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China’s African media footprint

10th April 2013

By: In On Africa IOA

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On 14 December 2012, China Daily, China’s biggest English-language newspaper, launched its first African edition.(2) This was the latest development in the story of China’s ever expanding media footprint in Africa. In 2006, the state-run China Radio International (CRI) began broadcasting from Nairobi, Kenya,(3) while Xinhua, the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China, now has over 20 bureaus across the African continent.(4) Xinhua’s television station, CNC World, began broadcasting to African satellite and cable viewers at the start of 2011. Later in April 2011, Xinhua partnered with a Kenyan mobile operator to provide news feeds for mobile phones.(5) In January 2012, the state-run Chinese Central Television (CCTV), established CCTV Africa. The state broadcaster chose Nairobi to be its first ever broadcast hub outside its own headquarters in Beijing.(6) The decision to establish CCTV Africa was formalised during the 2006 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC),(7) a meeting that was an integral part of China’s public diplomacy strategy.

China, now Africa’s largest trading partner, has invested large sums in improving communications infrastructure, providing technical upgrades for African state broadcasters and establishing Beijing-based training programmes for African journalists (and governmental press secretaries). China is expanding its African media footprint whilst Western media organisations are downsizing African operations as part of their efforts to reduce costs and refocus on domestic consumers.(8) China’s central government has reportedly allocated 45 billion yuan (US$ 7.2 billion) to fund the global expansion of Chinese state media in Africa.(9) As with its development model and infrastructure projects, China is growing in Africa at the same time as the West is retrenching. This paper discusses the active move by China to grow its media presence on the African continent, as well as the possible repercussions of such a move for African media.

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China’s media strategy

At its heart, China’s expanding media presence is an exercise in ‘soft power’ to increase international influence. Harvard academic, Joseph Nye, defined soft power as a nation’s capability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion.(10) In recent years, the government of China has utilised soft-power as a significant foreign policy priority. In 2010, the People’s Daily published an article in which Premier Wen Jiabao stated that China would more actively engage in “foreign cultural exchanges” and that the notion of soft power had become a key concept in senior government sessions.(11)  China is, it seems, attempting to win hearts and minds on the African continent as a supplement to its more traditional ‘hard power’ strategies, some of which include investing in large scale infrastructure projects. In the context of Africa, this involves disseminating a positive narrative on China’s increasing activity on the African continent. This also includes the promotion of Chinese culture and values, disseminated in a way intended to appeal to an African audience.(12)

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China’s trade with Africa is currently worth some US$ 166 billion, whilst it imports 1.5 million barrels of oil from Africa per day (30% of its total oil supply).(13) It is therefore obviously stated that the Chinese Government has a significant stake in shaping the narrative that tells the story of China in Africa. This cannot have been better stated than by President Hu Jintao in the 2012 Communist Party journal, when he was quoted as saying, “Hostile international powers are strengthening their efforts to Westernise and divide us. We must be aware of the seriousness and complexity of the struggles and take powerful measures to prevent and deal with them.”(14) China’s US$ 7 billion media campaign derives from the Chinese Government’s stated belief that Western media outlets have too often been overly critical and biased in their reporting of Sino-African relations. Chinese rebuttals to critical news stories usually include the same list of perceived grievances – the West is unfairly doing China down, usually for reasons of jealousy and/or because of ‘neo-colonialist’ attitudes.(15) This is why the Chinese Government has allocated such considerable sums to its media strategy. Rather than simply rebutting Western media reports, China’s state-led media can produce their own content for African consumption.

State censorship

Propaganda was a key feature of the Maoist state (1949-1976), and remains so now. During the 1950s Xinhua and CRI disseminated state-drafted propaganda to the African continent, often in the form of statements of support for African nationalist movements. As such, China’s strategy to provide a counter-balance to Western media organisations has raised deep concerns among press freedom advocates, human rights activists and United States government officials.(16) China’s state-media remains subject to severe censorship, with watchdog Reporters without Borders ranking China 174 out of 179 countries in its 2012 worldwide index of press freedom.(17)

Every nation utilises soft-power and public diplomacy. In the case of cable and satellite broadcasting, both the US and France undertook state-led initiatives to establish satellite television channels for foreign audiences. The US Congress responded to growing anti-Americanism and non-impartial media coverage in the Middle East through the funding and creation of the US-based Arabic-language satellite television channel, al-Hurra, in 2004.(18) Likewise, in 2006, the French Government launched France 24, a Paris-based international news and current affairs television channel. France 24’s own website says its mission “is to cover international current events from a French perspective and to convey French values throughout the world.”(19)

Despite also being state-led initiatives, it would be incorrect to assume that these are the US and French equivalents of Xinhua and CCTV. Both al-Hurra and France 24 have demonstrated a degree of editorial independence which is still absent from China’s state-led media. Indeed, in 2007, a series of op-eds (20) in the Wall Street Journal went as far as to criticise al-Hurra for alleged anti-American bias. The criticism stemmed from the network’s decision to broadcast most of a speech made by Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, a group classified as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department.(21) Al-Hurra also broadcast an interview with an alleged al-Qaeda operative, who expressed personal delight over the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as interviewing guests who asserted that there was an Israeli conspiracy to destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque.(22) What is distinctive about the Chinese state-led model is the level of centralisation and control held by the Communist Party of China. One example of the Publicity Department’s control and influence over news content is seen in a list of government censorship guidelines that was leaked onto the internet March 2010.(23)  Another issue is that changes in Chinese media laws have occasionally led to a degree of domestic self-censorship, brought about by confusion.(24) Both Xinhua and CCTV retain a monopoly on international news broadcasting and both are accountable to the Publicity Department (Propaganda Department) to support state policies.(25) As such, the Chinese Government can coordinate its media efforts to portray a politically desired image without any contradictory information emanating from Chinese broadcasters. 

Chinese news media officials dispute that Xinhua and CCTV are broadcasting propaganda in Africa. Zhou Xisheng, the vice President of Xinhua, said “we are filing hundreds of stories every day for our English service, and these reports are not propaganda.”(26) The broadcasters’ supporters say that issues of censorship and propaganda are being exaggerated, and the fundamental point is one of differing perspectives.(27) Nevertheless, the President of CCTV, Hu Zhanfan, said in 2012, ‘the first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly and being a good mouthpiece.”(28)  He went onto say that “journalists who think of themselves as professionals, instead of propaganda workers, are making a fundamental mistake about identity.”(29)

Positive versus negative news

China’s policy of non-interference means that domestic African political stories deemed to be either controversial or ‘grey’, are likely to be considered “toxic” and ignored.(30) Networks like CCTV Africa avoid politically controversial news stories and focus on more positive narratives, such as stories of Sino-African partnership and friendship. This “positive reporting” stems from the early days of the propaganda model of China’s media industry, where negative events are downplayed whilst positive developments are highlighted.(31) China and many African Governments tend to agree that the media should focus on collective achievements as opposed to so-called negative news. China has been deepening its technical and media ties with African Governments to counter the reports made, according to both parties, by the neo-colonialist West.(32) In the case of Ethiopia, some observers believe this technical support has included the provision of satellite jamming equipment used for political purposes.(33) Supporters argue this positive reporting will cast Africa in a more positive light, moving away from stereotypical coverage of the continent’s problems. For critics, the news operations of Xinhua, CCTV and China Daily are a self-interested propaganda offensive, as opposed to honest initiatives to give space for Africans to tell their own story.(34)

Concluding remarks

China’s strategy is an attempt to manage overseas perceptions through its state-led media. This is not a uniquely Chinese enterprise. Iran’s international English news channel, Press TV, was established for similar reasons. However, the extent of China’s success will be constrained by the amount of journalistic and editorial legitimacy it can build in the eyes of African consumers. Perhaps the most effective way for Xinhua and CCTV to do this would be to replicate the news broadcasting successes of the Qatari broadcaster, Al Jazeera English. Whilst Al Jazeera’s funding originates from the Qatari Government, the station has demonstrated a degree of editorial independence which has won it plaudits and awards the world over.(35) The principal difference is that China’s state-led media has never demonstrated such a level of editorial independence. Ultimately, the question is whether or not CCTV or Xinhua would be willing to cover political scandals, questionable business deals and violent conflicts when Chinese interests are perceived to be at stake, or somehow part of the story. For now, the answer to that question is a resounding no.

Apart from differences over censorship, there are also cultural differences between the respective attitudes of Chinese and Western media. Often, Western media organisations define their own legitimacy in terms of the frequency and impact of their own criticism of authority. That is, their achievement in holding power to account. In China, losing face, or mianzi, is tantamount to a loss of reputation and so open and public criticism maximise this loss of face and reputation.(36) For the moment, the impact of Chinese media content on domestic African politics is likely to be limited because of the policy of non-interference in local politics, but how long this continues is a matter for another discussion.

Written by Andrew Day (1)

NOTES:

(1) Contact Andrew Day through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Asia Dimension Unit ( asia.dimension@consultancyafrica.com). This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Megan Erasmus and was edited by Nicky Berg.
(2) ‘China Daily newspaper launches Africa edition’, BBC, 14 December 2012, www.bbc.co.uk.
(3) Zhang, X., ‘China makes voice heard above din’, China Daily, 21 January 2013, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Shek, C., ‘China media expands Africa presence’, Al Jazeera, 24 January 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(6) McKenzie, D., ‘Chinese media making inroads into Africa’, CNN, 25 September 2012, http://edition.cnn.com.
(7) Yick, R., ‘Chinese ‘soft power’ expands in Africa with CCTV’, Global Voices, 23 September 2012, http://globalvoicesonline.org.
(8) Jacobs, A., ‘Pursuing soft power, China puts stamp on African news’, New York Times, 16 August 2012, http://www.nytimes.com.
(9) Shek, C., ‘China media expands Africa presence’, Al Jazeera, 24 January 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(10) Nye, J., 2004. Soft power – The means to success in world politics. Public Affairs: Cambridge.
(11) Wu Y., ‘The rise of China’s state-led media dynasty in Africa’, South African Institute of International Affairs occasional paper 117, June 2012, http://www.saiia.org.za.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Alessi, C., ‘Expanding China-Africa oil ties’, Council on Foreign Relations, 8 February 2012, http://www.cfr.org.
(14) Jacobs, A., ‘Pursuing soft power, China puts stamp on African news’, New York Times, 16 August 2012, http://www.nytimes.com.
(15) Yihan, H., ‘China has no colonial designs on Africa’, China Daily, 9 December 2011, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn.
(16) Jacobs, A., ‘Pursuing soft power, China puts stamp on African news’, New York Times, 16 August 2012, http://www.nytimes.com.
(17) Bennett, I., ‘Media censorship in China’, Council on Foreign Relations, 24 January 2013, http://www.cfr.org.
(18) Kirova, I., ‘AlHurra and the predicament of US international broadcasting in the Middle East, USC Centre on Public Diplomacy, 10 July 2008, http://uscpublicdiplomacy.org.
(19)  France 24 website, http://www.france24.com.
(20) An ‘op-ed’ (abbreviated from opposite the editorial page) is a newspaper article that expresses the views of a writer who is unaffiliated with that paper’s editorial board.
(21) Mowbray, J., ‘Television takeover’, Wall Street Journal, 12 March 2007, http://online.wsj.com.
(22) Ibid.
(23) ‘What China’s censors don’t want you to know’, New York Times, 21 March 2010, http://www.nytimes.com.
(24) Wu Y., ‘The rise of China’s state-led media dynasty in Africa’, South African Institute of International Affairs Occasional Paper 117, June 2012, http://www.saiia.org.za.
(25) Bennett, I., ‘Media censorship in China’, Council on Foreign Relations, 24 January 2013, http://www.cfr.org.
(26) Jacobs, A., ‘Pursuing soft power, China puts stamp on African news’, New York Times, 16 August 2012, http://www.nytimes.com.
(27) Ibid.
(28) Ibid.
(29) Ibid.
(30)  Yick, R., ‘Chinese “soft power” expands in Africa with CCTV’, Global Voices, 23 September 2012, http://globalvoicesonline.org.
(31) Galiardone, I. and Verhoeven, H., ‘New trends in African media: The growing role of China’, OUCAN conference report, 9 November 2012, http://oucan.politics.ox.ac.uk.
(32) Keita, M., ‘Africa’s free press problem’, The New York Times, 15 April 2012, http://www.nytimes.com.
(33) ‘Freedom on the Net 2012’, Freedom House, http://www.freedomhouse.org.
(34) Galiardone, I. and Verhoeven, H., ‘New trends in African media: The growing role of China,’ OUCAN conference report, 9 November 2012, http://oucan.politics.ox.ac.uk.
(35) ‘Awards won by Al Jazeera English’, Al Jazeera, 11 March 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(36) Wu Y., ‘The rise of China’s state-led media dynasty in Africa’, South African Institute of International Affairs occasional paper 117, June 2012, http://www.saiia.org.za.

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