This article is part of the Dangerous Speech Project’s research brief series, “Examples of Dangerous Speech.”
In late February 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenyan Member of Parliament (MP) Patrick Makau encouraged people to stone Chinese visitors to Kenya who, he said, were violating orders to quarantine.
February 27, 2020
On February 26, 2020, a flight from Guangzhou, China landed in Nairobi, Kenya with 239 passengers who were instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days. Eleven members of the group went to do so in Athi River (also known as Mavoko), a town 12 miles (20km) south of the Nairobi airport. When residents of the town reported seeing Chinese people walking around the community wearing masks, rumors spread that members of the group had violated their quarantine order. On February 27th, the following was posted from the Twitter account of Patrick Makau, MP for the area around Athi River. The same message was posted from one of his two Facebook accounts.
This speech is dangerous as it portrays the Chinese visitors as a threat to the health and safety of Kenyans.
Chinese people in Kenya
Patrick Makau is a Member of Parliament for the Mavoko Constituency, representing suburban communities along Nairobi’s southeast border. He was mayor of Athi River before being elected to Parliament in 2013. As he has served as a public servant in the Mavoko Constituency for 11 years, and he has a significant amount of authority among his constituents. His stature also meant that his message made news: it was reported in multiple mainstream Kenyan newspapers.
Followers of Makau’s social media accounts likely support him and see him as an authoritative figure. News coverage brought his message to a much larger audience. Makau’s second post was addressed to his constituents living near Athi River, a town of around 81,000 residents. The town has a relatively large number of Chinese residents due to the high concentration of infrastructure and industrial construction projects in the area being managed by Chinese firms, so his audience would have been aware of tensions between Kenyans and Chinese living in the country over the past few years. There are over 40,000 Chinese people living in Kenya, many of whom work for Chinese-owned businesses. In 2019, after a report in a local newspaper that Chinese traders had set up stalls in the Gikomba Market, the largest second-hand clothes market in East Africa, outrage erupted on social media from those who felt that their livelihoods were being threatened by the presence of the new traders. There have also been reports of racist remarks and behavior by Chinese people toward Kenyans who are their employees and coworkers. The audience of Makau’s post probably knew this fraught context and feared the new virus that was quickly spreading around the world, making them vulnerable to the dangerous speech shared by Makau.
On December 31, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in China’s Hubei Province identified a cluster of cases of the disease that would soon be known as COVID-19. The virus spread, and by February 27, 2020, when Makau posted his comments, it had infected over 82,000 people and killed at least 2,800 people, with most of the deaths occurring in Mainland China. Kenya had yet to report its first case of the disease, but there was growing concern. Around the same time as Makau’s post, an undated video that was allegedly filmed in Kibera, a Kenyan slum, went viral showing an African man accosting an Asian man and woman, shouting at them: “You are Corona!” The association of COVID-19 with China was not unique to Kenya. There have been many reports of racism and attacks against Chinese people and others of Asian descent since the pandemic began. Overlapping fear of Chinese people and COVID-19 made Makau’s speech more likely to have been effective in convincing people to either condone or commit violence; there was a pre-existing fear of the outgroup. Makau’s comments suggested that the threat of disease was imminent and encouraged people to fend it off with violent attacks.
Patrick Makau is active on social media, including Twitter and Facebook. The Facebook post was shared 68 times. The post was also reported on by several mainstream media outlets including The Standard, one of Kenya’s oldest newspapers that now has a daily circulation of 74,000. The message received additional press after the Chinese Embassy in Kenya responded, tweeting “We call upon a rational and scientific approach towards Chinese communities, [and] firmly object [to] any irresponsible and even racist remarks as seen from one of the MPs today.” The press coverage of the comments allowed the message to reach a much larger audience.
 Achuka, Vincent and Nasibo Kabale. 2020. “Coronavirus: China flight in drama at JKIA” The East African. https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/tea/science-health/coronavirus-china-flight-in-drama-at-jkia-1437572
 Kilonzo, Philomena. 2020. “Machakos county to monitor 11 Chinese under self-quarantine.” The Star. https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2020-02-28-machakos-county-to-monitor-11-chinese-under-self-quarantine/
 Including The Star (https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2020-02-28-no-chinese-is-hospitalised-in-athi-river-over-coronavirus–police/) and The Standard (https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/health/article/2001362232/china-warns-kenyans-against-discriminating-its-citizens-over-coronavirus)
 Misiko, Henry. 2020. “Drama as Kenyans seek to evict Chinese who self-quarantined in Athi River estate.”
Nairobi News. https://nairobinews.nation.co.ke/news/drama-as-kenyans-seek-to-evict-chinese-who-self-quarantined-in-athi-river-estate
 Wang, Yuan and Luo, Yating. 2015. “China Business Perception Index.” Globethics.net. https://www.globethics.net/documents/4289936/17452664/GE_China_Ethics_3_web.pdf/36d4542e-17aa-4d08-b360-2c84e9293008
 Mwaura, Waihiga. 2019. “Letter from Africa: Kenya’s love-hate relationship with Chinese traders.” BBC News. June 24. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-48743876
 Goldstein, Joseph. 2018. “Kenyans Say Chinese Investment Brings Racism and Discrimination.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/world/africa/kenya-china-racism.html
 Yeung, Jessie, Adam Renton, Ben Westcott, Eliza Mackintosh, Fernando Alfonso III, Meg Wagner, and Mike Haynes. 2020. “February 27 Coronavirus News.” CNN. February 28. https://www.cnn.com/asia/live-news/coronavirus-outbreak-02-27-20-intl-hnk/index.html
 Ombok, Eric. 2020. “Kenya Reports First Case of Coronavirus.” Bloomberg. March 13. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Kt_FJRJ6_3byjezxqVr1tm1FMLWzndOY3PaiLnJNlNw/edit#
 Solomon, Salem. 2020. “Coronavirus Brings ‘Sinophobia’ to Africa.” Voice of America. https://www.voanews.com/science-health/coronavirus-outbreak/coronavirus-brings-sinophobia-africa
 Human Rights Watch. 2020. “Covid-19 Fueling Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia Worldwide
National Action Plans Needed to Counter Intolerance” May 12. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/12/covid-19-fueling-anti-asian-racism-and-xenophobia-worldwide