China's Risky Soft-Power Push in East Africa

15 min read

China has been Africa's largest trading partner for more than a decade, surpassing the U.S. in 2009. As China promotes the narrative of “a bright, shared future” for Africa as part of its soft-power Belt and Road Initiative, the reality is more complex. The West’s interventions rarely succeeded because they relied on usually lacking state capacity to build institutions. China’s alternative model of direct investment partnerships is courting some African elites but risks new geopolitical pitfalls if it fails to deliver real improvements for the lives of Africans.

If you believe Chinese state media, “Alice” is a beloved figure in Kenya. She was the train driver for President Uhuru Kenyatta's inaugural trip on Kenya's $3 billion, Chinese funded, rail upgrade, the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway (SGR). Alice learned Chinese at the Confucius Institute at Kenyatta University. In 2017, she passed the examination to become an SGR train driver and with six others, visited China for lectures and simulation training. Alice is not the only local employee on the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR: all the conductors are Kenyan. The China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), the general contractor for the construction and operation of the railway, built a railroad institute and campus to prepare technicians and professionals for Kenya's railway development.

Is this true? Well. It is the narrative promoted by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce on their blog-like site "A Bright, Shared Future," stories from the 68-nation, multi-hundred billion dollar Chinese Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, which aims to build everything from the Pan-Borneo Highway to a power plant in Turkey. Think of it as a Chinese Marshall Plan, the investment from the U.S. that got Europe back on its feet after World War II and greatly enhanced U.S. influence around the world.

Yes, the story is factually correct and national media outlets in Kenya and neighboring countries promote the tale. Does it give an accurate insight into Kenya's economic dependency on China and the impact of Chinese development investment on ordinary Kenyans' lives? In part it does. But the reality is more subtly complex and the impact of China's strategic involvement in Kenya and other sub-Saharan African countries carries big economic and political risks and has mixed implications, not all of them "consolidating friendship and bringing hope," as the site promises.[1]

To others, it’s another example of outsiders coming in to build projects nobody wants, including Alice’s “railroad to nowhere.”

To some, Chinese investment is Africa’s new hope. To others, it’s another example of outsiders coming in to build projects nobody wants, including Alice’s “railroad to nowhere.” Few think Chinese investment will solve Africa’s formidable problems and point out that China needs new markets for its manufacturers. But the political influence such aid is providing to China has Western governments worried, and in some cases, as we’ll discuss later, attempting counter-measures.

China has been Africa's largest trading partner for more than a decade, surpassing the U.S. in 2009. Competing narratives accompany its growing influence. One – that the PRC exercises a form of neo-colonialism, reiterating the pattern of exploitation of African resources – has China vying with Western countries in a “scramble for Africa.” The alternative explanation promoted by China, like Alice's success story, is one of peaceful collaboration, a “win-win” relationship of mutual cooperation. Whatever view one takes, deep interdependencies are developing with local and global implications. Despite the heavy level of infrastructural support in the form of new railways, roads and bridges, stadia, power plants and hydro dams, there has been little research yet on rapidly shifting international investment and aid strategies in Africa and the impact of large-scale, state-led economic intervention on African lives.

East Africa is the core of China’s international development focus and the region where those competing narratives are playing out most vigorously. China needs access to natural resources, especially oil but also gas, copper, iron, fish and timber. Additionally, it wants access to a growing market of more than a billion people – and it wants legitimacy: recognition of its One China policy, acceptance of its approach to human rights, and supportive votes in international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the UN. China is becoming a major player on the world stage on its own, not Western, terms. One way it achieves this is through developing strategic allegiances in Africa.

Elephant Tusks for Porcelain

China was attracted to Africa's resources as early as the T'ang dynasty in the 9th Century. Stories of the meat-eating, ivory exporting people of "Po-pa-li" probably refer to inhabitants of modern-day Kenya and Tanzania. By the 11th century, elephant tusks, rhinoceros horn, tortoise shell and tree resins were exported from the East African coastal cities to Southern China. Chinese porcelain and animals were traded in return through the stable centuries of the Sung dynasty. In the early 15th century the Ming emperors dispatched large expeditions to Africa under Admiral Xeng He. He returned with giraffes. Direct interaction and influence were sporadic until the twentieth century, when China began to develop partnerships with African countries to counter Soviet expansion after the Sino-Soviet split in 1960. Maoist China funded and educated sub-Saharan anticolonial African liberation movements struggling for independence against European colonial powers.

Some of China's most lasting partnerships were established during the Cold War years. Socialist Tanzania removed its U.S. satellite tracking system in 1964 and expelled several American diplomats. Tanzania terminated its military assistance relationship with Canada, and China became its principal partner for trade in arms and military training. In the 1960s the World Bank rejected a Tanzania-Zambia proposal for a rail project, which China took up. Between thirty and fifty thousand Chinese immigrants worked on the project, which became known as TaZARA. During the 1990s the railway had fallen into disrepair and many stations were closed. In 2009, China discounted the original loan and re-invested another $50 million to try to fix it up.

Ethiopia regards China as its most reliable partner. Since the 1970s China’s involvement in virtually every aspect of Ethiopia’s economy has influenced the poverty reduction rate, particularly in urban areas. In 1978 China constructed a diesel power station at Bonga and from 1975 to 1982 Chinese workers built the 185-mile highway between Weldiya and Werota, now famous as the “China Road.” China has invested heavily in Ethiopia's technical education and training: Chinese companies have built countless bridges, highways, power stations, telecommunication networks, schools and pharmaceutical factories. China's embassy in Addis Ababa hosts more international visits than its Western counterparts and the Chinese funded African Union international conference and business center houses the African Union’s headquarters.[2] With a mostly rural population of 110 million, Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in Africa with a growing rural-urban divide. There is no doubt that Chinese and other international investments have stimulated high growth rates. Average household health, education, and living standards have improved. The share of the population living in poverty reduced by a third since 2000.[3] But some urban residents feel more could be done. Many Ethiopian university graduates are unemployed while international firms investing in Ethiopia, predominantly Chinese, employ their own nationals as migrant workers.[4]

China's involvement with Sudan, originating in Cold War diplomacy, is perhaps its most controversial historical legacy, regionally and internationally. Sudan was one of the first countries to formally recognize the People's Republic of China in 1959. A 1962 agreement on Economic and Technical Cooperation officially established economic relations. In a revealing moment in 1964, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told an audience in Khartoum that China was grateful to the Sudanese for killing British General Charles Gordon in 1885. Gordon had supervised the burning of the old Beijing Summer Palace in 1860.[5] Critics in Western international and nongovernmental organizations accuse China of continuing to support one of the most abusive, corrupt and violent governments in the world through its investments. China maintains it conducts transactional relationships, without conditions, based on its principles of non-interference and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Different Development Models: China and the West

The international standard for financial assistance to developing countries is a Western model established by the UN and its specialized agencies, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), during the period of reconstruction following World War II. The “Washington Consensus” requires that governments in receipt of financial assistance commit to implementing democratic institutions domestically, strengthening domestic market forces and opening to trade and foreign direct investment (FDI).

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the club of developed countries committed to liberal, democratic ideals, identifies the policies and standards of practice for structural reform adopted by the World Bank and IMF. Unlike the U.S. and other Western countries, China is not an OECD member and does not follow OECD standards to report its aid to developing countries. China’s aid and investment, therefore, is not bound by international standards and its model is more oriented toward state-led, production-side intervention, with a history of infrastructure development for specific regimes and nations.

The Chinese model does not clearly distinguish investment from aid. China provides Resource Financed Infrastructure to African nations, where part of the loan is paid with a commodity export to China, such as cocoa, crude oil or copper ore. African state governments commonly pledge future revenues from a resource development project, such as transport infrastructure, to part-repay a loan used to fund the project’s construction. China encourages its agencies and commercial entities to “closely mix and combine foreign aid, direct investment, service contracts, labor cooperation, foreign trade and export.”[6]The blended nature of the aid package plus poor recording standards makes for unreliable data collection.

A Chinese alternative in Africa challenges both Western influence and African state autonomy.

A Chinese alternative in Africa challenges both Western influence and African state autonomy. Some countries such as Kenya are increasingly dependent, economically and politically indebted to China. Others have greater capacity for strategic, geopolitical negotiation and more leverage to secure economic assistance from developed countries.

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Complex Geopolitics in the Horn of Africa

China's growing strategic interest in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden gives African nations more power to negotiate with Western states. With its increased economic capacity, China established a naval military base alongside its trade port in Djibouti in 2017, joining French and U.S. bases in the country. Djibouti's carefully balanced stance as an increasingly important host to rival Western and Asian powers, its positioning as a regional trade, logistics and digital hub and its efficient response to the COVID-19 virus contributes to its high economic growth and falling poverty rates.

Djibouti's neighbor, Somaliland, has a long-standing allegiance with Taiwan due to parallel developments in their fight for state legitimacy. Taiwan declared independence from China, Somaliland from Somalia – and both remain unrecognized by the international community. They each have established democratic governance structures, face political and military threats from Somalia and China respectively and are aligned with the liberal, Western outlook. Taiwan's friendly relations with Somaliland provided a base from which it can closely track China's activity in Djibouti. China's new military base is only 154 miles away from Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, the location of Taiwan’s new office. Beijing policy-makers are unhappy with Taiwan's expanded diplomacy in the area, but the increased interest has given Somaliland a newfound leverage, with neighboring states and with China.[7] Life expectancy in Somaliland is 53, the lowest in the world. Most adults die of infectious disease. Due to ongoing civil war, there is little sanitation or infrastructure in the country, plumbing is uncommon and in many areas open defecation is the norm.[8]

China offered infrastructure projects to Somaliland in the form of ports, airports and industrial parks, in exchange for the nation cutting diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Somaliland declined. Notwithstanding historical loyalties, its strategic calculus is twofold: through Taiwan, Somaliland can maintain better bilateral relations, possibly future aid and investment from the U.S. It may also attract FDI to exploit its untapped natural resources. The U.S. government has historically supported the weak but internationally recognized Somali government in Mogadishu. On 9 July 2020, in an unprecedented statement of support for Somaliland, the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) welcomed Taiwan stepping up its engagement in East Africa in a time of such tremendous need.[9]

China’s Soft Power

Close involvement with infrastructure development, particularly communications networks, and debt dependency of its partnership countries, gives China the soft power—power to persuade through attractive ideological and political narratives—to influence policy and narratives. Chinese influence permeates the landscape of media relations in Africa much as it does business and politics. Chinese firms have built most of the continent’s 3G and 4G telecoms networks. China’s state-run media forge partnerships with state and private agencies in African countries.

Collaborative news reporting from Chinese and African agencies began with the 2006 Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) III, where state media planned joint training and systematized, positive coverage. FOCAC III resulted in a continent-wide increase in China-Africa media links.

East Africa, particularly Nairobi, Kenya, has long been the hub for global media operations on the continent. In 2006 Xinhua, China’s state-run News Agency, moved its Africa headquarters from Paris to Nairobi. Shortly afterwards, China Radio International (CRI) and China Central Television (CCTV) launched their own operations in Nairobi. CCTV built a continental satellite studio and began printing the African edition of China Daily in December 2012, one year after Xinhua and Chinese telecommunications company Huawei had partnered with Kenya’s Safaricom Ltd., to launch the first “mobile newspapers” in sub-Saharan Africa.

Xinhua offers African media houses wire copy and pictures either for free, or at low rates. Newspapers use Xinhua News Agency images, while television stations are using China Xinhua News Network Corporation World, CRI dubbed soap operas and CCTV footage. The Kenyan government grants Chinese media establishments prime slots on domestic stations.[10] When Xinhua News Agency copy meets editorial standards, media houses save costs, since copy and pictures from other news agencies – principally Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France Presse – are more expensive.

The Chinese Ministry of Commerce trains postgraduate African journalists in China at the Communication University of China's African Communication Research Center and other universities. African journalists' education in China includes Chinese philosophy, society and history. Top editors and commercial managers sit at the confluence of business and editorial functions. They are incentivized to call on journalists to temper direct criticism of China, in order to secure commercial gains and gain Party approval. A senior CCTV Africa editor described the censoring effect on African media: “There are subjects that generally aren’t touched, such as criticism of local Chinese investments....We try to portray more positive news. You can’t talk badly about Chinese interests in Africa.”[11]

Belt, Road, and Infrastructure

Chinese project investments in African countries are primarily Chinese state-private collaborations for the Belt and Road initiative. Kenya’s SGR, completed in 2017 with Alice at the wheel, is core to the Chinese plan. In its finished form, the railway would connect land-locked South Sudan, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia to the Indian Ocean.

The Mombasa-Nairobi link cut the previous journey-time to four-and-a-half hours from nine hours by bus or twelve hours on the previous railway.[12] The contract for the railway, between public operator Kenya Railways and the China Bridges and Railway Corporation (CBRC) was drawn without following Kenya’s competition and procurement laws. Kenya borrowed more than $3 billion from China to build the 472-kilometer (293-mile) railway and another $1.5 billion for a second branch from Nairobi to Naivasha. The interest cost on the loans amounts to 2.5 percent of government revenue, twenty-eight times the cost of debt burdens from comparable infrastructure projects on taxpayers in Europe.[13]

The Exim Bank of China financed CBRC directly and the Kenyan government accrued the debt. The loan agreement obliges Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) to deliver enough freight to the railway to service the debt, failing which KPA will cover the revenue deficit from its own sources. Freight transit is still cheaper by road but the agreement forces the KPA to divert contracts from the private truck fleets built during the post-liberalization years in Kenya. It will be paying off the loans for the next 30 to 40 years.

Okiya Omtata, a Kenyan activist, challenged the government in court to make the deal with China public: "There was the question of the proposer of the project being the implementer and also overseeing, which also is a conflict of interest that arose. The other question was, was it standard gauge or Chinese gauge railway if you look at the contract, it’s a Chinese standard. So we cannot go to Brazil and buy spares for this. We must buy things from China. We are being tied to China forever.”[14] Kenya’s total public debt is now over 60% of GDP, roughly the same as China’s ratio and well-below that of the US. China, concerned about sovereign risk—that Kenya’s central bank will default on its debts to China—has withheld loans for the rail extension.

The passenger train is attractive to tourists and has improved business for small towns en route. For Kenyans who travel, an economy class ticket is slightly cheaper than a bus ticket. But for the most part, the project will have little direct impact on the majority of Kenyan lives. Instead, in increasing national debt, diverting market forces away from productivity and siphoning significant proportions of the economy into debt repayment, the investment represents the worst side of state-led intervention. Media outlets that are not beholden to Chinese influence have called it “a railroad to nowhere.”[15][16]

©Adaptive Cultures

A Devil’s Bargain?

Although the poverty rate in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen by more than 10% since 1990, the population has grown and the total number of Africans in poverty has risen.[17] Since either one of those numbers without the other can be used to tell a completely different story, they must instead be considered together. The West’s structural adjustment interventions (SAPs) relied on state capacity to build institutions and, where that was lacking, such loans had limited success. China provides an alternative model, driven by its unique history and ideology, which risks a different set of mistakes, and bad outcomes: boondoggles for the elite which derail market forces. In both cases, African people rely on the capacity of their governments, often in disadvantaged geopolitical positions, to skillfully and wisely navigate them out of poverty. That hasn’t happened in the past. Poor Africans don’t care about geopolitical games. Even as their elites justify borrowing, spending and political allegiances and despite whatever narratives their media advance, the people will be convinced only when their quality of life improves. The Belt and Road project is scheduled to last another 30 years. It’s worth keeping up with news reports on successes and failures in Africa, as well as in South America and East Asia. Is China trying to establish a sort of Chinese Century? If so, will it succeed?

To Think About:

  • Are developing nations unavoidably pawns in superpower battles, having to choose between different forms of colonialism? Is international aid ever strings-free?
  • Could country-wide and eventually continent-wide projects to develop roads, electrification, and broadband, along the lines of the US Interstate Highway program of the 1950s, bring jobs, money and eventual lasting infrastructure to Africa? Which institutions would need to make this happen?
  • Is Chinese projection of soft-power, the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce, a welcome or insidious development? Does the US have a comparable grand strategy in Africa?
  • What are the environmental impacts of Chinese sponsored development in Africa?
  • Is infrastructure development the right priority for Africa when so many people are poor, sick and/or hungry? How to solve this chicken/egg problem?
  • Keep an eye out for news reports of similar Chinese projects in Africa and elsewhere, as well as whether the next Chinese five-year plan, due in 2021, continues, expands or contracts the Belt and Road initiative.


  1. Hu Yifeng, “The Dreams Come True,” n.d., Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China,

  2. David H. Shinn and Joshua Eisenman, China and Africa: A Century of Engagement (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) 272.


  4. Jackie Fox, “Ethiopia and the Chinese Dream in Africa,” 23 April 2019, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (Ireland’s National Public Service Media),

  5. Robert I. Rotbert, China into Africa: Trade, Aid and Influence (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2008) 112.

  6. Yun Sun, “China’s Aid to Africa: Monster or Messiah?” 7 February 2014, Brookings Institution,

  7. Mohamed Farah Hersi, “Somaliland’s New Cold War Diplomacy” 6 September 2020, Ethiopia Insight,

  8. Emily Triolet,“Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Somalia,” The Borgen Project,

  9. Hersi, “Somaliland’s New Cold War Diplomacy.” Ethiopia Insight See note 7 above.

  10. Bob Wekesa, “Emerging trends and patterns in China–Africa media dynamics: A discussion from an East African perspective,” Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 34:3 (2013), 62-78, DOI: 10.1080/02560054.2013.845592.

  11. Ibid.

  12. “Kenya Opens Nairobi-Mombasa Madaraka Express Railway,”BBC News, 31 May 2017,

  13. David Ndii, “SGR by the Numbers: Some Unpleasant Arithmetic” 21 July 2018, The Elephant,

  14. Oliver Cuenca, “Kenyan Court of Appeal finds SGR Construction Contract Illegal,” 26 June 2020, International Railway Journal,

  15. David Ndii, “From Game Changer to Railway to Nowhere: The Rise and Fall of Lunatic Line 2.0” 2 November 2019, The Elephant,; David Herbling and Dandan Li, “China’s Built a Railroad to Nowhere in Kenya,” 18 July 2019

  16. David Herbling and Dandan Li, "China's built a Railroad to Nowhere in Kenya, Bloomberg News,18 July 2019

  17. “Accelerating Poverty Reduction in Africa: In Five Charts,” World Bank, 9 October 2019,