Posted on October 15, 2018

Kenyans Say Chinese Investment Brings Racism and Discrimination

Joseph Goldstein, New York Times, October 15, 2018


As the country embraces China’s expanding presence in the region, many Kenyans wonder whether the nation has unwittingly welcomed an influx of powerful foreigners who are shaping the country’s future — while also bringing racist attitudes with them.

It is a wrenching question for the nation, and one that many Kenyans, especially younger ones, did not expect to be confronting in the 21st century.

Kenya may have been a British colony, where white supremacy reigned and black people were forced to wear identification documents around their necks. But it has been an independent nation since 1963, with a sense of pride that it is among the region’s most stable democracies.

Today, many younger Kenyans say that racism is a phenomenon they largely know indirectly, through history lessons and foreign news. But episodes involving discriminatory behavior by the region’s growing Chinese work force have unsettled many Kenyans, particularly at a time when their government seeks closer ties with China.


Over the last decade, China has lent money and erected infrastructure on a sweeping scale across Africa. To pay for such projects, many African nations have borrowed from China or relied on natural resources like oil reserves. And when tallying the cost, African nations have generally focused on their rising debts, or occasionally on the exploitative labor practices of some Chinese firms.

But here in Nairobi, concerns about racism and discrimination are a growing part of the conversation about China’s expanding presence.


Other Kenyan workers explained how their office bathrooms were separated by race: one for Chinese employees, the other for Kenyans. Yet another Kenyan worker described how a Chinese manager directed his Kenyan employees to unclog a urinal of cigarette butts, even though only Chinese employees dared smoke inside.

The Chinese population in Kenya is difficult to count accurately, although one research group put the figure at around 40,000. Many are here for just a few years, to work for one of hundreds of Chinese companies. Many of the employees live together in large housing developments and are bussed back and forth from work, leaving little social interaction with Kenyans.

“Because of the isolation and lack of integration, usually they are not very aware of the local situation,” said Hongxiang Huang, a Chinese conservationist and former journalist who has lived in Nairobi. “They do not know very well how to interact with the outside world.”

And many arrive with hierarchical views of culture and race that tend to place Africans at the bottom, said Howard French, a former New York Times correspondent who wrote the 2014 book “China’s Second Continent,” which chronicles the lives of Chinese settlers in Africa.

Accusations of discrimination have even emerged on a major state-sponsored project: a 300-mile Chinese-built railroad between Nairobi and Mombasa. The train has become a national symbol of both progress and Chinese-Kenyan cooperation, though positive reviews have at times been overshadowed by concern over its $4 billion price tag.

But in July, The Standard, a Kenyan newspaper, published a report describing an atmosphere of “neo-colonialism” for Kenyan railway workers under Chinese management. Some have been subjected to demeaning punishment, it said, while Kenyan engineers have been prevented from driving the train, except when journalists are present.


Sometimes, the racial controversies have unfolded in full public view. Two years ago, a laundry detergent company in China ran a television commercial in which the detergent’s effectiveness was demonstrated by transforming a black man into a light-skinned Asian man. Last year, WeChat, the country’s popular messaging app, apologized after its software was found to translate the Chinese words for “black foreigner” into a racial slur in English.

This year, China’s televised Lunar New Year gala, estimated to reach 800 million viewers, included caricatures of Africans, with blackface and men in animal suits.

When asked about the controversy, China’s foreign ministry spokesman suggested that Western news organizations had blown the matter out of proportion in an effort to “sow discord in China’s relations with African countries.”


Kenya, home to more than 40 officially recognized ethnic groups, has long had its own problems with prejudice and ethnic tensions. A disputed election in 2007 led to several weeks of mass violence, much of it along ethnic lines. And Kenyans of Indian and Pakistani descent have long felt secluded from mainstream Kenyan life, although the government has granted them greater official recognition.

But the Chinese presence has added a volatile new element and, at times, the Kenyan government has seemed divided over how to respond. When allegations of discrimination by Chinese employers emerged over the summer, a Kenyan government spokesman suggested that part of the problem lay instead with Kenya’s national work ethic, which he said might need to change.


When Mr. Ochieng’ left a sales brochure behind in the car during a sales visit and had to excuse himself to retrieve it, he said Mr. Jiaqi began crowing, “This African is very foolish.”

But the most painful, he said, were the monkey insults — the kind of dehumanization used to justify slavery and colonization.


The rant that Mr. Ochieng’ recorded came after a sales trip had gone awry. Mr. Ochieng asked his boss why he was taking out his anger on him.

“Because you are Kenyan,” Mr. Jiaqi explained, saying that all Kenyans, even the president, are “like a monkey.”

Mr. Ochieng’ continued that Kenyans may have once been oppressed, but that they have been a free people since 1963.

“Like a monkey,” Mr. Jiaqi responded. “Monkey is also free.”

The day after the video began to circulate widely, Mr. Jiaqi, who could not be reached for comment, was deported. {snip}


Mr. Ochieng’ says he has heard stories of colonialism — “what our forefathers went through” — and worries that the Chinese will take Kenya backward, not forward as the nation’s leaders have assured.