A New Generation of Sino-African Relations: Chinese Youth in Kenya

Yao Zongfu

“I only admire three people in Nairobi and they are all here.”Li, a manager of a private company, said at a social meeting of a group of Chinese youth. He admires not only their business ability, but more importantly their continuous efforts on improving Sino-African relationship. Chinese youth nowadays are becoming more and more crucial to the Sino-African relationship as they represent a generation who is involved in the mutual communications between China and Africa. Unlike the elder generations, they concentrate on connection with local people instead of pure pursuit of fortune.

Chen, a marketing manager of a Chinese online shopping Start-up Company, has already stayed in Kenya for more than a year. As soon as he graduated from university, he got a job in a state-owned enterprise which he could appropriately apply what he have learned in university to work. However, he gradually got bored with the routine work he did everyday. He came up with an idea to go abroad in order to discover the fascinating world. At that time, one of his friends who was interested in Sino-African relationship invited him to come to Africa to join an organization,China House, to help Chinese enterprises to integrate into Africa. He agreed despite of some hesitation that his job was called “Golden Bowl” in China.

I met him at the grassland outside his company of which employees work in a villa. When asked about his working environment, he said:”I would like to work with someone who shares the same thoughts with me. It is really hard to work and communicate with those who always have separate thoughts. Working companions really matter.”Actually, he found an ideal working company after a long exploration from China House to a more traditional Chinese company to a Chinese start-up.

Chen is responsible for the marketing department of his company. With no doubt, there are quite a few local employees working for his company.As he emphasized the importance of working companions, the relationship with local employees really raised my curiosity. “I get along well with them because I try my best to know about them. Our relationship is beyond working partners.”He is willing to build up a solid friendship with local people and be localized as a messenger of friendship between China and Africa.

Chen belongs to the new generation who are unlike these elder Chinese businessmen who came to Kenya many years ago. Usually traditional Chinese businessmen came to Africa simply to pursue fortune. They usually ignore labor complaints, environmental pollution, wildlife conservation and relationship with local residents. Besides, when meeting problems, especially facing government officials, they tend to solve problems by corrupting them. All of these leave a bad impression of Chinese to African people.

However, the emergence of Chinese youth in Africa is gradually shaking the bad impression. Because they are totally different kinds of people, they behave in different ways. Most of them are relatively well educated and have absorbed some international values, some even with experiences of studying abroad. They can easily communicate with local people in English, which is hard for the elder businessmen. Besides, they are willing to communicate with local residents and international communities because of the western thoughts, which is impossible for the elders. When getting to the bottom of this difference, it is their attitude towards Africa and local people that differs.

“The elder generation just change the background from China to Kenya.The vigilance is deep in their mind so that they beware ofAfrican people in order to make more money.”Zhou, a translator of a private company, claimed during the interview. She is a typical one of the new generation who is well educated with fluent oral English. What’s more important, she is willing to be localized as she always gets to make friends with local people. She believe every Kenyan people is hospitable if you put off the vigilance and show them your sincerity. That’s totally different from the elder businessmen who always worry about being cheated by local labors.

As we happened to know about Lu, a young engineer of a Chinese state-owned enterprise which process a project of infrastructure construction for Kenya, he just paid a visit toNairobi during his 2-day off. The construction site is so isolated that he can hardly have entertainment. So he just had talk with his local labors. After contacting with them, he came up with an absolutely different opinion on local labors from the elder businessmen. He talked deeply with them so that he knew them better. On the contrary, the elders had no contact with them apart from working relationship, which means they have no idea what the local labors are really like. Thanks to Lu, the local residents also know Chinese youth better.

When I experienced the local transportation, matatu, I sat on the last row. But I could clearly hear the voice from the first row which was in Chinese. When they got off, I could see them clearly that they are all Chinese youth. As far as I know, it is impossible for the Chinese elders to take matatu because it is beyond their imagination. They believe that they will be robbed on it. However, not only these two Chinese youth, but I came out of the matatu without any robbery or steal. The local residents just regard matatu as an instrument of transportation instead of a place to extort money.

Taking matatu is a small thing. But it reflects the willingness to be localized. Just like Zhou, living in the local style is pretty ordinary. When talking about contacting with local people, she seemed really excited with some physical gesture. She likes talking to the local and knows about them. Besides, she always goes hiking with them with the purpose of improving their relationship. It seams that their relationship is beyond working connection, which is really hard to find on the Chinese elders.

As for these well-educated youth, they can never live without a plan for future. Zhou can hardly find a reason to leave Kenya and come back to China. She really enjoys the lifestyle in Kenya and is eager to make friends with local people. Besides, it can also provide her with peace which cannot be possible in China. “There are too many noises and hustles in China. People cannot have a peaceful soul in that environment.”Zhou claimed with disappointment. This thought is really rare among the Chinese elder businessmen. After they come to Kenya to seek opportunity to make profit, they return home to have a better lives with these money. Actually, they are in favor of the noise and hustle because traditional Chinese are willing to get together and talk with each other.

As for Ting, another well-educated youth with four-year western studying experience, she is in a dilemma. She came to Kenya to search for a bigger performing platform to show her versatile ability. After a year in Kenya, she have built up a wide relationship network including Chinese youth, elder businessmen and local people. However, she is in a conflict with her family. As a female, she is expected to come home instead of working abroad. So her future is obscure. Family problem is the main task that Chinese youth who come to Africa have to face. The elder businessmen return to China not only for the entertainment and social activities, but for their families. In Chinese tradition, it is important for everyone to fulfill their family duties. They want their money earned in Africa to be fully used by their families. Besides, if their families live well with the money they earned, they can return home with honor.

However, these youth of a new generation cannot represent the whole group of Chinese youth who come to Kenya. There are still some youth who are more “old class”, especially in some state-owned enterprises. Mostly they come to Kenya for two reasons: job rotation and money. Some employees of state-owned enterprises just come here to fulfill his job rotation and then go back to China. Others come Kenya only for a few years, usually no more than three years, to make enough money and then return home. You can easily observe the similarities between these youth and elder businessmen, such as lack of communication with local people, consciousness of wildlife conservation and environmental protection.

The founder of the China House, Huang Hongxiang, who is also one of these Chinese youth working in Africa, concludes that these promising youth will definitely influence the future Sino-African relationship, ” All the relationships are influenced by human beings. Although nowadays it is those elder businessmen and some Chinese state-owned enterprises that pose a large impact on Sino-African relationship, they will fade away. Chinese youth will improve Sino-African relationship in the future with the in-depth communication with local people and complete localization.”

 Yao Zongfu is a student at Fudan University in Shanghai and was a China-Africa Seed Research Fellow at China House in Nairobi, Kenya.


This post first appeared on The China-Africa Project on August 26, 2015.

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