The Clean Boardroom

An alternative take on Chinese corruption and bribery in Kenya


“I am not a racist but…” Mrs. Zhang* begins smilingly. She is addressing me specifically, staring right at my nose. Still, I miss the end of the sentence. I am busy thinking to myself: has anyone ever started a statement that way and finished it gracefully?

If anyone could, it might be Zhang. I like her immediately. She is in her mid-forties, I am told. I would have guessed she is a decade younger. She runs a travel agency and energetically ushers my two colleagues and me into a clean, white boardroom.

I take in the room. A stark, unadorned contrast to the makeshift construction site offices where I often conduct my interviews, their dirt-covered walls collaged with attendance sheets and architecture floor plans. This is almost sterile in comparison. The blank walls shine in the wooden reflection of a large ovular table. A leafy green plant occupies a corner of the room.

We are here trying to make sense of tax-related issues facing Chinese residents in Kenya. She indulges us, explaining – without malice – her difficulties: “It does not matter how clean the records, how carefully they are maintained. When the revenue authority comes to investigate, they will always find a maobing”—a flaw. From Zhang’s perspective, the turbid tax regulations allow wiggle room for opportunistic officers. There is little to be done but pay up, she declares, still smiling. Continue reading


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Villain? Or vulnerable?

The story of a young Chinese manager in KenyaA Construction Site

I have to lean in to hear Zeng over the howling protests of steel meeting stone outside—although I suspect were we not on an active construction site, I might have still have to strain. A slight man, Zeng strikes me as a guy reluctant to fill a space with his voice.

Zeng is twenty-six. Did I hear that correctly? I scoot my plastic chair closer. He has been in Kenya for two years. Which means he has been overseeing the construction of a massive new skyscraper, an endeavor employing the labor of several hundred people, since, well, since he was my age.

Hailing from China’s Hunan province, Zeng was dispatched to Nairobi immediately after graduating from university. He had never been abroad before. He speaks English, haltingly. I zone out, trying to imagine myself into his position, drifting back to my own mist-shrouded arrival a few weeks previous… Continue reading


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Are You a Chinese?


“Are you a Chinese?”

After years in China, ineffectually trying to blur my gangly American edges and blend in, this is one question that I never really imagined I would receive.

And yet, on more than a few occasions since my arrival in Kenya a couple of weeks ago*, Kenyans have curiously posed precisely that: “Are you a Chinese?” Or the other day, while chatting with a Chinese colleague, our Kenyan waiter returned my change, looked me in the eye and un-ironically pronounced, “Xie xie” [Mandarin for ‘thank you’].

Admittedly, it’s the crew that I am now running with. China House (中南屋), a Nairobi-based collective of young Chinese movers and shakers, housed under a common vision of flourishing through collaboration and connection between Chinese and Africans. I am the newest (and most American) member of a team working to integrate two worlds that occupy the same physical universe yet are still often separate: the Kenyan community and the Chinese community residing in Kenya.

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Don’t you bathe?

Racism, ignorance and humanity in China


Richarde had not been in China for more than a few hours when a man turned to him and asked:

“Why are you black? Don’t you take a bath?”

This and so many similar anecdotes from black African students in China that I have spoken with would seem to corroborate recent representations of many Chinese people as, well, racist. The recent explosion of media coverage of a Chinese restaurant in Kenya that was barring black people after 5pm (#RacistRestaurant) has created an opportunity for important discussions about the racial tensions undeniably present in increasing Afro-Sino interactions. For some, the incident has also simply confirmed what Howard French calls a “kind of casual primary racism” of Chinese people.

When I directly asked Richarde, a young Congolese engineering student living in Zhejiang, China, if he thinks Chinese people are racist, he responded with different story than I was expecting:

When he first met one of his teacher’s children, the wide-eyed boy managed only to stutter: “Oh, you are black…” Fast-forward a few months and when the same boy introduced Richarde to his classmates, he repeatedly insisted: “This is my brother! This is my brother.” “There are very bad things in China,” Richarde reflected, “But it’s not their fault. We talk and he understands that I am not too different than him.” Continue reading

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[Translation] No Africans allowed? A Chinese Perspective

No Africans Allowed? Suspicion about the discrimination of a Chinese restaurant in Kenya provokes widespread anger

Author: Yingying
Published on: 3/25/15
Source: Sohu News
Original text (in Chinese):

A recent scandal involving a Chinese restaurant in Kenya that barred locals after 5pm has made headlines internationally. The incident and the global reaction have exposed tensions surrounding Chinese businesses practices in Africa and initiated conversations about the racial dynamics of Sino-African engagement. As I watched this unfold, however, it seemed to me that Chinese voices were somewhat absent from these conversations.

In the following article that was published in Chinese last week, Yingying, an entrepreneur working in Africa, draws on a large survey of ethnic Chinese in Africa and adds a different perspective. 

This translation was originally published on Cowries and Rice.


On March 23, the most influential newspaper in Nairobi, Kenya published on its front page a story titled, “Restaurant: Sorry, No Africans, we don’t trust them after dark.” This attracted the attention of ethnic Chinese from all walks of life within Kenyan, and even those in other African countries.

Also on March 23, the author ’s Quan Fei Gou [全非购] media platform published an article called, “The lead story in Kenya’s biggest newspaper reports on an incident where some Chinese restaurants bar locals at night; Chinese people, what do you think,” and conducted a survey. Based on the 312 received results, ethnic Chinese in Africa think, first of all, that this practice of some restaurants is painfully embarrassing, and subsequently, that this incident could have been a little more tactfully mediated. They also think that locals should be allowed to dine at night. To resolve public security concerns, restaurants can strengthen security practices. At the same time, the respondents commonly considered Kenyan’s commentary and media coverage of the incident too extreme.

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Don’t be a colonizer.

Reflections on being the white American researching Africans in China

Street Art
“Just…don’t be a colonizer,” a close friend warned me over Skype after I explained my research project upon arriving in China.

“Of course,” I snorted, laughing off his comment. Me? A colonizer? I’ve read more than my fair share of Marx and Fanon and Freire. My favorite conversations are those interrogating my own ‘privilege’. Over the past seven years I have been fortunate to live, work and study in diverse places and conditions all around the world, in part in an effort to achieve a more empathetic and critical attitude. How could I possibly be a colonizer?

Besides, what does that even mean?

Putting his comment aside, a few months later I began to carry out interviews with African students. My second interview was with a student who lives down the hall from me. I had just finished shakily delivering my “informed consent” spiel, in which I describe my project, reasons for conducting it, measures I take to protect my interviewees’ anonymity, etc. After pausing to think, my interviewee responded with the hint of a smile: “So basically, you will use this information that you get from me and my African classmates to become rich and famous. Then what? What about us? What do we get out of it?”

Flushing, I sputtered out the suddenly flimsy rationale that I had included in my consent speech: my findings will benefit future students, uh, by addressing and combating some of the misunderstandings and stereotypes about Africans in China that lead to discrimination. But as I said this, I was struck by a thought: even if my research might be considered “ethical” by a board of scholars in the States, the (immediate) gains from my project would certainly not be equitably shared with those I am interviewing—upon whom the success of my project is reliant. Noticing my discomfort, he laughed mercifully and encouraged me to begin the interview.

Is this what my friend meant when he warned me not to be a colonizer?

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Is it okay to write about Africans in China?


Is it okay, and productive, to write about Africans in China?

This might seem a strange question coming from someone writing about Africans students in China, but in truth it has lingered uneasily in the back of my mind since I began my research six months ago.*

The problem: when writing about ‘Africans’ the temptation is to uncritically group individuals from the 54 African countries together. As Castillo, a scholar who studies Africans in Guangzhou warns, use of the ‘African’ category tends to “flatten out diversity and complexity” [1]. In research, this creates issues when it is precisely the diversity and complexity that explains a given outcome.

Beyond obscuring diversity, the category “African” is to a certain extent arbitrary. I was struck by the arbitrariness when considering the diversity of my research subjects from all parts of the continent. It occurred to me that a student from Mauritania, for instance, might very well have as much or more in common with a student from Hungary or Colombia as someone from Zimbabwe or Cameroon. Does it make sense then, then, to try to draw broader conclusions about “African students” in China?

My deeper concern, however, is that this type of work potentially reifies the category ‘African’ in a counter-productive way. Most Chinese people outside of a few big, international cities have never met someone from Africa. Information about the continent, though expanding, is still limited. As a result, there is significant ‘other-ing’ of individuals from Africa—with real consequences.

For instance, an admittedly close-minded Chinese acquaintance once summoned me to mediate a conflict with a Cameroonian student. The two had gotten in an e-bike crash leaving both bikes damaged. After some heated discussion we finally resolved the conflict, but both parties were still frustrated. A few days later, reflecting on the incident, my Chinese colleague admitted to me: “They are untrustworthy”. When I asked him who “they” was, he responded, sternly: “black people, Africans.” [1] Given the paucity of information and limited opportunities for constructive interactions, it is all too easy for people like my acquaintance to draw sweeping conclusions from an experience with one individual.

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