China Replaces Kenya Envoy for Belt and Road Damage Control

BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 25: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, before the meeting at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, China on April 25, 2019. (Photo by Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Kyodo News - Pool/Getty Images)
Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Kyodo News - Pool/Getty

China sent a new ambassador to Kenya in an effort to overhaul its public image amid increasing local scrutiny over Nairobi’s debt obligations to Beijing, the country’s Daily Nation reported this weekend.

Ambassador Zhou Pingjian arrived in Kenya on August 31 and presented his credentials to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta two days later on September 2. The official gesture, which confirms the new ambassador’s authority, was fast-tracked as part of “a swift changeover” at Nairobi’s Chinese Embassy just over a year after the previous ambassador’s arrival, local newspaper Daily Nation reported on Saturday.

Zhou was previously stationed in Abuja, Nigeria, where he served as the country’s Chinese ambassador since 2016. While there, local media referred to Zhou as a “street diplomat” for his propensity to mingle with ordinary locals and attend public functions.

In Kenya, Zhou replaces Ambassador Wu Peng, credited with “launching social media accounts for the Chinese Embassy [in Nairobi], which the mission used to refute any perceived ‘fake news,'” according to the newspaper. Wu began his term as ambassador to Kenya in March 2019.

While presenting his credentials on September 2 at Nairobi’s State House, the Kenyan president’s official residence, Zhou vowed that “China will continue supporting Kenya’s development programs” under his ambassadorship.

Zhou has entered Kenya amid mounting local skepticism of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the country. Through its BRI, China offers to develop infrastructure projects in developing nations through predatory loans that often trap the host countries in crippling debt to Beijing. This in turn allows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to wield tremendous influence over the debtor nation. Observers worry that the burdensome BRI loans Kenya has signed on to through the deal may have long-term negative effects on the nation’s economy.

Just over two months ago, a Kenyan appellate court ruled that a joint contract between the Kenya Railways Corporation and the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) to construct a $3.2 billion railway project in Kenya was a “violation of procurement rules.” As a public works project, the railway should have been conditional upon a “fair, competitive, and transparent procurement process,” the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) argued. Instead, the SGR contract was “single-sourced without being put up for tender” with Kenyan taxpayers forced to repay associated loans, LSK attorneys claimed. China’s Exim Bank financed the project’s loan; critics say that the SGR’s loan conditions “exposed Kenya’s assets in case of default.”

Both the Kenyan and Chinese governments have denied that the SGR deal was unfair to Kenya or posed any threat to the country’s economic future. The SGR could still push forward despite the legal hiccup in June if the Kenyan government or CRBC decide to challenge the appellate court’s ruling. Prior to the ruling, two-thirds of the railway project had already been completed and considered operational.

Kenya’s new ambassador, Zhou, left Nigeria amid a political storm there over “a $400 million loan from China Exim Bank over fears the country would be unable to repay,” according to the Daily Nation, meaning Zhou has experience dealing with negative publicity over Chinese-funded loans in Africa. Nigeria is China’s third-largest trading partner in Africa after South Africa and Angola.

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