China and the Olympics: a view from Kenya

Peter Kimani
9 August 2008

I wake up to the shrill buzz of my Quartz table-clock every morning, take tea in chinaware and drive to work through an intersection paved by a Chinese contractor. I slip into a brown leather jacket that (you guessed right!) is made in China. I return home to eat from a china plate, serenaded by my son's music from a Wiggles battery-powered guitar, also made in China.

Peter Kimani is the author of Before The Rooster Crows and a senior editor with The Standard Group in Nairobi. Also by Peter Kimani in openDemocracy:

"Before the Rooster Crows" (29 May 2003)

"Kenya's voices of discontent" (27 March 2007)

"A past of power more than tribe in Kenya's turmoil" (2 January 2008

Before we lose track I should clarify that the clock was bought in London; the jacket in Chicago, and the guitar in Iowa in the United States. Which reminds me...in Iowa, where I spent three months during 2007, my preferred eatery was a Chinese café where we were greeted warmly by a middle-aged woman. She did not speak a word of English but still understood our orders and delivered in record time.

In my own neighbourhood in Nairobi, where I recently went scouting for a house, I met a young Chinese man who pointed to a young Kenyan woman for any inquiries. He was there to build houses and make money, not learn Kiswahili or other local languages - or English, the official language.

The Chinese seem to make and sell virtually everything under the sun. And they themselves seem to be everywhere. Those at least are the impressions one gets looking around. Now, when the world is meeting in the Chinese capital of Beijing for the Olympic games, the feeling is that China has entrenched its presence across the world while building its pride at home.

The magnet-effect is such that some Kenyan athletes - judging from their love for other countries - might even seek to change their nationality and become Chinese.

A jagged dream

But China - here in Kenya, as elsewhere - isn't always viewed positively; more often than not, it is presented as a vulture waiting to grab something and fly away with its prey.

That was the question I put to a senior official at the Chinese consulate in Nairobi after China (along with Russia) had blocked efforts at the United Nations to impose economic sanctions against Khartoum - even as Sudan's murderous orgy in its western province of Darfur was continuing.

The Chinese official, diminutive in stature and incorrigibly argumentative, kept repeating in halting English: "Have you been to China? Have you been to China?" The clear implication was that I would have to travel to China to know the truth about the country and its people.

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Tarek Osman, "China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt" (7 August 2008)

Patrice de Beer, "China and the Olympics: a view from France" (7 August 2008)

Irfan Husain, "China and the Olympics: a view from Pakistan" (8 August 2008)

Perhaps he is right. I have not been to China. But China has revised its own boundaries to encompass my world - whether in Africa, Europe or north America.

Its dalliance with Kenya and other developing nations started in the heady decades of the 1960s and the 1970s - when China was ruled by Mao Zedong and (later, if briefly) the even more hardline communists of the "gang of four". In Africa and elsewhere in what was then known as the "third world", these were years fraught with the excitement of political independence, and the dangers of the ideological experimentations that followed.

Now, in the 2000s, a still-communist (politically) but rampantly-capitalist (economically) China is making its "second coming" in what is now known as the "global south". This time, its influence is both more energetic and more tactful. Its companies (often effectively arms of the state) are purchasing two-thirds of Sudanese oil, its products are swamping local markets with cheap produce, and its contractors are securing concessions from governments to build roads and bridges.

What's left? As long ago as 1873, the British scientist Sir Francis Galton proposed that Chinese immigrants to Africa would "multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race." The long arc of imperial control and racial denigration has brought China and Africa - both of which have been at the receiving-end of these processes - to a new point. Yet there are reports of Chinese bar-owners being asked to refuse entry to black visitors during the games. "One world, one dream"? Still some way to go, in Nairobi, Beijing...or anywhere.

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