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Africa tunes in to China

Where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.”

Mao Zedong

How times change. When China’s state news agency, Xinhua, opened a bureau in Cairo in 1958 and Radio Peking began transmissions to east Africa in Swahili in 1961, the news, commentary and even music bore the inescapable imprint of Mao’s Little Red Book and China’s anti-colonial communist ideology. And, although “television access was minimal…the Chinese used film to advertise the depths of Sino-African relationship and extol the benefits of Maoism.”i Spreading the revolution of Mao and solidarity with the emerging post-colonial socialist regimes and movements used to be the main function of the Chinese media in Africa—and almost everywhere else.

Since the turn of the century, however, the much-expanded and sophisticated Chinese media has become a supporting act in promoting economic growth and ‘harmonious development’ through Chinese investments in African markets. It has “become an increasingly important part of the ‘going out policy’ that characterized China’s approach to international relations in the post–Cold War era. In the 1990s, this strategy was limited to trade and industry, but since the mid-2000s, it has broadened to include the media as a vehicle for public diplomacy.”ii

Another stark difference from the erstwhile Maoist era is that not all Chinese media operating in Africa are owned by the state or the Communist Party; private business outlets, with patronage and consent of the party, have also waded into the market. Nonetheless, both sides remain uncritical of China’s policies—or for that matter, of governments in host countries—and vie to present a positive picture of the continent and its relations with China. As a Daily China journalist says, “Our motto used to be, ‘Let China go out into the world; let the world understand China. Now it’s: ‘Report on China; influence the world.'”iii

An elaborate Chinese plan

The breakthrough for the Sino-Africa media relations came in 2006 when 48 African states at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) agreed to the Beijing Action Plan. Among its other salient features, the plan laid out three key areas of China’s media expansion in Africa: engagement with African media institutions, promoting the practice of journalism, and training African journalists. Section 5.8 of the plan identified five points of Chinese engagement with African news media:iv

  1. Increased contacts between their respective news media contribute to comprehensive and objective news coverage of the other side, the two sides encouraged their respective news media to play a positive role in enhancing mutual understanding and friendship.

  2. The two sides support multi-level exchanges and cooperation in various forms between their press authorities and media and exchange more visits between media groups.

  3. The two sides support and encourage more reporting and coverage by their news media of the other side and will provide mutual assistance and facilitation to each other’s news agencies in sending resident and non-resident correspondents for news reporting.

  4. The Chinese side will continue to host workshops for African correspondents and invite heads of press authorities and media groups as well as correspondents from Africa to China to exchange views, cover news and explore ways of conducting effective cooperation.

  5. The two sides agreed to expand cooperation in radio and television broadcasting. China will focus on helping African countries train radio and television staff.

Since then, China’s media presence has grown markedly in all these areas. The South China Morning Post reported in 2009 that the Chinese government was planning to spend 45 billion yuan ($4bn) “on the overseas expansion of its main media organisations in an aggressive global drive to improve the country’s image internationally. The three state media giants – Central China Television, Xinhua News Agency and the People’s Daily – could each get up to 15 billion yuan if they came up with ‘worthwhile projects’ to enhance their global influence.”vThe main geographical focus of this drive has been on expanding into the African continent.

In 2012, the external arm of state-run China Central Television (CCTV) launched its Africa service through a bureau in Nairobi (renamed and consolidated as China Global TV Network—CGTN—in 2016), the first Chinese news hub of its kind outside of Beijing. More bureaus have since been opened in Lagos, Cairo and Johannesburg. The CCTV was designed, to compete with—and counter—the BBC and CNN and it provides a mobile TV news service ‘I love Africa’. Similarly, China’s state news agency, Xinhua, has 30 bureaus to report from Africa and it also broadcasts through a television

A private Chinese company, StarTimes, has “purchased a controlling stake in South African satellite television provider Top TV, adding to its presence in thirteen other African countries and the state-run radio broadcaster. China Radio International, had FM stations in three East African cities, while its AM channel covered all of Kenya….By the start of 2011, Xinhua’s television station, CNC World, had begun broadcasting to African satellite and cable viewers and that same year, partnered with a Kenyan mobile operator to provide news feeds for mobile phones.”vii

Also in 2012, China Daily Africa, a newspaper, and ChinAfrica, a magazine, were published and released across the continent. Whilst both print outlets rely heavily on local journalists and media workers, media observers say that editorial decisions are made in Beijing. “CGTN has two editorial meetings: one for all staff and another where Chinese editors seek approval for the stories from their bosses in Beijing. ‘Once it touches on Chinese state interests, censorship kicks in,” says Emeka Umeji, a Nigerian academic.”viii

Besides the Chinese ripples on airwaves and in print, this media expansion is taking place in more subtle and strategic ways. China offers a mass training program for African journalists with about 1,000 of them attending courses in China every year. “A second, nascent source of influence is via Chinese investment in private companies. In 2013, for example, state-backed Chinese investors (including a subsidiary of CCTV, CGTN parent company) bought a 20% stake in Independent Media, a South African company…The third, and most important, development is the expansion of StarTimes, a private pay-tv company with close links to the Chinese government. Increasingly it is the primary vehicle for the expansion of Chinese soft power in Africa. Since it began operating in Rwanda in 2008, StarTimes has branched out to roughly 30 countries across the continent.”ix

Along with investments in media, China has given loans and grants to several African governments to build the communications infrastructure. Nigeria, for instance, has purchased satellite technology from China and Malawi has commissioned a fiber-optic communication project worth $22.94 million. In some instances, notes a media analyst, “infrastructural support was implicitly linked to political ends.” For example, in 2002 and 2006, Zambia received FM transmitters and for further extension of radio services to seven provinces. In both instances, this transfer of technology coincided with the election cycles in the country and supported the then ruling pro-Beijing Movement for Multiparty Democracy.”x

What do the Chinese media offer?

Like other global media channels, the Chinese media has adapted to the 24-hour news and entertainment cycle. Xinhua works as any other western wire agency and reports news and analysis from a Chinese perspective. The TV channel CGTN has the usual mix of soap operas, sports, business, lifestyle and culture in addition to global and domestic Chinese news. Compared with the BBCs and Al-Jazeeras of the media world, the additional element that the Chinese channels—CGTN and those aired via StartTimes—provide to their African audience is their emphasis on Chinese values and the Chinese government’s point of view. And, unlike most other ‘western’ media, it tends to paint a more positive and optimistic picture of the state of African societies.

Gagliardone and Nyíri (2017) in a study of Chinese journalists working in Africa describe “their work as belonging to ‘a style of journalism that focuses on collective achievements, rather than divisive issues or sensational news’ and elicited the idea of ‘a new form of developmental journalism, one that could provide information that can be directly incorporated in activities beneficial for a country’s growth.’xi

According to Du Feijin, head of the publicity department of the Beijing committee of the Communist Party, in 2017 Beijing enterprises and institutions dubbed around 8,000 hours and translated more than 10,000 hours of Chinese films and TV series in 2017. Swahili and Hausa language dubbing contests for Chinese movies and TV series were also held and 17 films and 400 TV show episodes in seven languages including French, Portuguese and local languages were aired across 20 African countries as part of the Beijing TV Dramas Broadcasting Exhibition in Africa,xii

And, like most other things Chinese it is inexpensive. For example, notes, Madrid Morales, “StarTimes’ big selling point has always been its affordability…When selling its services to governments, it is often able to offer the lowest bids alongside long-term, low-interest rate financing provided by China’s Exim Bank. At the consumer level, it offers some of the lowest prices for pay TV, it provides relatively inexpensive decoders and, more recently, has begun free satellite dish installations in rural communities where [digital TV] was out of reach. With this multipronged strategy, in 2016, the company claims to have reached 10 million subscribers” in 30 African countries.xiii The company has also been a leading player in Africa’s transition from analog to digital TV.

Is Africa listening and watching?

It is hard to quantify soft power—and harder still to measure the impact of news media and TV channels. Whilst it is difficult to come up with a credible number for viewers of CGTN, it has over 77m followers on Facebook, most than any TV channels in the world. (Most of them, however, are Chinese in the country.) Also, China did not become a major media player in Africa until this decade and it may perhaps be too short a time to fully evaluate its impact on African hearts and minds. Early signs, though, point to significant improvement in China’s image and effectiveness of its media plan for Africa.

Several studies and surveys done over the last couple of years suggest that Beijing’s efforts are paying dividends and building a favourable perception of China in Africa. A 2016 Stanford University research in six African countries concluded that ‘in many cases, the larger the Chinese media presence in a country and the more access to relevant media technology, the more favorable public opinion toward China has grown across multiple dimensions.”xiv

According to the Economist, another survey of youth from 18 African countries found that of those who had watched CGTN, 63% had liked the channel and only 13% had a negative view. More than half said they agreed with CGTN’s “ideological agenda”.xv

Much of this early success is due to the contrast between the negative picture of Africa that has been presented by the mainstream conventional international TV channels for decades and the positive news that Chinese media has to offer to its African viewers. By associating themselves with the notion of positive news, Chinese media appear to be taking the lead in appropriating a narrative that other news organizations have been developing for some time, observes a survey of African journalist students.xvi

Conclusion: Many voices, one world

The advent and recent surge of Chinese media into African markets is a reflection of changes in the country’s domestic politics and economy as well as its response to the changed geopolitical and technological context in the late 20th and early 21st century. China’s ambitious global trade, investment and growth agenda warrants a matching effort to influence public opinion and perceptions in partner countries. Especially in post-colonial African societies, exposed as they have been almost exclusively to western media and culture, Chinese news and entertainment outlets provide an alternative external view and perspective on Africa. It may have a predetermined tone of positivity and an avowed purpose of promoting Sino-Africa relations, but China’s media is making its presence felt in a growing crowd of old and new competitors vying to capture African audiences. In its own way, the expansion of Chinese media signifies movement towards a New World Information and Communications Order, an idea advocated by developing countries at UNESCO in the 1970s and 80s, which called for addressing imbalances and hegemonies in global media coverage and envisioned “many voices, one world” in a “new, more just, and more efficient” global media.xvii Whilst the original ideals of justice and more equitable control of media may not be a top priority for the Chinese media intervention, it is nonetheless building and shaping a new media order on the African continent.

Najum Mushtaq is a political analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa and South Asia. He can be reached at

i Cook, Alexander, ed, Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History, Cambridge 2014, p. 109

ii Shambaugh (2013) and Xin (2009) cited in Wassermann, Herman and Dani Madrid-Morales. “How Influential Are Chinese Media in Africa? An Audience Analysis in Kenya and South Africa” International Journal of Communications (2018).

iii Kuhn, Anthony. ‘’Chinese Leaders Leverage Media To Shape How The World Perceives China.’’ NPR, October 4, 2018.

iv Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China. FORUM ON CHINA-AFRICA COOPERATION BEIJING ACTION PLAN (2007-2009).

v South China Morning Post, ‘‘Beijing in 45b yuan global media drive,’’ January 19, 2009,

vi ibid

vii Leslie, Michael. “The Dragon Shapes Its Image: A Study of Chinese Media Influence Strategies in Africa.” African Studies Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 3-4, (December 2016).

viii The Economist. ‘’Soft power and censorship: China is broadening its efforts to win over African audiences’’.

ix ibid

x Leslie, Michael. Leslie, “The Dragon Shapes Its Image: A Study of Chinese Media Influence Strategies in Africa.” African Studies Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 3-4, (December 2016).

xi Wassermann, Herman and D. Madrid-Morales,. “How Influential Are Chinese Media in Africa? An Audience Analysis in Kenya and South Africa” International Journal of Communications, (2018).

xii Aiqing, Fang. ‘’New era for China-Africa media links.’’ China Daily, July 5, 2018.

xiii Madrid-Morales, D. ‘‘Going out’ – China in African media.’’

xiv Cook, Sarah. ‘‘The Globalization of Beijing’s Media Controls: Key Trends from 2018.’’ Freedom At Issue Blog.

xv The Economist. ‘’ China is spending billions on its foreign-language media.’’ June 14, 2018.

xvi Wassermann, Herman and D. Madrid-Morales,. “How Influential Are Chinese Media in Africa? An Audience Analysis in Kenya and South Africa” International Journal of Communications, (2018).

xvii United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. ‘’Many Voices: One World’’

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