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Sino-Kenyan relations will basically depend on how we spend money

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Kenyans have witnessed the signing of contractual agreements between the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and various East African presidents Uhuru Kenyatta, Silva Kiir (South Sudan), Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Yoweri  Kaguta  Museveni (Uganda), Jakaya  Kikwete (Tanzania) and representative of Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi. An interesting observation is that all these leaders have a letter ‘K’ in their second name and that this deal was signed in Kenya. However, let’s leave that to astrologers.

The visit to Africa by the Chinese prime minister included four counties namely Kenya, Angola, Nigeria and South Africa. It’s instructive to note that these are the leading African economies with the highest growth rate in the continent. Kenya got the lion’s share of the agreements and it’s very clear that it forms a strategic partner for China’s African market penetration. In fact, according to data from the World Trade Organisation, China has already overtaken the US as the major trading partner in Africa. The data further indicates that in the next few years, possibly less, China will have overtaken the US as the largest global economy.

This is very interesting, given the fact that China was only a developing country less than 40 years ago. It means that under the progressive leadership of the Communist Party, starting with the first president of modern day China Mao Zedong, over 200 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. The transformation of China into the biggest global economy has provided much relief to the discourse of development. In fact, the country and other emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and even South Africa are providing alternative models towards middle income status for developing countries.

This is critical noting that only some few years ago, the GDP per capita income of these countries was below colonial powers. However, most of these are now way ahead of countries such as the United Kingdom. However, we need to ask ourselves how China has found itself where it is today and whether it provides a model which Kenya can emulate in its quest to attain Vision 2030 of being a middle income economy. This is important because part of the reason why we have trade relations with China is because of the surplus credit that it has gotten from its trade and therefore lends to various governments and therefore, negotiates for its strategic interests.

Recently, I visited China on a private mission. Indeed, the visit was eye opening. Guangzhou, which is about 10 hours away, is magnificent and not any different from modern western cities such as New York and is away ahead of London and Zurich. I must admit I had my own misconceptions about China before I went there. This is because apart from my interactions with the Chinese trying to communicate in not so fluent English, the other enduring perception was about substandard goods. On the contrary, I came across a very warm people, curious to learn about other lands.

They never had distorted or overbearing notions about the primitively of other people’s countries especially Africa as is the case in the west. They lacked the arrogance, know it all attitudes and the racial tension that one experiences in western capitals. In fact, the Chinese will welcome you into their premises give you something to drink or eat and show genuine concern on you. A closer look into how businesses outlets are structured will reveal that they are organised around families and cottage industries.

These are some of the aspects of what has come to be known as market socialism that is the secret behind the rise of the Chinese economy. They don’t make pretence that they are in business. It’s however the prerogative of the buyer to bargain the best price for him/herself. Majority of the merchants that I travelled with from Kenya and Africa were interestingly women and youth, possibly indicating that they are, and shall be the key drivers towards African growth. The most important aspect of these trade relations therefore, is not the western propaganda against China.

It is the ability to negotiate the best deal in the long run for the African people. Having said that, possibly the best thing would be to evaluate an already existing partnership between China and Kenya — the Thika Superhighway. This ultra-modern 50km stretch was financed, largely by the China Exim Bank followed by the African Development and the Government of Kenya. What did the Chinese get out of this deal? First they sold us a loan and therefore got interest in return. Secondly, their companies got work to do hence created employment for their people. Thirdly, through this, they got part of their money back.

On the Kenyan side, some companies got big business to supply items such as bitumen, cement and steel. Smaller companies got opportunities to do other supplies. More than 100 local engineers worked alongside their Chinese counterparts hence technology transfer. Fourthly, a road with a life span of over 20 years now exists, easing transportation. Fifthly, property along the highway has increased in value and new markets have been opened. Sixth, we have a big loan to pay over the next years.

In short, a new sheriff has come to town and he is advancing the interests of his own nation. How best can we get the best deal to leverage a ready market for Chinese products and strategic natural resources such as coal, oil gas, rare earth and touristic attractions? After all, it’s every nation for itself. The writer is a nominated member of parliament.

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