Chinese loans and investment in infrastructure have been huge

The nairobi expressway curves 27km (17 miles) through Kenya’s capital. Built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation, a state-owned enterprise (soe), the road will open later this year. Under its concrete pillars, Nairobians share their views of it. Samwel Juma, a student, calls it “a project for the future” that will unclog traffic jams. But Gabriel Kihoti, a hairdresser, questions why it was a priority when the cost of food and fuel is surging. Francis Muriu, a cab-driver, calls it “a road for the rich, not the poor”.

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The road symbolises a shift in a key China-Africa relationship: over debt and infrastructure. In the 2000s and 2010s China’s state-backed banks lent African governments billions for roads, ports or airports built by Chinese soes. Some deals, as in Angola and Congo, linked repayment to the extraction of natural resources. State-backed lending has since dwindled, as China seeks new funding models. The expressway’s tolls, which in theory should pay for the road, are an example.

Kenyans’ attitudes reflect lingering ambivalence after two decades of Chinese construction across Africa. China says this has been “win-win” for both. African leaders say China was the only country willing to meet their infrastructure needs. Critics argue that China has built white elephants, fostered corruption and encouraged indebtedness. New research suggests China has been neither the benevolent partner of propaganda nor the scoundrel of the West’s imagination. It also shows that Africans can get more out of the relationship, depending on how they negotiate.

Like the West, China substantially increased its development finance to Africa in the 2000s.

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