Fresh evidence of China’s growing media footprint in Africa rolled off printing presses for the first time in Kenya last month.
Hitting news stands in Nairobi alongside the established likes of Daily Nation and the Standard was an African edition of China’s biggest English-language newspaper.
The launch of Africa Weekly by the China Daily in December is the latest move by a Chinese state media company to expand on the continent. In April 2011, the Xinhua news agency partnered with a Kenyan network operator to provide news for mobile phones. That was followed nine months later by CCTV Africa in Nairobi, the first broadcast hub to be established by China Central Television (CCTV) outside Beijing.
The international growth of China’s news giants means African audiences can tune into CCTV’s Africa Live, a one-hour daily news broadcast on satellite television, or read Xinhua dispatches in local English newspapers.
“The Chinese media is much more visible now in Africa,” said Mary Harper, a veteran journalist who has been reporting on Africa for more than 20 years.
“Even though there have been Chinese media operations in Africa ever since I started working on the continent, I’ve noticed a really dramatic rise in their presence,” said Harper.
“China’s learning and realising that the public and the world is going to be more sympathetic to a narrative that they know.“
– Yu-Shan Wu
The spread of Chinese media abroad comes after major downsizing by mainstream outlets around the world over the past several years. A number of news groups have closed bureaus in Africa and elsewhere, and slashed foreign coverage to refocus on audiences back home.
“Lots of the big well-known western media organisations on the continent are shrinking their operations there, or not having so many foreign correspondents on the ground,” said Harper.
China’s central government, meanwhile, has reportedly allocated 45bn yuan ($7.2bn) to fund the global expansion of state media.
Beijing’s efforts are intended “to win the hearts and minds of Africans, and to take advantage of the growing audience”, said Yu-Shan Wu, a researcher with the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Wu explained that the development forms part of China’s drive for soft power. “China’s learning and realising that the public and the world is going to be more sympathetic to a narrative that they know.”
Africans have learned about China mainly through non-Chinese channels, and it is western media that has largely defined the China-Africa relationship, much to the chagrin of Beijing, said Wu, the author of a report on Chinese state media’s advance in Africa published in June.
“If you look a lot of news reports, they focus on China as an economic competitor or as this ‘rogue donor’. The focus is always that China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, and it doesn’t really go beyond that.”
This fixation on trade is understandable. Until recently, China’s engagement with Africa was mostly limited to commerce. Trade between China and African countries in the first 10 months of 2012 rose by one-fifth from a year earlier to $163.9bn, according to the Chinese commerce ministry.
Suspicion from western media over the booming Chinese investment in Africa has been accompanied by sharp criticism of China’s presence in Africa, with regular accusations of aggressive land grabs, crude labour practices, and resource exploitation.
“China is keen to counter that – it’s trying to put a positive spin on its involvement in Africa,” Harper said.
Behind the Chinese charm offensive, however, also appears to be a desire to change negative perceptions of Africa. Once described as the “hopeless continent” by the Economist, Africa is frequently characterised through stereotypes, such as conflict, corruption, and poverty.
“There is a problem in the general western reporting of Africa, which is very much focused on it [being] this continent where you only have war, and famine and horrible things happening… when anyone who spends any time there can see that is definitely not the whole story,” said Harper.
“I think now the western media has leapt onto this whole fashion of Africa rising, and sometimes you think ‘Well, maybe they’re going too far in the other direction’. It’s like people just follow fashions about Africa.”
The desire to change the narrative of Africa has led some to claim that Chinese media emphasise positive, feel-good stories about the continent. “You could argue that the western media tend to be too concerned about the bad news. The Chinese tend to be rather too concerned about the good news,” said Martin Plaut, a former journalist and senior research fellow with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London.
“They’re not only presenting some story of Africa as if everything is perfect and happy there.“
– Mary Harper
Plaut added that while “on the one hand, I very much welcome” Chinese media presence in Africa, he warned that “the negative side is the obvious one, which is the Chinese are a state-run media … They live within the restrictions that the state applies, and we’ve seen that very recently with the censorship in China itself”.
Others, though, dismissed the notion that Chinese stories on Africa focus only on good news.
“I haven’t seen anything about this kind of pure positive storytelling. We’ve never been told by anyone that we should focus on one side, and then just slightly report the other side,” said an African correspondent working for Chinese state media, who did not give his name because he said he was not authorised to do so.
“The only thing I think [where] we are different from the western media is that we take both sides of this continent – the dark side and also the light side,” the correspondent said.
Harper, too, said China’s journalism about Africa has been portrayed in an “over-simplistic” manner. “There’s a sort of myth that they only cover the positive stories about Africa.”
“They don’t ignore the big, bad news stories of the day. They might not cover them in great detail, but they do cover them, so they’re not only presenting some story of Africa as if everything is perfect and happy there.”
Accurate or not, the suggestion that Chinese journalists only report the good about Africa has raised the possibility of two ideological camps squaring off in the continent’s media sector. A “debate is taking place”, said Wu, over whether a potential battle between positive and negative coverage might detract from efforts to improve journalism about Africa in general.
“If China’s going too much down the paradise route and western media’s going through the hellish route, it is not very helpful for accurate and fair representations of the continent,” said Harper.
As the role of Chinese media in Africa continues to be debated, the China Daily is busy drawing up plans for its new supplement.
Its reporters will then begin in earnest the task of reporting the China-Africa dynamic. It is “complex and not always understood – not just by those in other parts of the world but Africans and Chinese, too”, said China Daily‘s publisher Zhu Ling in Africa Weekly‘s first edition. He will be hoping the presence of China’s state media does not complicate the stories of Africa further.
Follow Colin Shek on Twitter: @ColinShek