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?

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times