1780 – The Official Blog of Transylvania University

1780 | The Official Blog of Transylvania University

Transylvania professor visits Kenya to research growing Chinese influence


Transylvania University professor Steve Hess recently returned from a sabbatical trip to Kenya, where he researched the increasing sway China exerts on that East African country.

Hess, who has done extensive scholarly work on China and authoritarianism, discussed the matter with not only experts and policymakers, but also ordinary Kenyans.

“Under the previous administration, the Kenyan government borrowed extensively from Chinese financiers for major infrastructure projects or megaprojects highlighted by the $5 billion Mombasa-Kenya standard gauge railroad,” said the political science professor. “Having ridden the train, I have to say it’s an impressive piece of infrastructure that has certainly improved upon Kenya’s old train, an over 100-year-old British-built train known as the ‘Lunatic Express.'”

Professor Hess in Kenya

While acknowledging the value of infrastructure projects such as the railroad — which dramatically cuts travel time — most Kenyans worry about the debt being incurred, as well as possible corruption that’s resulted. In fact, these concerns form a core plank of populist politics, including antigovernment protests.

“I learned that particular segments of Kenyan society, most notably small-scale traders, were concerned that growing competition from Chinese traders and retailers directly connected to suppliers in China would drive them out of the retail sector entirely,” Hess said.

While he was in Kenya, small merchants demonstrated against a new Chinese department store called China Square because of price undercutting. The government briefly shut the store down and carried out an “inspection for counterfeit goods,” Hess said. “Notably, many Kenyan consumers, struggling with rising inflation, sided with China Square and against the government, arguing that they desperately needed access to more affordable consumer goods.”

During his recent trip to Africa, Hess published a website and newsletter featuring content by policymakers and scholars, and he wrote an article for Democracy in Africa: “Looking for a Handshake: Coercive Bargaining in Kenya’s Anti-Government Protests.”

Over the last decade, Hess’ research has explored the “sources of resilience and vulnerability in authoritarian regimes” and the “impact of rising authoritarian powers on the political development of regimes in the global South.” Check out his perspective on popular protests in China.

Hess also coordinates Transylvania’s Peace Corps Prep program — and he’s even spearheaded efforts to keep the agency in China.