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China's 'soft power' benefits Kenya

By Nancy Okang'a | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2017-10-15 10:56

For many years, the Western world has been looked up to as an attractive pacesetter for African countries in many ways. However, the tide is swiftly changing, as China increasingly becomes attractive to Africa.

It would appear that China's growing economic presence in Africa is shaping Chinese "soft power" on the continent. In Kenya, as in many other African countries, China has largely become the "talk of the town".

The fact that China has built a strong trade partnership with Kenya and, by extension, Africa has been acknowledged numerous times. Building on the strong economic engagements, Africa and China have sought to improve interactive relations under the rubric of soft power.

Therefore, even as the media coverage of the Chinese presence in the country focuses on the economic aspects of the relationship that involve trade, investments and tourism, China's soft power is a force that cannot be ignored. The increasing use of soft power has been manifested in different ways as China's engagements with Kenya take various platforms, mainly education, training, media, culture and infrastructure construction.

China's 'soft power' benefits Kenya

Indeed, more Africans are now studying in China compared with Western powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, thanks to the scholarship opportunities offered by the Chinese government. Notably, scholarships from the West have dwindled recently, while Chinese scholarships have consistently shot up over the past one and a half decades. Young Africans yearning to fulfill their aims of attaining education and career dreams are now "looking East".

Large numbers of Kenyan students are being awarded scholarships funded by the People's Republic of China to study in universities in China at doctoral, master's and undergraduate levels. In short order, African graduates who studied or are studying in China will run into the thousands, bringing back with them deeper and experiential understanding of China over and above the much-needed knowledge and skills.

Interestingly, the scholarships are also backed by Chinese companies. This speaks to a direct link between economic engagements and soft power. For instance, China Road and Bridge Corp, which has been an active contractor in Kenya's infrastructure development, has been supporting tertiary education for a number of students. It will be remembered for building the Kenyan Standard Gauge Railway, a major economic booster since it facilitates the movement of goods and people. But in addition to the purely economic significance of the infrastructure built by CRBC, the company is now investing in the "soft" aspects by offering full scholarships to Kenyan students to undertake studies in the crucial field of engineering in China.

The introduction of Confucius Institutes in Kenya has also been a good strategy toward attainment of China's soft power, since soft power is usually largely about the cultural attraction rather than the economic. Therefore, the presence of numerous Confucius Institutes in Kenyan universities such as the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, Egerton University and Moi University - where students are given an opportunity to learn the Chinese language and thereby interact with Chinese culture - has accelerated the growth of China's soft power in Kenya.

The media, too, have been an avenue, such as China Central Television, which in 2012 launched a broadcasting center in Nairobi. The television network airs African news as well as Chinese TV dramas and documentaries. Additionally, China Daily newspaper circulates in many parts of Africa. All these will hopefully function to promote mutual understanding between Africa and China.

Some may argue that investment in the soft aspects of education, culture and media is aimed at colonizing African people. The argument may be that Africans will abandon the West and embrace an Oriental ideology.

On the contrary, beyond the trade and the general economic relationship between Kenya and China, investment in the soft dimensions of the Africa-China relations has far greater benefits. While economic ties are important, investing in people has long-lasting ramifications, especially when one considers the fact that the Africa-China relationship is a long-term one.

Additionally, investment in soft power works to counterbalance the dominance of the West in Africa, thus offering Africans alternative viewpoints of the world. In essence, African, Chinese and Western perspectives can all co-exist, with the people picking the aspects that they consider best from the different cultures.

The author has a master's degree in African literature from the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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