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Chinese media has increased its footprint in Africa in recent years, which is widely seen as a way for China to extend its ‘soft power’ on the continent. This development has caused much controversy. The general view is that the Chinese media’s intent is to provide positive news about Africa is an attempt to obtain support for Chinese economic activities on the continent.

Critics have, however, expressed concern that Chinese media practices may have a negative impact on the professional journalistic culture on the continent and erode press freedom, which is already under pressure in many African countries. Although these fears have been circulating widely in popular media, scholarship has mostly focused on broader, structural issues around China’s involvement in Africa rather than engaging with the views of audiences and journalists on the matter.

This expert comment draws on findings of a three-year research project to consider the role of Chinese media in Africa within the broader context of shifting global geopolitics, especially against the background of the rise of the BRICS countries. The focus is on media relations between South Africa and China, two members of the BRICS group. Three key questions are answered:

  • How do the South African media cover China’s presence in Africa?
  • To what extent do South African journalists use Chinese media as a source for their own work, thereby amplifying the Chinese perspective?
  • What do South African audiences think about Chinese media?

When these three questions are considered together, they provide a multi-dimensional picture of the level of success Chinese media have had in Africa, and whether soft power initiatives are making an impact on local audiences.

Introduction

There has been a significant increase of Chinese media on the African continent in recent years. This has taken place across various levels, including infrastructure development, training of journalists, production and distribution of media content, and investing directly in African media houses and platforms (Madrid-Morales & Wasserman, 2017, p. 5).

This expansion has attracted a great deal of attention and debate both in the popular media and in a growing field of China-Africa scholarship, but this is not the first time that China has established a media presence on the continent. As far back as the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese media was active in Africa (Yu, 1965; Üngör, 2009; Madrid-Morales & Wasserman, 2017). What is different now is that the recent expansion is seen widely as being linked to broader Chinese economic activities on the continent and its changing international relations policy. This expansion also comes at a time when the international geopolitical landscape is changing through the growing international profile of emerging states, such as those in the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Against this background, the increasing presence of Chinese media in African is considered part of China’s post-Cold War ‘going out’ international relations policy, which includes furthering economic activities on the African continent. The media’s role has become of growing importance in this policy (Shambaugh, 2013), as it has the potential to strengthen Chinese “soft power” (Nye, 2004).

The inclusion of the media in China’s foreign policy and economic strategies is mentioned in two major international relations frameworks. The Forum on China Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) included the role of the media in its action plan to support greater collaboration between China and Africa, while the role of media was also addressed in the declaration that followed the 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, China.

In the Forum action plan, the news media from China and Africa are encouraged to provide “comprehensive and objective news coverage of the other side” and to “play a positive role in enhancing mutual understanding and friendship” (FOCAC, 2006).

This emphasis on a “positive role” echoes what observers see as the Chinese approach to journalism and coverage of the continent in general. Analysts of Chinese journalism have found a more optimistic and positive tone than the adversarial tone that characterises much of the monitorial, ‘watchdog’ reporting on Africa associated with Western normative frameworks.

In a comparative study of the BBC World News TV and China’s CCTV, Marsh (2016) shows how CCTV set out to present African news from an African perspective to reflect a more positive picture of Africa to the world, and thereby change the negative perceptions the continent receives in Western reporting. This positive image would also be aimed at African audiences, who were “fed up” by the stereotypical portrayal of Africa as riddled with disease, death, and destruction (Marsh 2016:57).

The concerns raised are that this may serve to support undemocratic regimes in Africa, as it tends to favour official perspectives without criticizing the political powers, and in addition criticises Western involvement in Africa (Marsh, 2016; X. Zhang, 2013). Critical views of China’s involvement in Africa are not presented on CCTV, while it seems to strive for a more “harmonious” picture of society than is typical of Western reporting (Marsh, 2016:66).

While this constructive reporting seems to apply more to the uncritical reporting of China’s involvement in Africa than presenting an unqualified positive picture of Africa, CCTV’s reporting has focused on how Africans reach solutions rather than just highlighting problems (Marsh, 2016: 67). It is this positive and official orientation of the Chinese media, together with the fact that it is state-owned that have given rise to fears that Chinese media may influence African journalists to be less critical of their governments and politicians.

This has led critics to fear that Chinese media may make African media less vigilant in holding power to account. They fear that the Chinese approach of “constructive journalism” (Y. Zhang & Matingwina, 2016) may have a detrimental influence on African media, who often must defy severe political pressures and harassment to play a watchdog role.

The partnership agreement between members of the BRICS group of emerging nations also sees a significant role for the media. In the declaration following the 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, the media was encouraged to support “people-to-people exchanges” with the goal of “promoting development and enhancing mutual understanding, friendship, and cooperation among BRICS peoples” (BRICS, 2017).

The media and economic strategies

When the FOCAC and BRICS frameworks are considered, there is little doubt that the increased presence of Chinese media in Africa forms part of the country’s broader, long-term policy and economic strategies. The media is seen to have the potential of fulfilling a function on the continent that fits with China’s multilateral partnerships. By promoting the country’s profile abroad, Chinese media could play a supporting role for Chinese foreign interests.

The question then becomes – is this plan working? To answer this, several other questions must be investigated. The first is: how has African media reported on Chinese media’s increased presence and on China’s economic expansion in Africa in general? Answering that question means knowing whether the African media have contributed to an amplification of Chinese media messages and in so doing, increased the likelihood that Chinese soft power attempts may find a foothold among African audiences.

The second question, linked to the first, is what are the attitudes of African journalists towards the Chinese media? If they generally have a positive and welcoming attitude, it is more likely that they would give positive coverage of Chinese activities, and also more likely that they would assist in spreading Chinese media messages further.

Third, and this is an aspect that has hitherto been absent from scholarship, we must ask about the reception of Chinese media on the continent. Do African audiences know about Chinese media, do they consume it, and how do they respond to it?

This article summarizes the findings of research conducted over the past few years (reported in Madrid-Morales & Wasserman, 2017; Wasserman, 2012, 2016, 2018; Wasserman & Madrid-Morales, 2018). As South Africa and China are both members of the BRICS group of states and have a collaborative relationship, the focus fell on the way Chinese media influence has been noted in South Africa.

The assumption is that given this closer relationship, South African journalists and audiences may have a stronger interest in consuming Chinese media as its reporting has a more direct bearing on them. However, given that Nairobi has been a base for many Chinese media outlets, research was also conducted in Kenya.

When answers to the three questions are combined, we can obtain a multi-levelled picture of whether Chinese media have succeeded in supporting China’s soft power initiatives in Africa.

How did South African media report on Chinese media’s increased presence on the continent and on China’s economic expansion in Africa?

We answered this by looking at two types of data. Content analysis investigated how South African media covered China’s African activities and how South Africa’s relationship with China, within the broader BRICS framework, was reported. The findings (Wasserman, 2012) suggested that South African media coverage was quite balanced: It viewed China’s involvement in Africa with a cautious optimism, especially when the focus fell on the economic opportunities that China may bring to the continent.

Another form of data derived from interviews with South African journalists. Journalists were asked their views on the importance of their country’s relationship with China and the extent to which this relationship is included in their regular news agendas. This attempted to establish the extent to which South African journalists access and use Chinese media as sources in their own reporting. The assumption was that, if South African journalists used Chinese media as a source, they would aid in spreading Chinese media messages more widely, thereby contributing to China’s soft power goal.

The findings (Wasserman, 2016) did not present a positive result. First, South African journalists did not access Chinese media as a matter of routine or habit, nor did they prefer Chinese media to Western sources. In their responses, South African journalists displayed a considerable level of mistrust of Chinese media, largely resulting from the Chinese state’s control of the media. They did not, however, express a high level of concern for potential negative influences that Chinese media may have.

Despite the concerns raised by many commentators about China’s potential adverse impact on African journalistic culture, South African journalists felt that their journalistic practices and values are rigorous enough to withstand potentially negative influences. They did, however, fear that relying on Chinese media for sources may damage their integrity among their audiences. There is also the question of whether Chinese media are interesting and compelling. Journalists indicated that Chinese media content was not engaging enough for them to seek it out and integrate it into their own reporting.

Overall it seems that South African journalists did not cover Chinese-Africa relations overly negatively, but then they did not pay much attention to it in general. Although coverage was not critical, it was not overly positive either: Chinese media did not feature as a source in much of the work of South African journalists, nor did Chinese media influence their journalistic practices. This finding was confirmed in a further, more in-depth exploration of South African journalists’ attitudes towards Chinese media.

What are African journalists’ attitudes towards Chinese media?

It can be assumed that the way journalists cover China-Africa relations will be influenced by their attitudes towards China, its presence in Africa and its media expansion. To gain a deeper understanding of the factors influencing coverage of China-Africa relations and the extent to which Chinese media are used as a source by South African journalists, further interviews were conducted with journalists to gauge their attitudes and perceptions.

The journalists selected worked across various platforms. The findings (Madrid-Morales & Wasserman, 2017) provided a more nuanced picture indicating that South African journalists held a range of different positions. Based on their responses, it was possible to classify journalists in four categories: adopters, pragmatists, undecided, and resisters.

This means that although some journalists were critical of Chinese media (resisters), some used Chinese media as sources from time to time in their reporting (adopters). Others (the pragmatists) would only use Chinese media as sources when they wanted a Chinese perspective but ignored Chinese media on other occasions. Other respondents (the undecided) could not yet quite make up their minds about how relevant or important access to and use of Chinese was for their work. Altogether, however, the overall impact of Chinese media on South African news agendas and journalistic decision-making still seemed low.

How have African audiences responded to Chinese media?

As mentioned, scholarship about China-Africa media relations has focused mostly on issues such as the political economy of Chinese media in Africa, coverage of this relationship in local media, or the influence of Chinese media on African journalism norms and practices.

What has been missing is audience studies that could provide a better sense of how Chinese soft power initiatives carried out by means of the media impacted upon audiences. What emerged in the exploratory study of audience attitudes towards Chinese media conducted by Wasserman and Madrid-Morales (2018) among South African and Kenyan university students, is that these audiences use little Chinese media. They often have not even heard about Chinese media, do not access it, or are not interested in it. When they are aware of Chinese media, they display an elevated level of deep-seated bias against Chinese media.

This means that the impact of Chinese media messages is likely to be low and that the chances of Chinese soft power to exert an influence on these audiences are limited. While one would expect university students of media and communications to be interested in a variety of media, almost none of those interviewed chose Chinese media as an information source. These students also have limited knowledge of China’s news organizations present in Africa.

The problem did not so much seem to be a lack of access to Chinese media, but deep-seated biases against Chinese media. This was tested through blind viewing of the Chinese television channel CCTV (now known as CGTN) and Al-Jazeera. When shown clips from Chinese media channel CCTV where the branding information was removed, students tended to make supportive or accepting statements about its content, and some even preferred it above Al-Jazeera.

However, when the brand masking was removed and students were told that they had been watching CCTV, they sometimes reversed their opinion and retracted their positive appraisal. These negative appraisals were due to the respondents’ view of Chinese media as not being credible or trustworthy. A major factor causing this attitude was Chinese media’s ownership by the Chinese state, which for respondents signalled a propaganda or partisan perspective that undermined the credibility of Chinese media.

What resonated with respondents, however, was the proclaimed aim of Chinese media to present a more positive picture of Africa than its Western counterparts. This stated aim could, if realised, contribute to a positive attitude towards China and provide inroads for Chinese soft power in Africa.

The Chinese approach of solution-oriented journalism, its non-confrontational tone, and preference for positive news seemed appealing to the respondents. As such, the reporting style of CGTN/CCTV appears closer to their normative understanding of journalism than the reporting style of Al Jazeera, which was used as an example of watchdog journalism. This response was linked to dissatisfaction with reporting about the African continent in general – and the positive approach of Chinese media offered a welcome alternative.

Conclusion

How successful is Chinese media as a vehicle for soft power in Africa? A mere structural, quantitative view of Chinese media presence in Africa is not sufficient to answer this question.

The Chinese media presence on the continent has grown exponentially over the past two decades. Not only is Chinese media present in Africa and does it dedicate significant amounts of coverage to stories on the continent, but China also supports African media with infrastructure development, training, content production, content distribution, and direct investment. However, despite this heightened activity, the impact on African journalists and audiences still seems to be low. There is now evidence (Wasserman & Madrid-Morales, 2018) that among one of Chinese media’s target audiences, namely young and aspiring media professionals, the impact of Chinese media is rarely felt and is also resisted.

While some coverage of China in Africa has been balanced and optimistic when the potential economic benefits of Chinese involvement in Africa were considered, Chinese media are viewed with scepticism and distrust. Research conducted over the past three years in South Africa and Kenya suggest that this low level of usage and influence is not due to lack of access or availability of such media, but to deep-seated biases, preconceptions, and stereotypes about Chinese media among African journalists and audiences.

It may be difficult to reverse these negative biases, and the impact of Chinese media in advancing Chinese soft power in Africa may remain low. In the long run, Chinese media’s positive coverage of Africa may become a welcome alternative to Western stereotypes and could wield some more influence over local audiences in future.

 

Herman Wasserman

Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town, South Africa

 

Acknowledgements

This article draws on an earlier article (Wasserman, 2018). It summarises research supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa [Grant No. 93493]. Dani Madrid-Morales contributed to components of this research project.

 

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