Word reaches us somewhat belatedly of an anti-Chinese protest in Nairobi on Thursday. Hundreds of Kenyan traders took to the streets to draw attention to Chinese hawkers who they say enter the country on tourist visas but then sell anything from milk to electronics and knock-off mobile phones out of backpacks on the street. Local traders not only complain about being undercut by the visitors, but say the Chinese don’t pay any of the taxes they have to either.
The protestors presented a petition to the prime minister’s office demanding Chinese tourists found trading be expelled from the country. The Chinese embassy in Nairobi says that Chinese companies and citizens comply with Kenyan laws. That may be true of the dozens of large Chinese enterprises operating in Kenya, building, as they are across Africa, roads and other infrastructure, running farms and extracting oil and minerals. It is probably not true among the street stalls and open markets.
More than 600 years ago, Chinese merchant marines sailed the seas, extending the Ming dynasty’s influence through trade for three decades before the country shut itself off from the world. Admiral Zheng He led a massive and well armed fleet of giant (for the time) and technologically advanced “treasure ships” a century before Europeans embarked on their great voyages of exploration. Some naval historians speculate that Zheng He both circumnavigated the globe and reached America before Columbus and Australia before Tasman and Cook during seven epic voyages. He certainly reached East Africa, sailing into the Sultanate of Malindi in modern northern Kenya in 1418. Archeological evidence on land is abundant and DNA testing of local Swahili families has found traces of Chinese ancestry. Now a team of 11 Chinese archeologists are arriving to search for the remains of one of Zheng He’s ships believed to be shipwrecked off the northern Kenyan coast. China’s economic embrace of Africa is really nothing new.