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.

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.

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

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.