Top Chinese diplomats in Nairobi were replaced in an apparent bid to protect the image of their country in Kenya, following negative publicity over the Standard Gauge Railway scandal.
Officially, Beijing says the changes, as those elsewhere, were routine but the Sunday Nation learnt the Embassy in Nairobi also started implementing a new policy that would see the new diplomats engage the public on social media.
Sources who spoke to the Sunday Nation last week on condition of anonymity say the new decision, a contradiction from back home where authorities clamp down on western social media, is informed by local realities in Kenya.
The Chinese Embassy, one of the oldest diplomatic missions in Kenya, also serves as ‘regional headquarters’ for Chinese affairs in the East and Central Africa region.
Traditionally, the Chinese officials have been guarded, often ignoring media requests altogether or giving delayed updates.
Faced with negative publicity about mounting debt and alleged maltreatment of workers at Chinese-run firms, Beijing authorised diplomats to take on critics as they come, using social media.
First, the diplomats themselves had to be changed. The first victim was Head of Mission, Ms Sun Baohong, who was quietly but swiftly ordered to return to Beijing for 'redeployment'.
Ms Sun, who had been ambassador in Ghana, had arrived in Nairobi to replace Dr Liu Xianfa, only six months earlier. Her first task was to manage the crisis of the SGR, after operator China Road and Bridge was accused of segregating workers, a charge they deny to date. But she struggled, a Chinese official privy to the details told the Sunday Nation.
She was withdrawn in December. Mr Wang Peng, a former politician in the Chinese Province of Hainan and a one-time senior information official in their Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was brought in two months later to replace her. Mr Wang had been ambassador to Sierra Leone since 2016, according to a biographical note publicised by the Chinese Embassy.
Under instructions to shore up the Embassy and his government’s rating, he tripped initially, receiving a reprimand from the Kenyan government. A diplomat at the Kenyan Foreign ministry said he ‘began working’ before presenting his credentials in March, making tours around the country and giving interviews. In diplomatic tradition, envoys start conducting official functions once their credentials are accepted (unless a special exemption is given) by the sovereign, who in this case is the President of Kenya.
Yet this indicated the new modus operandi of the diplomat. He ordered the creation of the Twitter handle @Chinesekenya which detailed events of the ambassador, China’s focus in Kenya and Africa as well as issuing press statements to issues touching on China.
Was this always coming? Ms Seraphine Kiambuthi, a scholar of international relations and frequent commentator on China-Africa issues says it is no longer possible to communicate with the world while ignoring social media.
For Beijing though, guarding their image is attached to their ambitions in Africa, which has been heavily criticised in both Western mainstream and social media platforms, argued Prof Peter Kagwanja, CEO of the Africa Policy Institute.
“They need more than CGTN (the China Global Television Network channel). This adoption tells you that China is determined to defend their status and investments in Africa,” he said.
Chinese scholar, Dr Peixin Cao, who teaches at the Communications University of China in Beijing, told the Sunday Nation world’s realities could be influencing officials.