Standard Gauge Railway

Postcard depiction of the Eastern China Railway train running through “the Plain of Siberia, suburb of Harbin” | Trainiac / Public domain

In 2019, I was one of three Chinese researchers who attended an Africa-China relations conference in Nairobi.  The conference focused, in part, on the Chinese-financed Kenyan Standard Gauge Railway, which had become Kenya’s largest infrastructure project following independence. Since the railway has been successfully built, I was surprised by how conversations at the academic conference escalated into a heated debate between proponents of the project’s economic benefits and those concerned with its socio-environmental risks. 

During one exchange, a local researcher stepped to the podium, pointed a finger at me, and exclaimed: “All Chinese should leave the country.” 

This was not an isolated disagreement. Xinhua, a Chinese official media outlet, describes the project as a catalyst of Kenyan economic growth. The New York Times, in contrast, decried it as a “jewel in the crown of corruption.”

While some scholars describe China’s presence in the Global South as offering alternative models of economic development and foreign aid that differentiate from the Western model, others view China as the source of new colonialism and use terms such as “debt trap diplomacy” to describe China’s motives in providing loans to countries in the Global South. That brings us to a central puzzle that my research aims to clarify: Why do high-profile, China-funded and -constructed projects  intended to catalyze transformative development result in local grievances and divided narratives about development?

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one of the most ambitious infrastructure-led initiatives ever implemented, linking East Asia and the rest of the world through a large number of Chinese-led development and investment projects meant to broaden China’s global economic and political influence. 

The Belt and Road Initiative was motivated by domestic dynamics. When China’s central government increased investment in building national infrastructure, the resulting boom incentivized local governments to invest as well in infrastructure. With the domestic market saturated with investments, Chinese firms sought to expand abroad, a movecomplemented by a comprehensive foreign aid reform that took an economic-centered approach. 

Internationally, Chinese entities helped develop foreign infrastructure projects as part of the government’s ambitious foreign aid initiatives that dated back to the 1950s. These corporations gained experience in overseas development, an increased capacity that, in turn, drove them to expand their overseas markets, eventually resulting in the major global construction projects of today. Meanwhile, host countries needed investment and infrastructure expertise to promote growth and development. The co-evolution of domestic and international factors eventually resulted in the formation of the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Kenya’s experience with the Standard Gauge Railway project was typical. Three constructive coalitions were formed during the construction phase of the project. 

One coalition involved the Chinese government and the Chinese state-owned enterprise responsible for developing the railway. While the Chinese government views the project as an important opportunity to help Chinese enterprises with market expansion, the local subsidiary of the Chinese company seeks to maximize their profit, while abiding by state mandate. This resulted in a coalition that supports a state-led, corporate-driven approach to project development. 

Another coalition linked the Chinese and Kenyan governments. China viewed the project as a symbol of bilateral friendship, which needed to be large-scale and high-profile. For Kenya’s political leaders, the high profile and wide-ranging potential benefits of the project were important political capital. To exploit this capital, the project needed to be completed quickly to meet the timetable for national elections. These interests converged as a coalition supporting a project on a national-level scale—to be completed within a short time frame. 

A final coalition linked the Chinese firm implementing the railway with local community residents. While the Chinese firm sought to complete the project in advance of the schedule by hiring and training more local workers, the locals wanted decent jobs and sought to develop skills for future career development. The resulting coalition supported the introduction of Chinese standards and the promotion of skills transfer in project development. 

Everyone was happy—until the new railroad was launched. 

Unfortunately, the benefits of the new railway were distributed unevenly across different sectors. For example, the tourism sector benefited from railway development because, with the introduction of the railway, there was a boom in domestic travelers using the affordable railway to travel across Kenya. Other sectors of the economy, however, suffered. That was in part because some previous car and bus passengers chose the railway as their preferred mode of transportation. More importantly, to increase railway revenue and repay the debt owed to the Chinese government, the Kenyan government issued a government gazette that required a large proportion of businesses to use the railway for goods transportation, thus siphoning an important part of the revenue from the road sector to the rail sector. As a result, many small businesses, such as the motels, eateries, vendors, and pharmacies along the road, suffered, resulting in a decline of the informal local economy. 

Cities and towns rose and fell as a result. For example, a town that used to be a busy stopover on the road between Mombasa and Nairobi has now become a ghost town. The dynamics shifted between cities also due to distributive politics. By changing the goods-clearing facilities from the Mombasa port to the capital in Nairobi, Mombasa and its logistics-related sectors rapidly declined, whereas the capital’s economic interests were strengthened. 

While the project had promised transformative growth and leap-frog development, what happened on the ground was a kind of “transplanted” development—with benefits transferred from one sector to another, from one place to another. 

There was also a polarization between railway users and non-users. Some Kenyans were unable to use the railway because the cost of going from their home to the railway station far surpassed the quite reasonable costs of the railway ticket. Over time, community attitudes towards the project shifted from a whole-hearted welcome to growing concern. While the railway was a success for many stakeholders involved, its long-term effect on the country is highly uncertain. 

For U.S. and international organizations, it is critical to understand the Belt and Road Initiative from a bottom-up perspective: that is, how local politics affects global politics. 

For China, the unintended hostility of local communities is sometimes due to the hasty completion of infrastructure projects without a good understanding of host country politics and institutions. This is one reason why China recently introduced a “small and beautiful” approach to investment abroad by supporting projects of a much smaller scale, with more attention to their socio-environmental impacts. 

For host countries in the Global South, it is important to anticipate how any project is likely to redistribute benefits across groups. Without more attention to the possibly negative impacts on local communities, there is a real possibility that high-profile, China-funded and constructed projects that are intended to catalyze transformative development will result instead in local grievances and resentment.