Kenya’s and Zambia’s Relations with China 1949-2019

Jodie Yuzhou Sun

In three sentences, please tell us what your book is about?

It is a book about the history of post-colonial Kenya’s and Zambia’s relations with the People’s Republic of China. It examines the encounters, conflicts, and dynamics of China-Kenya/Zambia relations from the 1950s until the present, as well as the basis on which historical narratives have been constructed. With a primary emphasis on the dynamic interplay between domestic and foreign politics, the book explores ‘African agency’ from the contrasting perspectives of two states.

What was your reasoning behind choosing to focus on the on the 1950’s – the present?

While research on ‘China in Africa’ has generated a wide body of scholarship, the history of Chinese relations with Africa remains largely under-represented. Historical relations between China and Africa during the Cold War are often discussed briefly and in reductionist ways before paying lip service to the presence of ongoing changing dynamics. Why does China’s rhetoric on its involvement with Africa exhibit substantial continuities with the Maoist past? And in what ways has a shared sense of anti-imperialist nostalgia shaped the contemporary relations between China and African countries? I sincerely wish that my book will add historical depth and rich texture to the study of China-Africa relations. To reflect this, the chapters are also organised in chronological order, with the first chapter dedicated to the 50s and early 60s, two chapters focusing on the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, one chapter on the late 1970s and 1980s, and the final chapter covering 1990s until 2019. 

How do you define ‘African Agency’?

The narrative and initiative of ‘African agency’ was initially contextualised in relation to European conquest or colonisation. Recently, the concept has gained its popularity in international politics. The overarching mission is to explain ‘how far, and in what ways, African political actors are impacting on, and operating within, the international system’. In the field of ‘China-Africa’, it means the capacity of African actors to wield ‘agency’ in their own favour, especially concerning economic relations such as aid and bilateral investments. I am mostly interested in understanding the contrasting ways in which Kenya and Zambia approached, deepened, and negotiated their relations with China as they searched for ideological and material support towards these goals. China’s changing global image, from a leader of the ‘Third World’ to an economic superpower was subject to interpretation and engagement by African states and elites that were simultaneously experiencing their own processes of historical change.

Why did you decide to focus your research on Kenya and Zambia?

The idea of writing this book came to me in 2014 while doing fieldwork on Chinese mining in Zambia. I was fascinated by the fact that historical memories of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA) and liberation struggles were frequently brought up by both Chinese and Zambian actors. At this time, a question took root in my mind: does this particular image of a China-Africa ‘benign past’ appear in other African nations? When Uhuru Kenyatta was elected as the new Kenyan president in 2013, I spotted that the historical discourse has played a more ambivalent role in the ostensibly close bilateral relations between China and Kenya. The fact that accounts of Sino-Kenyan relations in the 1960s and 1970s were absent from the official discourse serves as a reminder that not every piece of history is viewed as an asset in China-Africa relations. In this way, Kenya and Zambia help illustrate the two contrasting state perspectives underlying concept of ‘African agency’. 

Did you face any unforeseen challenges when performing your research for this book?

As the book’s title already suggests its transnational nature, my research for this book has taken me to four continents and a dozen countries, which was both time-consuming and costly. I ended up being luckier in some places but not all. Above all, I had intended to conduct more interviews with historical actors who were closely involved in Kenya’s and Zambia’s relations with China. The restricted access to many Chinese provincial and municipal archives also limited my ability to disaggregate China-Africa relations. Another challenge presented to me was during the last stage of the book’s publication. As soon as the year 2020 started, the COVID-19 global pandemic disrupted my plans to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in South Africa. Instead of completing this manuscript in Bloemfontein, I spent most of my time typing at home in China. But I nevertheless received useful feedback on draft chapters from my supervisor and other colleagues at the International Studies Group.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Due to Covid restrictions of oversea travels, I haven’t been able to return to the continent since December 2019. I am more than eager to know what readers in Kenya, Zambia and other African countries think about this book. Perhaps the day will not be too far away when I will be able to physically present my book in front of them! 

Kenya’s and Zambia’s Relations with China 1949-2019

Jodie Yuzhou Sun

Hardcover, 9781847013392,
January 2023 
260pp., 2 maps, 10 b/w,
6 line illustrations
Eastern Africa Series
James Currey

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JODIE YUZHOU SUN is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, Fudan University, and Research Fellow of the International Studies Group, University of the Free State. She has published articles in journals including International Journal of African Historical Studies, Cold War History and the Journal of Southern African Studies.