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The Clean Boardroom: an alternative perspective on Chinese corruption and bribery in Kenya

The Clean Boardroom: an alternative perspective 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.

Unlike some Chinese residents of Kenya that we have spoken with, her problems do not stem from a lack of understanding of local laws. In fact, in her free time, Zhang enthusiastically chews on Kenyan legal codes, on old cases. Her eyes glisten as she recalls studying law as an undergrad, many years ago. “I’m just disappointed I have have too few opportunities to use it!”

Nor are her issues a result of lack of experience operating in Kenya, the country she has called home for well over a decade. Here, she has established a thriving business, a bustling office filled the chatter and clattering keyboards of tens of Kenyan and Chinese employees – including local accountants.

Zhang keeps her business as pristine as her boardroom, and willfully apart from the grey areas inhabited by some of the other Chinese employers I have interacted with—who, for instance, may not sign labor contracts with their employees. Yet, she still finds herself locked in the same dance as they, the KRA’s annual (or, in some cases, monthly) kickback parley. “The question is not whether you have to pay [a bribe], it is how much you have to pay. And that just comes down to how well you negotiate.” She winks. I have no doubt she pays very little.

The launch ceremony venue for a new Chinese joint venture in Nairobi

Zhang’s description of corruption echoes comments I have overheard a number of times while loitering in Kenya’s Chinese circles. Individuals who claim that they want to play by the (formal) rules but find it necessary to learn and respond to those informal and illicit.

This is a divergence from most of my other conversations about Chinese people and corruption in Africa (often with non-Chinese discussants), which tend to focus on their role as perpetrator and beneficiary of corrupt systems. As a salt and pepper-haired British director of a major American multinational conglomerate instructed me just last week: Chinese businesses “going out” are hastening a global crisis by normalizing corruption and bribery in international business. Or during a chat with an American investor in Kenya: “The only innovation that China has brought to Kenya is the envelope full of cash.” And how about a 2014 Voice of America article on the subject, which explains: “China aggressively pursues and locks in economic opportunities using, according to the analysts, suitcases full of cash,” and then further, “China has a fertile corruption field in Africa.”

The tendency to treat “China” as an (often menacing) monolith, ignoring the diversity of stories and experiences embodied by Chinese individuals in African countries, allows commentators to perpetuate a dominant and ultimately less-than-useful story. A story set in the homogenously backwards and variously struggling African void/space, starring a cast of immoral or amoral Chinese businessmen (and officials).

There is no doubt that individuals from China, like those from other countries, engage in corrupt practices, in Kenya and beyond. Maybe even many or most of them do, I do not know. And this is a serious issue. But listening – actually listening – to Zhang and others like her reveals another side to the story, wherein “perpetrators” are also victim or vulnerable parties, operating in an imperfect system with imperfect information.

As much as I like Zhang, she is not perfect. She has bribed public officials. She occasionally prefaces racist comments with, “I’m not racist but…” Crucially, though, she does all of this because – and this is the part that sometimes is left out of conversations of “Chinese in Africa” – she is a human. A person, who happens to keep a meticulously clean boardroom.

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About Zander Rounds

Zander Rounds is a recent graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and a Fulbright scholar. he has traveled extensively throughout China since 2007 and is now based in Nairobi where he works on Chinese CSR issues with China House. Zander is a close observer of Chinese-African economic and political relations, democratization in Africa and international development.

5 comments

  1. I wouldn’t conclude that your views justifies the underhand activities of Chinese business people who have set up shops in the embattled continent. However, when you say that “But listening – actually listening – to Zhang and others like her reveals another side to the story, wherein “perpetrators” are also victim or vulnerable parties, operating in an imperfect system with imperfect information”. I’d say that it is rather an excuse for the activities of Chinese business people in Africa.

    If the intentions of these people is to help enhance Africa’s development then they must be a bit bolder in avoiding unethical business practices that are detrimental to the aspirations of the vast majority of Africans. It is greatly unimpressive to get engage in corrupt practices because they appear to be “victim or vulnerable parties”. You forget that there is cultural similarity here – the Chinese system is as imperfect as the African one and bribery and corruption is not an alien practice to the likes of Zhang. There is a huge ethical problem in Africa but Chinese business people must clean up their acts in Africa.

    • Austin, thank you for your comment. Indeed, one of my concerns while penning this piece was that it could be read as excusing or downplaying shady and destructive practices. This was not my intention.

      ‪I hoped to nuance a common and enduring critique that there is something inherently corrupt about “Chinese business people” or the way “Chinese” do business (without dis-aggregating what or who is implicated). This position ‪leads observers to equate the growing Chinese presence in Africa with an (seemingly inevitable) increase or entrenchment of corrupt practices in countries already struggling with the issue.

      ‪I suggest this relationship is perhaps more complicated. This post is written at the beginning of an on-going study attempting to understand the causes and contexts of Chinese bribery in Kenya, in order (ideally) to suggest more informed policies and solutions.

      ‪I agree that the onus should be on Chinese business people to “clean up their acts in Africa.” But how is this best encouraged? Finger wagging and moralizing are only so effective. Until we earnestly attempt to understand why people engage in corrupt practices, I believe the ability to influence change will be limited.

      • Im sure you are an a collector of readings and heard of the book “48 Laws of Power”. Africa being the mother of motherlands mimics at best the corruption displayed in the book where kings and leaders did whatever had to be done to stay king. The mindset to stay in power in the oldest monarchy system. Those leaders in each country come from some tribe and Im sure they only care about their tribe. So Im not surprised Africa coruption at leadership seems to be equivalent monarchial systems of power.

  2. Refusing to engage in corruption in Africa sounds so simple until you actually get here. And indeed that is what I told myself before coming ‘I will never pay a bribe’ – an easy statement to make from the safety of my rule of law respecting largely corruption free country of residence. But in Africa, especially in Kenya (even more so in the Congos) it is such a part of life at this point in time that it is fanciful (and obviously regrettable) that you can achieve anything in the country without paying for services that ought to be provided for nothing.

    A quote from the brilliant book by Michael Wrong ‘Its Our Time to Eat: Story of a Kenya Whistle Blower sums up the entrenchment of bribe paying that exists in Kenya. I doubt there has been much of a change in the prevailing 14 years.

    “In a 2001 survey, Transparency International found that the average urbanite Kenyan paid sixteen bribes a month mostly to the police or the ministry of public works, to secure services that should have been free……supposedly ‘petty’ corruption accounted for a crippling 31.4% of a household’s income.”

    This includes people having to pay to access their own birth certificates, to get their electricity connected to give money to the minivan driver to give the police so that they can get home from a day at work.

    Few people in this part of the world can afford to give over so much money to corruption so should we not assume that they are forced to and no amount of ‘cleaning of one’s act’ is going to stop this loss of income. How can you not see that these people are both perpetrators and victims? And why then shouldn’t businesses forced to engage in bribe paying be seen as both perpetrators and victims? And why should Chinese businesses be singled out when I assure you it is ALL businesses that are forced to pay. Even the tiny European run hostel I stayed at while there had monthly bribes to police to pay to keep their property protected. When they weren’t paying the police they had 2 violent armed robberies and had guests hospitalized and their dog killed for their troubles. When they started paying the robberies stopped. Can you honestly say they had a choice in paying bribes in this situation?

    You cannot begin to understand how pervasive the culture of corruption and kickbacks is until you come to Africa. It is a system in itself, practically a living organism, running parallel to the regular economy and stifling its growth like a strangler vine around a tree. The thought that the can simply clean up their act and not partake in it is just not possible with the way things stand in places like Kenya and indeed much of Africa. It is a gross oversimplification of the matter to suggest otherwise. The problem of corruption can only be addressed from the top down. Until governments are taking meaningful action against corruption there is no way to avoid it.

    I’ve just travelled to Republic of Congo and where I visited a logging and palm oil plantation that was losing money hand over fist. They were preparing their envelopes full of money for the conga line of police and officials that would by showing up on Christmas day for their ‘bonus’. The last thing they wanted and could afford (they’d had to cut back of foreign staff) was to be paying this money but they knew if they didn’t they would be harassed incessantly. They knew the police and officials would take out their ticket books and give them fines for lack of registration and insurance of the vehicles (which they had), fine them for workplace safety issues that didn’t exist and harass workers into not coming to work for days. It had all happened before.

    The issue is COMPLEX. The victims are the perpetrators – the perpetrators are the victims and around it goes.

    • Tanya, thank you for your thoughtful response.

      Agreed – many, many condemnations of corruption in Africa (at least Chinese bribery in Africa) come from afar and from people who maybe only understand the issue in abstract terms. I am reminded of a piece by Courtney Martin, on the imagined simplicity of other people’s problems: when considering a problem in familiar contexts we understand how difficult it is to create real, lasting change (e.g. gun control). But when thinking about problems in far away places, its tempting to reduce the problems of others and come up with “easy solutions.”

      Issues of corruption in Kenya are incredibly complex and multifarious. “Solutions” will necessary be equally so. For what little my opinion is worth (I myself being an outsider, with only six short months of experience in Nairobi), I agree that a top down approach is essential to addressing certain manifestations of corruption, as you have suggested. I am also currently exploring the role that group perception plays in feeding the “living organism” of corruption. For instance, there seems to be a perception that the Chinese in Kenya are very willing to pay bribes, which (among other factors) may actually lead to the (conscious or unconscious) targeting of people who look Chinese. If this indeed is the case, perhaps addressing a culture of kickbacks also involves transforming this perception—which would require probably require some bottom up work.

      Your thoughts?