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China’s "soft power" offensive in Africa

As western powers cut back their spending on international broadcasting, China launches an offensive to win the continent's hearts and minds.

Pang Xinhua, the managing editor of China Central Television Africa
Pang Xinhua, the managing editor of China Central Television Africa talking to local journalist. Photograph: Getty Images

China has launched a drive to win "hearts and minds" in Africa just as western powers – including Britain and America – are cutting back on their spending on international broadcasting.

In January China Central Television (CCTV) launched its first African hub in Nairobi.

At 8pm in the Kenyan capital CCTV Beijing hands over to its Nairobi team for “Africa Live”, an hour-long flagship program designed to be a “new voice” for African news and build Sino-African relations.

Its Africa bureau chief, Song Jianing, says he has major plans for expansion. “I want to grow in leaps and bounds,” he told a seminar at St Anthony’s in Oxford.

This comes on the heels of the Chinese news agency, Xinhua, which already has an established reputation for fast, accurate news. Wang Chaowen, the agency’s Africa director says her operation covers 47 African states, with 28 branch offices.

A glance at almost any African newspaper will see the result, with Xinhua articles faithfully reproduced.

Nor is it just the traditional media. In 2011 Xinhua launched a news service for mobile phones, in Africa, in both English and Chinese.

This expansion has not been without its difficulties. Chinese state media produce well-crafted news "good news" stories and have an effective coverage of economic developments.

Their coverage of stories in which Chinese companies or Chinese government interests are challenged are than less impressive.

Asked why CCTV failed to provide an expose of Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond mines, in which Chinese companies have a direct interest (pdf), Song Jianing replied: “we did our best – we sent a reporter, but the management would not give us an interview.”

Traditional western journalistic techniques of covert filming were clearly out of the question.

The Chinese drive to win the battle for "soft power" extends well beyond delivering  news.

The launch of the Forum for China-Africa Co-operation in 2000 saw a concerted drive to reinforce co-operation through exchange visits and training programmes for African journalists.

More than 200 African government press officers received Chinese training between 2004 and 2011 in order to produce what the Communist Party propaganda chief, Li Changchun, described as “truthful” coverage of development supported by China’s activities.

This has been backed by an extensive programme of infrastructure development, with everything from satellite equipment for Ugandan television, to building work for Equatorial Guinea radio.

Some of this technological aid has been used to censor, rather than promote, the flow of information. Chinese equipment is reported to be used to bug phone lines and internet communications in Ethiopia.

Just as China plans a media offensive, including plans to deploy 100,000 journalists to the developing world, focusing on Africa, the West is cutting back.

The BBC World Service is still reeling from the cuts announced in January 2011. This will see the loss of 650 jobs by 2015.

The BBC African Service has closed its Portuguese broadcasts and scaled back across the board. The popular daily African morning show “Network Africa” has been merged into the world-wide English broadcast. The magazine, Focus on Africa, which was the BBC’s calling-card across the continent, has closed to save a miserly £50,000.

While the Foreign Office is content with these cuts, the United States is far more exercised by the contest for influence.

As Hilary Clinton told a Senate hearing earlier this year: “We are engaged in an information war and we are losing that war,” she said. China and Russia have started multi-language television networks, she said, even as the US is cutting back in these areas.