China sends ‘people’s ambassador’ to Nairobi amid debt burden debate

China is deploying a new ambassador to Nairobi in its latest attempt to manage public perception about Beijing amid rising calls to review local debt obligations to the country.

Mr Zhou Pingjian arrived in Kenya on August 31 and presented his credentials to President Uhuru Kenyatta two days later in a swift changeover at the Chinese Embassy, just more than a year after Beijing had deployed another diplomat.

In ordinary times, new envoys wait, sometimes up to two months, to present credentials so Mr Zhou’s luck struck just a day after landing in Nairobi.

He is not new to Africa though. He had been in Abuja, Nigeria, since 2016 and while there, local media described him as a ‘street diplomat’ for his tendency to mingle with ordinary folk and appear at public functions.

“It is not unusual to move China diplomats from one African country to the other. In fact, they emphasise more on knowledge on a particular area,” Dr Beatrice Maisori, Lecturer of International Relations at Riara University Nairobi, told the Nation on Thursday.

In Nairobi, Mr Zhou has replaced Mr Wu Peng, credited for launching social media accounts for the Chinese Embassy, which the mission used to refute any perceived “fake news”.

Mr Wu, who arrived in Nairobi in March 2019, had served in Sierra Leone before moving to Kenya. He was recalled to Beijing, where he will be in charge of the Africa Division, a structure showed.

Mr Wu replaced Sun Baohong, China’s first-ever female ambassador to Nairobi but who was reassigned lighter duties in Beijing, just six months after touching down in Nairobi, for health reasons. She had been in Ghana before transferring.

Areas of focus

Mr Zhou is coming at a time Beijing is changing envoys in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. At State House, he said China will continue supporting Kenya’s development programs especially Vision 2030 and Big 4 agenda aligned projects.

Dr Maisori said the new diplomat may likely focus on the key areas China has pushed for under the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). They include healthcare, industrialisation, ICT, skills development and cooperation in the UN.

Yet, despite the change in leadership and apparent mode of interaction with local publics, the Chinese diplomat could face the same crises as his predecessors.

Judd Devermont, the Director for the Centre for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) suggested on Twitter that he and other new deployments “will face questions about Chinese investments, the quality of Covid-19 assistance, and the US-China rivalry.”

“His entry to the country is happening at a time that African countries are questioning the strategy behind the heavy funding of infrastructure projects and raising concerns on their long-term effects on the economy,” added Dr Kigen Morumbasi, a Lecturer of International Relations and Security at the Strathmore University in Nairobi.

“Amb Zhou needs to demystify China’s commitment to ensuring equal partnerships and strengthening people and people diplomacy. This should align with China’s message of its desire to create a shared future characterised by common prosperity.”

Mr Zhou Pingjian, China’s new ambassador to Nairobi, presents his credentials to President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House in Nairobi on August 31, 2020./PSCU

SGR matter

In Kenya, Mr Zhou is arriving, just two months after a court termed a contract to construct the Sh320 billion Standard Gauge Railway, between the Kenya Railways Corporation and the China Road and Bridge Corporation, in violation of procurement rules.

The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) filed a case arguing the SGR project from Mombasa to Nairobi had not been subject to competitive procurement.

The Chinese Exim Bank financed the project, but critics also charged that the loan conditions and the terms of the contract exposed Kenya’s assets in case of default.

Both Chinese and Kenyan officials deny this although a leaked contract indicated Kenya was at a disadvantage in case a dispute arose from the contract because a Chinese arbiter – China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC) – would have exclusive jurisdiction on the matter.

The second phase of the line, extended to Mai Mahiu and was christened ‘railway to nowhere’ as it required further investment to join the old railway line.

Dr Cliff Mboya, a China-Africa expert told the Nation that  Mr Zhou’s deployment signalled the importance of banking on experienced talent in Africa by the Chinese, but he added the new ambassador will have to act fast to provide answers.

“Nigeria and Kenya are very important stations for China in Africa and I think it reflects the quality and status of Nairobi when it comes to China’s diplomatic engagement,” Mboya who studied his PhD in China told the Nation on Thursday.

“I think the key issue will be the SGR but the immediate assignment will be the Covid-19. China has done a lot in terms of Covid diplomacy and there is a lot of controversy around it. I think he will be needed to make a bold statement in terms of what China has done or achieved and the type of cooperation.

White elephants

With China’s debt mounting, critics have said the SGR risks being a white elephant as its costs are currently higher than the revenues.

Mr Zhou is, however, an experienced diplomat with crises.

In Nigeria he was a prominent diplomat in the media, especially during the start of Covid-19 pandemic when he held four interviews with Nigeria’s dailies.

“If you look at his tenure in Nigeria, he is one of the ambassadors referred to as the ‘people’s’ ambassador. He is known for building personal relationships, not just with other diplomats or government officials, but also with ordinary citizens.

While in Nigeria, he ran in a crisis. In April, Nigeria’s Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, published a video of his meeting in which the envoy was lectured on the maltreatment of Africans in China.

The diplomat, in defence, argued he had not been aware of any complaints.

He also left Abuja as politicians raised a storm over a $400 million loan from China Exim Bank over fears the country would be unable to repay.

In May, the Nigerian House of Representatives set up a committee to investigate the level of China-Nigeria loan agreements since 2000.

It prompted the Nigerian Debt Management Office to release figures showing the country had an external debt of $79.3 billion but that China was only owed 3.94 per cent of the money.

Politicians, however, argue the money may have gone into white elephants.

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