) The views and experiences of Chinese companies in Kenya on the security situation in the country was expressed in the findings of a survey published in a report by the Sino Africa Centre of Excellence Foundation (SACEF) in January this year. In a survey of 75 Chinese establishments in the manufacturing and services sectors in Kenya, the Kenya 2014 Business Perception Index identified corruption, safety and obtaining work permits as the three biggest impediments that Chinese companies experience in Kenya. Nearly 60% of the companies reported losses related to theft, robbery, vandalism or arson.

(5) First published in 1931, Reference News was a traditionally a newspaper purposefully published for Communist Party members to be informed of world events.

(6) Contrary to popular belief, the infamous sign “Chinese and dogs not allowed” never existed, but a similar sign (directed at dogs and Philippine, Japanese and Vietnamese nationals) did famously appear in the window of a Beijing restaurant in 2013 (see The China Story post for more details).

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