Beijing's Africa Problem: 'No blacks' Chinese restaurant shut down in Kenya

Official China does a good job of not offending African sensibilities, but its businessmen and women don't have the same diplomatic skills.

A CHINESE restaurant in the Kenyan capital Nairobi has been shut down and its owners summoned by authorities after it emerged it was barring black patrons, reports said Wednesday.

The restaurant fell into the spotlight of city authorities after furious residents took to social media to denounce an apparently racist policy of not allowing African patrons to eat there after 5pm.

The owners of the restaurant said the measure had been put in place following a robbery in 2013, and have apologised for causing any offence, the Daily Nation reported.

But it said the Chongquing Chinese restaurant, situated in Nairobi’s bustling commercial and residential district of Kilimani, had been shut down anyway for not having the proper licences.

“We have established that the restaurant did not have the licences and I have ordered it closed until the management complies,” Nairobi governor Evans Kidero was quoted as saying.

He also said that “all business and service providers must ensure that all customers and clients are treated with respect and dignity, irrespective of race colour, sex, tribe and religion,” the Standard newspaper quoted him as saying.

Reports said the restaurant’s Chinese owners and managers had also been summoned by Kenya’s immigration authorities.

A city official however told the Star newspaper that the incident “has nothing to do with the friendship and diplomatic relations Kenya enjoys with China,” a major investor in east Africa’s biggest economy.

When China met Africa

However, the racist restaurant is symptomatic of a bigger problem the Chinese will increasingly face as they spread their wings further in Africa.

In most African cities, the Chinese live apart from the African communities, rarely mixing except at work. Even there, from Uganda to Zambia, there has often been local anger at the Chinese for allegedly being abusive employers.

A recent work law in Tanzania, one of China’s longest-standing allies on the continent, was seen as partly targeting the Chinese whom a Member of Parliament alleged were doing all sorts of businesses including “driving buses”, work that she said could be done by Tanzanians.

In February in anti-government protests in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chinese owned-shops were targeted by looters.

One of the best illustrations of China’s “Africa problem” was dramatically illustrated in the 2010 BBC documentary When China Met Africa, that explores both the opportunities that Chinese investments on the continent were bringing, and the perils.

In the documentary a Chinese farmer in rural Zambia is both job creator, and economic wrecker, beating out the locals in raising chicken and growing vegetables that he sells in the village market at prices rivals can’t match.

At a time when xenophobia is rising in countries like South Africa, and increasingly many ordinary Africans are feeling left out of the “Africa Rising” bounty, foreign businesses who invest at street and micro levels on the continent, will find themselves in confrontation with nationals. 

Official China does a good job of not interfering in the internal affairs of African countries, and carefully avoids giving them western-style morality lectures. Its businessmen and women, however, have not shown equal tact.

Racist attitudes, like those at the Chinese Nairobi restaurant, are like lighting a match over an open petrol tank.

-Additional reporting by AFP

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