by Rujuta Gandhi
First, China constructed multibillion-dollar cities, or ghost cities, dubbed as such because of the empty high-rises, parking lots, and playgrounds. Then, it “gifted” the $200 billion African Union headquarters. Now, China Daily, a global Chinese newspaper, blesses the continent with its Africa edition. Why is China burdening itself with a responsibility to develop Africa, and why expand its media presence? Perhaps the communist nation hopes to find amity by extending a hand of friendship—a gesture riddled with soft power ambitions.
Slowly developing Chinese media in Africa is a geostrategic move against western media, which already hold the upper hand by bashing Chinese involvement throughout the continent. Since 2008, these sources have increasingly been exposing China’s harmful role—its contribution to the genocide in Darfur is only one example. Non-media sources, such as the book China and Africa: A Century of Engagement, also contribute to this condemnation. Therefore, by establishing a media presence, China hopes to combat what it perceives as “misrepresentations” of its purpose in Africa. Such misconceptions could harm future economic ties and political support in Sino-African relations. Consequently, China is using the media as a tool of soft power.
This power play will help protect China’s future in both the long and short term. In the long term, it is likely that they aim to secure their economic presence and ability to extract natural resources or to resettle their burgeoning population, among other motives. However, in the short term, the government is taking swift action to survive on the new battlefield of state-financed satellite television news, a notion voiced publicly by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Already, foreign news services, such as France24 and Russia Today, have moved their metaphorical pawns, bishops, and knights to gain ground and mitigate negative images of their respective countries. China is merely following suit.
Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-owned press, established its presence in Africa beginning in the 1970s and now operates more than 20 bureaus continent-wide. In 2011, it began broadcasting a subsidiary television station, CNC World. A year later, the state-run but market-funded Chinese Central Television (CCTV) rooted its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. Most recently (and another year later), China Daily launched its Africa edition. However, both broadcasting companies incorporate heavy biases in favor of China; they highlight social and cultural topics and positive narratives while avoiding controversial ones, including political issues. In the April 12–18, 2013 weekly edition, the article “Strong China-Africa Cooperation Pays,” endeavored to convince Africans that, with China’s aid, Africa can be an “Asian tiger,” while “Good Hair Days” discussed the relationship between women’s hairstyles and social change in China. Furthermore, in an attempt to gain an upper hand on the U.S., the cover story “Advent of a Banking Superpower” was followed with this sub-heading: “Country has massive lead over the United States in terms of availability of savings, says expert.”
The appearance of Chinese media parallels government motives and initiatives. Soon after the decolonization of Africa, the Chinese government began to establish diplomatic relations with African states. With these ties came Xinhua, the Xinhua News Agency’s online newspaper. These actions can arguably be perceived as part of the rewards package for African nations that supported Chinese Security Council membership. From post-colonization until 2000, media coverage contained little substantive analysis.
Since then, the need to increase their soft power drives the Chinese government’s new $7–9 billion policy. During the Chinese-dubbed Year of Africa in 2006, Chinese journalism and media relations were among many of the topics discussed during high-level exchanges and forums. The roadmap effectively institutionalizes soft power by assisting in the development of media infrastructure, revealing a long-term soft power mission to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties.
However, the survival and effectiveness of Chinese media are still questionable. In terms of journalism itself, the government is reportedly exporting its domestic censorship laws, which will likely result in declined legitimacy. On the other hand, China is making strides on the front of public diplomacy and institution-building assistance. Since 2006, Xinhua has trained a growing number of African journalists. Additionally, CNC World and CCTV’s bureaus both employ African journalists (though the executives and editors are Chinese). Meanwhile, the Chinese government provides media equipment as to support institutional development throughout Africa.
If Chinese media advances, Sino-African relations will strengthen. And if western media cannot wage its own soft power to fight back, a continuing shift in global power will be progressively more inevitable as the U.S. may lose ground on the resources and benefits that Africa can offer.
Facts and figures from BBC, China Daily Africa Weekly, and South African Institute for International Affairs.