What do Kenyans actually think of the Chinese in Kenya?

In the news, we frequently see headlines about the problems that Chinese companies and individuals are causing in Africa. Many commentators have highlighted the role of Chinese nationals in the illegal and legal trade of wildlife products, questionable labor practices, and racially-charged cultural misunderstandings, as a blemishes in an otherwise (mostly) fruitful Chinese-African relationship. However, most of these accounts come from either Chinese or Western sources–few actually come from Africans or African media. On the ground in Kenya it’s a little more complicated: we often hear conflicting anecdotal evidence about how Chinese are racist and closed off; how Chinese are stealing jobs from locals. But we also hear about how Chinese companies are creating jobs and improving infrastructure. So we set out on a mission to find out what Kenyans really think about Chinese people and the Chinese presence in Kenya.

To gauge local attitudes toward Chinese people, we conducted extensive survey between July and August 2016. During this period, we received 459 questionnaire responses from Kenyan citizens. To access a diverse set of perspectives (we did not have the resources to attempt a representative sample), we distributed the surveys in a variety of neighborhoods, at markets and malls, and a university. 56% of respondents are male, while 39% are female; 5% did not answer. The majority of respondents are young and well educated: 45% are between 17-26 years of age; 32% are between 27-36; and only 5% are older than 46. Almost 70% of respondents have at least a college degree. As for their interactions with Chinese people, 40% of respondents reported to have had a few conversations with Chinese people; 24% have worked with Chinese people in a business setting; and 13% have interacted with Chinese people socially. Nearly 10% of respondents claim to work for a Chinese company. Below are our major findings:

The general perception of Chinese people is quite positive.

 Confirming existing studies on the perceptions of China in Kenya (e.g. a 2015 Pew Study), the majority of respondents held a positive perception of China and Chinese people–mainly for economic reasons. 77% of respondents agreed with the statement that China is helping Kenya, while only 8% disagreed. Generally, the younger the interviewee, the more positive they were about China’s impact in Kenya, though the differences are marginal (See Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Is China helping Kenya? (%)

The perception of China’s economic contribution is even more positive. 85% agree with the statement that Chinese are helping Kenya’s economy (nearly 30% “Strongly Agree”); only 9% disagree. Regardless of the age groups, respondents seemed similarly positive, ranging from 75% (under 16) to 90% (between 17-26).

Interestingly, there appears to be no significant difference in the opinions and attitudes of those who work for Chinese companies and those who don’t. 85.7% of the respondents who work for Chinese companies agree with the statement Chinese are helping Kenya’s economy, a nearly identical percentage as those who do not work for Chinese companies (86%). Similarly, 9.5% of those who work for Chinese companies do not agree with the statement, compared to 8.9% of who don’t work for Chinese companies.

Some issues commonly associated with Chinese in Kenya may be overstated.

Several issues associated with Chinese in Kenya seem to be commonly raised by Kenyans, or by outsiders, giving the researchers the expectation that these would be widespread. However, the survey found that some of these might be overstated or overestimated.

For instance, the idea that Chinese are importing their own laborers and taking jobs away from locals seemed relatively common. Respondents, however, were relatively split on whether Chinese are actually doing so, with 47% disagreeing and 42% agreeing. Even more striking, nearly 47% disagree with the statement Chinese are more racist then Westerners, while only 19% of respondents agree. In fact, respondents are split on whether they view Chinese or Westerners more favorably (See Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Debunking common perceptions (%)

Furthermore, in contrast to the perception that the Chinese tend to be very closed off, more than 60% disagree with the statement that Chinese people do not interact with Kenyans, while 25% agree with it (this, however, could be influenced by the fact that Chinese people distributed this survey).

The impact of wildlife issues on perceptions of the Chinese in Kenya may also be somewhat overblown

Many regard China’s negative image in wildlife conservation a major challenge in the Sino-African relationship. Surprisingly, based on this survey, Kenyan perceptions of Chinese people relating to wildlife are not nearly as negative as expected.

Only 16% of respondents disagreed with the statement most Chinese people love wildlife, while more than half of respondents (53%) agreed. 82% of those who agree that “most Chinese people love wildlife” have at least basic knowledge of wildlife conservation. What’s more, 38% of respondents disagree the statement of Chinese people often buy illegal wildlife products like ivory and rhino horn, which is a higher percentage than those who agree with this statement (34%).

The fact that China is the biggest ivory market is often mentioned by wildlife conservation organizations to criticize China’s role in ivory trade. More than one third (36%) of respondents, however, reported that they did not know whether China is the biggest ivory market. Only 38% agreed; nearly 20% disagreed. (See Figure 3)

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Figure 3: Kenyan perceptions of Chinese and wildlife (%) 
screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-1-13-53-pm
Figure 4: Kenyan opinions on Chinese buying illegal wildlife products like ivory and rhino horn (%)

Respondents also gave unexpected answers to the impact of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) on wildlife in Kenya. The SGR project, carried out by CRBC, a Chinese company, was reported to have a negative impact on wildlife, as it passes through Nairobi National Park, and has provoked a furious reaction from a number of wildlife conservation organizations.

However, the sample is divided on whether the Standard Gauge Railway has a negative impact on wildlife. More than 40% of respondents disagreed with the statement that the Standard Gauge Railway project has negative impacts on wildlife in Kenya, the same percentage as those who agree with it. Even among those respondents who reported believing that wildlife conservation is necessary and urgent, an equal number agree (37.7%) and disagree (37.2%) that SGR has negative impact on wildlife.

China’s involvement in wildlife conservation

This survey suggests that the negative impact on China’s image of wildlife may be overstated. However, awareness of the contributions China or Chinese nationals and organizations are making to conservation remains relatively unknown. In 2014, Chinese government started to donate anti-poaching equipment to Kenya Wildlife Service, like anti-poaching gear and trucks, which worth 537,000 U.S. dollars. Some Chinese organizations like Mara Conservation Fund and China House host wildlife conservation activities in and around Nairobi. The awareness of these activities is low; though this could be because the activities are relatively small scale and recent.

As for the awareness of Chinese NGOs, 42.5% of respondents chose don’t know/no answer in a response to a question about Chinese NGOs in Kenya. 34.4% responded that they did not know that the Chinese government has given large donation to support wildlife conservation in Kenya.

Finally, though the results of this survey are largely informal and far from being comprehensive, the responses do provide interesting insight into how Kenyans regard Chinese expats living and working in their country. When it comes to hot-button issues like wildlife conservation and economic impact in particular, we found that many media reports are sensationalistic, and not necessarily representative of the opinion of your average Kenyan. Through localized studies like these, we hope to dispel some of these stereotypes and headlines and provide a more intimate and nuanced picture of the China-Kenya relationship.


The following article was written by Cheng Lu, Jinmeng Li, Zander Rounds and Lucy Liu of China House Kenya. Edited by Viola Rothschild.

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