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?

Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp
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Meet Jorge Sharp, the rising star of Chile’s left who beat right-wingers to running its second city

The 31-year-old human rights lawyer says he is inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative politics as he takes the fight to the Chilean establishment.

Bearded, with shaggy hair, chinos and a plaid shirt, 31-year-old Jorge Sharp does not look like your typical mayor elect. But that does nothing to stop him speaking with the conviction of one.

“Look, Chile is a country that solely operates centrally, as one unit,” he says. “It is not a federal country – the concentration of state functions is very compact. In reality, most of the power is in Santiago. There are many limitations when it comes to introducing significant changes [in local areas].”

In October, Sharp upset Chile’s political status quo by defeating establishment rivals in the mayoral election of Valparaíso, the second city of South America’s first OECD country. He is taking office today.

Often compared to Podemos in Spain, Sharp’s win was significant – not only as yet another example of voters turning against mainstream politics – because it denied Chilean right-wing candidates another seat during local elections that saw them sweep to power across the country.

As the results rolled in, Conservative politicians had managed to snatch dozens of seats from the country’s centre-left coalition, led by President Michelle Bachelet, a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

Sitting in one of Valparaíso’s many bohemian cafes, Sharp accepts the comparison with Podemos gracefully but is keen to make sure that Chile’s new “autonomous left” movement is seen as distinct.

“What we are doing in Chile is a process that is difficult to compare with other emerging political movements in the world,” he says. “We are a distinct political group and we are a modern force for the left. We are a left that is distinct in our own country and that is different to the left in Spain, in Bolivia, and in Venezuela.”

Sharp’s Autonomous Left movement is not so much a party rather than a group of affiliated individuals who want to change Chilean politics for good. Considering its relatively small size, the so-called Aut Left experienced degrees of success in October.

Chilean voters may have punished Bachelet – also Chile’s first female leader – and her coalition after a number of corruption scandals, but they did not turn against left-wing politics completely. Where they had options, many Chileans voted for newer, younger and independent left-wing candidates. 

“We only had nine candidates and we won three of the races – in Punta Arenas, Antofagasta and Ñuñoa, a district of Santiago,” he says. “We hope that the experience here will help us to articulate a national message for all of Chile.”


Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp

For Sharp, the success of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit movement are due to people fed up – on a global scale – with their respective countries’ mainstream political parties or candidates. Given that assumption, how would he describe the cause of his own election success?

“The problem in Chile, and also for the people in Valparaíso, is that the resources go to very few people,” he says. “It was a vote to live better, to live differently. Our project for social policy is one that is more sufficient for all the people. It’s a return to democracy, to break the electoral status quo.”   

Sharp – like many – believes that the United States’ Democrat party missed out by passing up the opportunity to break with the status quo and choose Bernie Sanders over the chosen nominee Hillary Clinton. “They would have been better off with Sanders than Clinton,” he believes. 

“The [people] in the US are living through a deep economic crisis. These were the right conditions for Trump. The people weren’t looking for the candidate from the banks or Wall Street, not the ‘establishment’ candidate. The way forward was Sanders.”

Turning to other 2016 geo-political events, he claims Brexit was a case of Britons “looking for an answer to crises” about identity. Elsewhere in South America, the tactics of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe – who led the “No” vote campaign against peace with the Farc – were “fundamentally undemocratic”.

In the future, Sharp hopes that he and the rest of the Autonomous Left will be better-prepared to take power in higher offices, in order to further reform social policy and politics in Chile.

“For these elections, we weren't unified enough,” he concedes. “For 2017 [when national elections take place], we will have one list of parliamentary candidates and one presidential candidate.”

And while Sharp clearly sympathises with other left-wing movements in countries throughout the world, this is not a call for a unified approach to take on the rise of the right.

“Every country has its own path,” he finishes. “There is no single correct path. What we need to do [in Chile] is articulate a force that’s outside the political mainstream.”

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Latin America.