Propaganda or proper journalism? China’s media expansion in Africa

Chinese media in Africa tends to take a different approach to other news organisations. This could be because of censorship, or it could be because Chinese media follow a different philosophy of journalism.

chinese-media

A newspaper vendor in Nigeria. Photograph by The Commonwealth.

From huge infrastructure projects to ubiquitous cheap goods, evidence of China’s presence across Africa today is unavoidable. But over the past few years, there is one area in which China’s deepening footprint on the continent has been particularly notable − turn on the radio, switch on the TV, or check out the newsstands, and China’s expansion into Africa’s media is clear to see.

Chinese journalists have been present in Africa for a long time, but as the China-Africa relationship has flourished, there has been a concerted effort from Beijing to build its media agencies in Africa and around the world so they can compete with the likes of the BBC, CNN and Aljazeera. As many Western media houses have been cutting back on foreign reporting budgets, Beijing in 2009 allocated $7 billion to increasing China’s state-owned media presence around the world.

The effects have been impressive, not least in Africa. On television today, CCTV Africa’s host of programmes provide up-to-date coverage on a wide range of issues; stories from Xinhua feature frequently in national newspapers across the continent;  China Daily Africa rolls off the press once a week; and China Radio International confidently rides the African airwaves.

As many of these strides were first being made, many on the continent and beyond raised concerns about what they saw as the rise of Chinese “propaganda”. Beijing was clear about its desire to create a more positive view of China in Africa, and some feared that Chinese media would just churn out uncritical stories about China and the continent and that its reporters would be prohibited from covering controversial issues.

Now that these media organisations have settled in their environments years later, however, most journalists who have been working for them − the vast majority of whom are African − deny that this has been the case.

“I can guarantee you that we have been 100% in control of our own editorial content,” says Beatrice Marshall, the anchor of Talk Africa, CCTV Africa’s flagship news analysis show.  “Are there any red lines? Up until this point, absolutely not.”

Similarly, media experts who have conducted content analyses of Chinese media since their expansion on the continent note that they have covered several contentious issues and offered critical views, at least up to a point.

“If you look at Chinese news agencies in the early 1990s, there was no room at all for criticism of certain African leaders,” says Bob Wekesa, a research associate at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and expert on Chinese media. “Nowadays, they increasingly don’t shy away from this, though they might not go the whole hog. China still operates under a communist system in which criticism is not really appreciated and there are still no go zones.”

Wekesa’s study of Talk Africa, for instance, found that the show has not avoided controversial stories such as mining strikes in South Africa, political turmoil in Egypt and conflict in South Sudan. But his analysis also suggested that the activities of Chinese and African governments in attempting to address problems are almost always framed in a positive light.

Part of this may be down to the Chinese media’s stated goal of improving perceptions of China and the continent, an objective perhaps facilitated by African journalists who, if not directly influenced by Beijing, self-censor their stories to an extent. But according to some theorists, while it may be true in some cases, this reading as a whole may be overly reductive – the usual criticism of Chinese state-owned media being little more than propaganda may be missing an important point. Rather than simply being constrained, they suggest, Chinese media may also have a different philosophy of journalism to begin with.

“There are a lot of superficial opinions of Chinese media in the West in the same way that there are many superficial opinions of Western media in China, but the reality is more complex,” says Zhang Yanqiu, director of the Africa Communication Research Centre at the Communication University of China. According to her, the Western media typically adopts a kind of “watchdog” role, while Chinese media is closer to what she calls “constructive journalism”.

“Constructive journalism can be both positive and negative, but the purpose is to find solutions,” explains Zhang. “The idea is to give a new kind of balance and shine a new kind of light on the continent. Instead of just reporting on the situation, it asks ‘ how can we help them?’ The Western media may be telling the truth, but if you are telling the truth and things are just getting worse and people are afraid of travelling to Africa, for whose good is this?”

Constructive journalism therefore attempts to be more “solutions-based”, something that Marshall claims is at the heart of CCTV Africa’s ethos.

“When you look at Western media, a lot of the time their strategy is to be combative,” she says. “But what we want to do is say ‘this is the issue, this is the challenge, and this is how it’s being solved’ rather than getting people to argue.”

It is for this reason, she says, that CCTV Africa focuses on a wide range of developmental issues and why in its coverage of the run-up to the 2015 Nigerian elections, for instance, it focused on security measures put in place to help people vote rather than the security threats that might prevent them from voting. “It may be the same story, but the difference in framing is important,” she says.

The extent to which this approach is paying off in terms of attracting viewers varies across different African nations, but researchers have typically found that most viewers remain sceptical of Chinese state-owned media. Additionally, while sympathetic to the Chinese approach, Wekesa suggests “the people who seem to appreciate the positive or constructive journalism of Chinese media most are those who are in power and certain elites with close business interests with the Chinese.”

However, while Chinese media still struggles to present itself as credible to many audiences, it may already be changing Africa’s media landscape for the better, albeit indirectly.

“Both Western and Chinese media are problematic for different reasons, but there is also a lot that each can, and is, learning from the other,” says Wekesa. “For me, the ideal would be a mix of the more adversarial Western approach with the more constructive Chinese approach, and I think there is evidence of them being influenced by one another already.

“Ultimately, this can only be good for Africa and for Africa’s media.”

James Wan is the editor of African Arguments. He is a fellow of the Wits University China-Africa Reporting Project. Follow him on Twitter at @jamesjwan.

This article will be featured in the upcoming book Africa’s Media Image in the 21st Century: From Heart of Darkness to Africa Rising. A Chinese-language version of the article has been published on BBC China.

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11 thoughts on “Propaganda or proper journalism? China’s media expansion in Africa

  1. I seriously doubt that given a choice, many Chinese journalists would voluntarily opt for a model of journalism, presented here as a Chinese model, which limits itself to what someone in this piece fancies as “constructive journalism.”
    One should be more candid in stating plainly that Chinese media adopt this approach only because they are constrained to by the State. Among several other points one could take issue with in this piece I will limit myself to just two more. Does any media have a sufficient grasp of things to know what is truly “constructive” and what is not? Or for that matter, what is a true “solution” and what is not? I believe the answer is “no,” and that the best substitute for this kind of omniscience in a world of infinite complexity is the free flow of ideas and the pulling of no punches.
    The second question, is there any reason why Africans should content themselves with a model that Chinese journalists themselves would readily abandon, if only they were allowed to? Is Africa, or are Africans well served by such a model?
    Finally, this article coyly avoids altogether an important question that hovers over this entire topic: what does China seek in pushing its state media into Africa with such abundant financing? Any meaningful answer to this question must get beyond the observation that Western media have long been present. This is self-evident, and although there are many good reasons to criticize Western imperialism, simply focusing on the West in any attempted answer amounts to changing the subject.

  2. Thanks so much for your comments, Howard. You raise (as well as re-emphasise) some really crucial aspects of the debate. Most interesting I think is your point about what ‘constructive’ means and from whose perspective those decisions are made. As I point out in the article, there are many red lines that Chinese media is Africa are not allowed to cross, Chinese media have struggled to present themselves as credible to many viewers, and their kind of reporting mostly benefits the status quo, elites and the Chinese themselves. But your more philosophical question about who gets to decide what a ‘solution’ looks like (if we are to buy the argument that this is ‘constructive journalism’, which I think needs to be approached with scepticism) is certainly worth adding. Editors’ and journalists’ judgment of what’s important and who is credible etc come into all forms of journalism – whether watchdog, what some call ‘solutions journalism’, or even celebrity and sports journalism – but I think you’re right to re-emphasise this point in this context.

    As to some of your other points, I won’t go through them one by one, but I will say that I think it’s important when thinking through this to recognise the difference between a purported philosophy/approach and the reality. One thing Zhang and others emphasised to me was that what they were outlining as ‘constructive journalism’ was an approach they believed Chinese media might be (and perhaps should be) adopting – they were not simply describing what they saw. Chinese media does-not-equal ‘constructive journalism’, and so critiquing the realities of Chinese media is not the same as critiquing a possible model of reporting (though as seen in the paragraph above, there is plenty to say on that too!).

    Finally, your final point about the lack of speculation in my article about China’s motives may be well-placed. One could write several long articles examining those motives – for which there wasn’t space in the article (though as you say, it perhaps needed a little more) – but fortunately there may be space here in the comments section! And I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, Howard. Beyond the usual soft power arguments, why do you think China is pushing its media into Africa?

  3. If I may chip into the question of motivation, the official response from Chinese foreign policy makers (at least the ones I interviewed) is that China needs to access the ‘discursive field’ in Africa. Partly for enhancing image purposes, but also to balance Western presence in African media environments.

    The popularity of France 24, Al Jazeera and BBC (among others) is viewed as a threat to China’s interests in the continent because of the alarmist tone of the “West’s” reporting on China-Africa. Therefore building a CCTV, xinhua offices, training African journalists in China, taking them on professional and personal tours, etc. are ways of gaining a discursive space. In my own analysis of this topic, I think that these projects (sponsoring professional training projects, increasing media presence) are successful in so far as they create subjectivities in the journalists who benefit from these trainings.

    More so than a soft power argument, I think it is the way of looking at China that’s changing for these journalists. This is not to say that they become biased after getting a degree sponsored by Chinese government but at least to say that they have a better grasp of China, its history, culture, and understand it better than stereotypes created in the Economist or other venues. As you both pointed out, there’s a lot to be said about this topic. There’s also a great deal of Communication IT that China is involved in, not just the reporting part. That too is interesting to investigate.

    When it comes to CCTV Africa, I agree that it has been more upfront in its critiques of African leaders. However, given Kenya’s journalism culture with Kenyan journalists being openly critical of their leaders, it is excepted that CCTV gets socialized into that. What CCTV Africa lacks, I think, is a reflexive critique. That is, when it comes to being critical of China-Africa issues or reporting on incidents that link back to China-Africa that’s when red lines are redder.

    A final point, when it comes to Constructive Journalism, I attended the second China-Africa Media Forum where Prof. Zhang explained in more details what she coined Constructive journalism. This type of journalism again is not so much applied to covering China-Africa as much as it is a way to think about reporting African stories in a positive light. (against the Darkness of the Economist reporting on Africa as an example). Chinese media try as much as possible to present an African of opportunity, of richness, etc. One may see the inconveniences of this strategy to be similar to going all negative on Africa’s image(s) but the purpose is to present a given story and ‘frame’ it in as positive as possible tone. not make it sound so gloomy so to speak.

  4. I don’t usually get involved in extended exchanges like this online, but as a longtime journalist, as a professor of journalism, and as someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about both China and Africa, not to mention China-Africa, I think this is an important topic. The criticism I offer for the piece by James Wan is sincerely intended as constructive, however I will be candid and straightforward in stating that I think it was muddled in key ways and failed to pursue many important questions. An almost paragraph by paragraph response follows, but beforehand I have two general observations. The first is that the era of being impressed by Chinese activity in Africa because it is big in scope or richly funded should be behind us. We have come too far in the last 10-15 for “gee wiz” impressions. The second general thought is that far too seldom does writing on China-Africa report seriously on the bottom line for Africa, i.e. whether whatever Chinese activity under consideration is genuinely good for Africa in the medium to longer term, or whether the terms are fair, equitable, sustainable or healthy for the continent. Far too often, writers settle instead into emphasizing East versus West angles, as if Africa was an incidental part of the equation and had little or nothing of note to say. For a publication called African Arguments, one expects more of an Africa-first perspective: the Chinese (or for that matter, the US, theFrom huge infrastructure projects to ubiquitous cheap goods, evidence of China’s presence across Africa today is unavoidable. But over the past few years, there is one area in which China’s deepening footprint on the continent has been particularly notable − turn on the radio, switch on the TV, or check out the newsstands, and China’s expansion into Africa’s media is clear to see.
    Chinese journalists have been present in Africa for a long time, but as the China-Africa relationship has flourished, there has been a concerted effort from Beijing to build its media agencies in Africa and around the world so they can compete with the likes of the BBC, CNN and Aljazeera. As many Western media houses have been cutting back on foreign reporting budgets, Beijing in 2009 allocated $7 billion to increasing China’s state-owned media presence around the world.
    [This $7 billion figure is mentioned merely in passing. It is an astounding number, and one yearns to understand how much of it is devoted specifically to Africa and why building a state media presence there is so important to Beijing? In my view, this is the most important question hovering over this piece, but it is not pursued at all here. Meanwhile, I think more caution is called for in language. What China is doing is routinely contrasted, whether explicitly or implicitly, both here and elsewhere with what is said to be “Western.” It is worth noting, even if it wasn’t described that way here, that Aljazeera isn’t “Western.” Along the same lines, there are important and unmentioned distinctions between the BBC and CNN, the one being a public broadcaster, the other private.]
    The effects have been impressive, not least in Africa. On television today, CCTV Africa’s host of programmes provide up-to-date coverage on a wide range of issues; stories from Xinhua feature frequently in national newspapers across the continent; China Daily Africa rolls off the press once a week; and China Radio International confidently rides the African airwaves.
    [In what way is any of this impressive? What would be more helpful is an assessment of the quality of these offerings, and of the audience they have built for themselves in the field. I have made no study of this, but my anecdotal sense is that few people regularly watch CCTV Africa programs. An independent audience study would be most welcome. Without that, it is impossible to assess how well or poorly China’s Africa media strategy is paying off. My impression of China Daily Africa, meanwhile, again anecdotal, is that it is essentially irrelevant, and that few will find it’s constant drumroll of happy tales of harmonious Chinese relationships either convincing or compelling.]
    As many of these strides were first being made, many on the continent and beyond raised concerns about what they saw as the rise of Chinese “propaganda”. Beijing was clear about its desire to create a more positive view of China in Africa, and some feared that Chinese media would just churn out uncritical stories about China and the continent and that its reporters would be prohibited from covering controversial issues.
    [This is a trickily worded passage. Does the author mean to say that the initial impression people had of Chinese media as propaganda organs was erroneous, or that these media have evolved in ways that have earned them greater consideration among readers, listeners and viewers? Please come clean with the reader and give us a clear authorial point of view, or at least some analysis that one can sink one’s teeth into.]
    Now that these media organisations have settled in their environments years later, however, most journalists who have been working for them − the vast majority of whom are African − deny that this has been the case.
    [There are at least two things going on here worth underlining. We are being told that the vast majority of journalists working for these media are African. What is the basis for this assertion? Can we break things out and disaggregate Chinese state-owned TV, radio and print? Is there are reason to believe that having African news readers for a Chinese state-owned media organ affects the mission, politics or content of that media in any fundamental way? (I would not make that assumption for the BBC, CNN or Aljazeera, by the way.) You say that “most” journalists working for these media deny their propaganda role. You only really quote one such journalist – below – though, so it is difficult to credit this view. Also, is it reasonable to expect an employee of a propaganda organ to openly state that their job is propaganda?]
    “I can guarantee you that we have been 100% in control of our own editorial content,” says Beatrice Marshall, the anchor of Talk Africa, CCTV Africa’s flagship news analysis show. “Are there any red lines? Up until this point, absolutely not.”
    [In his response to my first post, the author himself seems to allow for the idea that there are “red lines” when he says that these new Chinese media “mostly benefit the status quo, elites and the Chinese themselves.” Under the circumstances, dangling a quote like Beatrice Marshall’s, with no other practitioner voices or points of view damages the overall trustworthiness and credibility of the piece.]
    Similarly, media experts who have conducted content analyses of Chinese media since their expansion on the continent note that they have covered several contentious issues and offered critical views, at least up to a point.
    “If you look at Chinese news agencies in the early 1990s, there was no room at all for criticism of certain African leaders,” says Bob Wekesa, a research associate at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and expert on Chinese media. “Nowadays, they increasingly don’t shy away from this, though they might not go the whole hog. China still operates under a communist system in which criticism is not really appreciated and there are still no go zones.”
    Wekesa’s study of Talk Africa, for instance, found that the show has not avoided controversial stories such as mining strikes in South Africa, political turmoil in Egypt and conflict in South Sudan. But his analysis also suggested that the activities of Chinese and African governments in attempting to address problems are almost always framed in a positive light.
    [There is nothing controversial, even in the world of Chinese media, about reporting the fact of a strike here, turmoil there or conflict somewhere else. It is not clear why this is being presented as somehow progress. Who commissioned Wekesa’s study, by the way, and what does it mean to be an “expert in Chinese media”?]
    Part of this may be down to the Chinese media’s stated goal of improving perceptions of China and the continent, an objective perhaps facilitated by African journalists who, if not directly influenced by Beijing, self-censor their stories to an extent.
    [There’s a lot of murky stuff going on in this graf. One feels the author is being unnecessarily coy and faux-naif. “May be down to the Chinese media’s stated goal of improving perceptions of China and the continent?” Does this really deserve to be hedged? “An objective perhaps facilitated?” Don’t employees of an organization have to fulfill the basic mission of that organization? Here, the responsibility is fobbed off, oddly, on the African journalist, who practices self-censorship. The key question, far better faced squarely, is why would an African journalist self-censor in this way?]
    But according to some theorists, while it may be true in some cases, this reading as a whole may be overly reductive – the usual criticism of Chinese state-owned media being little more than propaganda may be missing an important point. Rather than simply being constrained, they suggest, Chinese media may also have a different philosophy of journalism to begin with.

    [Lots going on here, too, but the author is not playing candid with us. There’s a sly little attack on critics of Chinese state-owned media, i.e. “the usual criticism,” it’s overly reductive, and missing the point. The skeptics are failing to appreciate some higher design or purpose, something philosophical, even. Wow, that sounds really serious. Please level with your readers. Does having a fixed propaganda goal compromise values like objectivity and independence “in some cases,” or does it permeate almost everything?]

    “There are a lot of superficial opinions of Chinese media in the West in the same way that there are many superficial opinions of Western media in China, but the reality is more complex,” says Zhang Yanqiu, director of the Africa Communication Research Centre at the Communication University of China. According to her, the Western media typically adopts a kind of “watchdog” role, while Chinese media is closer to what she calls “constructive journalism”.
    [It would be helpful to know what these “superficial opinions” of Chinese media are in the West, rather than just settling for this fake equivalency between Western and Eastern understanding or misunderstanding. The most widely held notion of Chinese media in the West, by the way, is that it is heavily controlled and tightly censored by the state. Is this misunderstood, or not? Secondly, why are we being told of a contradiction between supposedly Eastern and supposedly Western media? Isn’t this a piece about Africa? Where are the African voices, those of scholars, practitioners, media critics, consumers? Do they feel well served by this Chinese model, or are they too trapped with hopelessly superficial opinions?]
    “Constructive journalism can be both positive and negative, but the purpose is to find solutions,” explains Zhang. “The idea is to give a new kind of balance and shine a new kind of light on the continent. Instead of just reporting on the situation, it asks ‘ how can we help them?’ The Western media may be telling the truth, but if you are telling the truth and things are just getting worse and people are afraid of travelling to Africa, for whose good is this?”
    [This graf desperately calls out for some critical thinking by the writer. What are these solutions she speaks of, and is there any reason to believe that state media or Chinese media is better able than any other to provide them? What is meant by “a new kind of balance,” and “a new kind of light,” or is this just empty sloganeering?]
    Constructive journalism therefore attempts to be more “solutions-based”, something that Marshall claims is at the heart of CCTV Africa’s ethos.
    “When you look at Western media, a lot of the time their strategy is to be combative,” she says. “But what we want to do is say ‘this is the issue, this is the challenge, and this is how it’s being solved’ rather than getting people to argue.”
    It is for this reason, she says, that CCTV Africa focuses on a wide range of developmental issues and why in its coverage of the run-up to the 2015 Nigerian elections, for instance, it focused on security measures put in place to help people vote rather than the security threats that might prevent them from voting. “It may be the same story, but the difference in framing is important,” she says.
    The extent to which this approach is paying off in terms of attracting viewers varies across different African nations, but researchers have typically found that most viewers remain sceptical of Chinese state-owned media. Additionally, while sympathetic to the Chinese approach, Wekesa suggests “the people who seem to appreciate the positive or constructive journalism of Chinese media most are those who are in power and certain elites with close business interests with the Chinese.”
    However, while Chinese media still struggles to present itself as credible to many audiences, it may already be changing Africa’s media landscape for the better, albeit indirectly.
    “Both Western and Chinese media are problematic for different reasons, but there is also a lot that each can, and is, learning from the other,” says Wekesa.
    [I’m perplexed at how long this piece continues to dwell on this dichotomy between Eastern versus Western journalism, rather than becoming a piece simply about journalism in Africa or about Africa, except that it seems to reveal, if only perhaps inadvertently, that China (and many of those who focus on China-Africa) sees Africa as a battleground with the “West” over influence. Wekesa makes an unsupported claim here that Western media is learning equally from Eastern media. Is there any evidence for this happy talk?]

    “For me, the ideal would be a mix of the more adversarial Western approach with the more constructive Chinese approach, and I think there is evidence of them being influenced by one another already.
    “Ultimately, this can only be good for Africa and for Africa’s media.”
    James Wan is the editor of African Arguments. He is a fellow of the Wits University China-Africa Reporting Project. Follow him on Twitter at @jamesjwan.
    This article will be featured in the upcoming book Africa’s Media Image in the 21st Century: From Heart of Darkness to Africa Rising. A Chinese-language version of the article has been published on BBC China.

    UK, or the “west) is proposing this or that in Africa, how does this pay off, or not, for Africans? Almost everything else, by this point, should be regarded as a distraction.
    Here’s the critique, which I hope James will accept in a positive spirit:

    From huge infrastructure projects to ubiquitous cheap goods, evidence of China’s presence across Africa today is unavoidable. But over the past few years, there is one area in which China’s deepening footprint on the continent has been particularly notable − turn on the radio, switch on the TV, or check out the newsstands, and China’s expansion into Africa’s media is clear to see.
    Chinese journalists have been present in Africa for a long time, but as the China-Africa relationship has flourished, there has been a concerted effort from Beijing to build its media agencies in Africa and around the world so they can compete with the likes of the BBC, CNN and Aljazeera. As many Western media houses have been cutting back on foreign reporting budgets, Beijing in 2009 allocated $7 billion to increasing China’s state-owned media presence around the world.
    [This $7 billion figure is mentioned merely in passing. It is an astounding number, and one yearns to understand how much of it is devoted specifically to Africa and why building a state media presence there is so important to Beijing? In my view, this is the most important question hovering over this piece, but it is not pursued at all here. Meanwhile, I think more caution is called for in language. What China is doing is routinely contrasted, whether explicitly or implicitly, both here and elsewhere with what is said to be “Western.” It is worth noting, even if it wasn’t described that way here, that Aljazeera isn’t “Western.” Along the same lines, there are important and unmentioned distinctions between the BBC and CNN, the one being a public broadcaster, the other private.]
    The effects have been impressive, not least in Africa. On television today, CCTV Africa’s host of programmes provide up-to-date coverage on a wide range of issues; stories from Xinhua feature frequently in national newspapers across the continent; China Daily Africa rolls off the press once a week; and China Radio International confidently rides the African airwaves.
    [In what way is any of this impressive? What would be more helpful is an assessment of the quality of these offerings, and of the audience they have built for themselves in the field. I have made no study of this, but my anecdotal sense is that few people regularly watch CCTV Africa programs. An independent audience study would be most welcome. Without that, it is impossible to assess how well or poorly China’s Africa media strategy is paying off. My impression of China Daily Africa, meanwhile, again anecdotal, is that it is essentially irrelevant, and that few will find it’s constant drumroll of happy tales of harmonious Chinese relationships either convincing or compelling.]
    As many of these strides were first being made, many on the continent and beyond raised concerns about what they saw as the rise of Chinese “propaganda”. Beijing was clear about its desire to create a more positive view of China in Africa, and some feared that Chinese media would just churn out uncritical stories about China and the continent and that its reporters would be prohibited from covering controversial issues.
    [This is a trickily worded passage. Does the author mean to say that the initial impression people had of Chinese media as propaganda organs was erroneous, or that these media have evolved in ways that have earned them greater consideration among readers, listeners and viewers? Please come clean with the reader and give us a clear authorial point of view, or at least some analysis that one can sink one’s teeth into.]
    Now that these media organisations have settled in their environments years later, however, most journalists who have been working for them − the vast majority of whom are African − deny that this has been the case.
    [There are at least two things going on here worth underlining. We are being told that the vast majority of journalists working for these media are African. What is the basis for this assertion? Can we break things out and disaggregate Chinese state-owned TV, radio and print? Is there are reason to believe that having African news readers for a Chinese state-owned media organ affects the mission, politics or content of that media in any fundamental way? (I would not make that assumption for the BBC, CNN or Aljazeera, by the way.) You say that “most” journalists working for these media deny their propaganda role. You only really quote one such journalist – below – though, so it is difficult to credit this view. Also, is it reasonable to expect an employee of a propaganda organ to openly state that their job is propaganda?]
    “I can guarantee you that we have been 100% in control of our own editorial content,” says Beatrice Marshall, the anchor of Talk Africa, CCTV Africa’s flagship news analysis show. “Are there any red lines? Up until this point, absolutely not.”
    [In his response to my first post, the author himself seems to allow for the idea that there are “red lines” when he says that these new Chinese media “mostly benefit the status quo, elites and the Chinese themselves.” Under the circumstances, dangling a quote like Beatrice Marshall’s, with no other practitioner voices or points of view damages the overall trustworthiness and credibility of the piece.]
    Similarly, media experts who have conducted content analyses of Chinese media since their expansion on the continent note that they have covered several contentious issues and offered critical views, at least up to a point.
    “If you look at Chinese news agencies in the early 1990s, there was no room at all for criticism of certain African leaders,” says Bob Wekesa, a research associate at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and expert on Chinese media. “Nowadays, they increasingly don’t shy away from this, though they might not go the whole hog. China still operates under a communist system in which criticism is not really appreciated and there are still no go zones.”
    Wekesa’s study of Talk Africa, for instance, found that the show has not avoided controversial stories such as mining strikes in South Africa, political turmoil in Egypt and conflict in South Sudan. But his analysis also suggested that the activities of Chinese and African governments in attempting to address problems are almost always framed in a positive light.
    [There is nothing controversial, even in the world of Chinese media, about reporting the fact of a strike here, turmoil there or conflict somewhere else. It is not clear why this is being presented as somehow progress. Who commissioned Wekesa’s study, by the way, and what does it mean to be an “expert in Chinese media”?]
    Part of this may be down to the Chinese media’s stated goal of improving perceptions of China and the continent, an objective perhaps facilitated by African journalists who, if not directly influenced by Beijing, self-censor their stories to an extent.
    [There’s a lot of murky stuff going on in this graf. One feels the author is being unnecessarily coy and faux-naif. “May be down to the Chinese media’s stated goal of improving perceptions of China and the continent?” Does this really deserve to be hedged? “An objective perhaps facilitated?” Don’t employees of an organization have to fulfill the basic mission of that organization? Here, the responsibility is fobbed off, oddly, on the African journalist, who practices self-censorship. The key question, far better faced squarely, is why would an African journalist self-censor in this way?]
    But according to some theorists, while it may be true in some cases, this reading as a whole may be overly reductive – the usual criticism of Chinese state-owned media being little more than propaganda may be missing an important point. Rather than simply being constrained, they suggest, Chinese media may also have a different philosophy of journalism to begin with.

    [Lots going on here, too, but the author is not playing candid with us. There’s a sly little attack on critics of Chinese state-owned media, i.e. “the usual criticism,” it’s overly reductive, and missing the point. The skeptics are failing to appreciate some higher design or purpose, something philosophical, even. Wow, that sounds really serious. Please level with your readers. Does having a fixed propaganda goal compromise values like objectivity and independence “in some cases,” or does it permeate almost everything?]

    “There are a lot of superficial opinions of Chinese media in the West in the same way that there are many superficial opinions of Western media in China, but the reality is more complex,” says Zhang Yanqiu, director of the Africa Communication Research Centre at the Communication University of China. According to her, the Western media typically adopts a kind of “watchdog” role, while Chinese media is closer to what she calls “constructive journalism”.
    [It would be helpful to know what these “superficial opinions” of Chinese media are in the West, rather than just settling for this fake equivalency between Western and Eastern understanding or misunderstanding. The most widely held notion of Chinese media in the West, by the way, is that it is heavily controlled and tightly censored by the state. Is this misunderstood, or not? Secondly, why are we being told of a contradiction between supposedly Eastern and supposedly Western media? Isn’t this a piece about Africa? Where are the African voices, those of scholars, practitioners, media critics, consumers? Do they feel well served by this Chinese model, or are they too trapped with hopelessly superficial opinions?]
    “Constructive journalism can be both positive and negative, but the purpose is to find solutions,” explains Zhang. “The idea is to give a new kind of balance and shine a new kind of light on the continent. Instead of just reporting on the situation, it asks ‘ how can we help them?’ The Western media may be telling the truth, but if you are telling the truth and things are just getting worse and people are afraid of travelling to Africa, for whose good is this?”
    [This graf desperately calls out for some critical thinking by the writer. What are these solutions she speaks of, and is there any reason to believe that state media or Chinese media is better able than any other to provide them? What is meant by “a new kind of balance,” and “a new kind of light,” or is this just empty sloganeering?]
    Constructive journalism therefore attempts to be more “solutions-based”, something that Marshall claims is at the heart of CCTV Africa’s ethos.
    “When you look at Western media, a lot of the time their strategy is to be combative,” she says. “But what we want to do is say ‘this is the issue, this is the challenge, and this is how it’s being solved’ rather than getting people to argue.”
    It is for this reason, she says, that CCTV Africa focuses on a wide range of developmental issues and why in its coverage of the run-up to the 2015 Nigerian elections, for instance, it focused on security measures put in place to help people vote rather than the security threats that might prevent them from voting. “It may be the same story, but the difference in framing is important,” she says.
    The extent to which this approach is paying off in terms of attracting viewers varies across different African nations, but researchers have typically found that most viewers remain sceptical of Chinese state-owned media. Additionally, while sympathetic to the Chinese approach, Wekesa suggests “the people who seem to appreciate the positive or constructive journalism of Chinese media most are those who are in power and certain elites with close business interests with the Chinese.”
    However, while Chinese media still struggles to present itself as credible to many audiences, it may already be changing Africa’s media landscape for the better, albeit indirectly.
    “Both Western and Chinese media are problematic for different reasons, but there is also a lot that each can, and is, learning from the other,” says Wekesa.
    [I’m perplexed at how long this piece continues to dwell on this dichotomy between Eastern versus Western journalism, rather than becoming a piece simply about journalism in Africa or about Africa, except that it seems to reveal, if only perhaps inadvertently, that China (and many of those who focus on China-Africa) sees Africa as a battleground with the “West” over influence. Wekesa makes an unsupported claim here that Western media is learning equally from Eastern media. Is there any evidence for this happy talk?]

    “For me, the ideal would be a mix of the more adversarial Western approach with the more constructive Chinese approach, and I think there is evidence of them being influenced by one another already.
    “Ultimately, this can only be good for Africa and for Africa’s media.”

    [This is not exactly argued to any depth, and it seems peculiar to have such a conclusion pinned on a single voice.]

    Howard French

  5. Lina, thanks so much for your comments and for adding your own personal and nuanced insights on this complex topic.

    Howard, thank you too for your forensic examination of my article. Perhaps predictably, I completely agree with some of the critiques (for example, I agree that it would have been great to get concrete viewership/readership/listenership figures, which I tried but was unable to do) and disagree with others (for example, I think the criticism that I leave Marshall’s quote about lack of censorship go unchallenged is a little unfair given that the very next person quoted directly challenges it by insisting that there are still red lines and by emphasising that Chinese state-owned media is still ultimately answerable to Beijing).

    However, to avoid alienating the few readers who have scrolled down this far (hello!) – and who, I imagine, would be more interested in a discussion of Chinese media than a discussion of media-about-Chinese-media – I won’t go through each and every point but address (briefly) what I see as the two main problems you had with the framing of the piece.

    Firstly, one of your critiques seems to be the idea that I shied away from saying Chinese media in Africa is state-censored. I’m sorry you got that impression. What I was trying to do in the piece was take that as a widely-accepted and well-recognised starting point – and I make sure to highlight that there are no-go zones, that China is always presently positively, and that Chinese media primarily benefits elites and Chinese interests etc – but then add to that already familiar picture. That is why whenever introducing the notion that Africa’s Chinese-media journalists might take a different approach, I made sure to couch that in the context that there are of course constraints…before then going on to suggest that there are also other interesting dynamics to look at and that the entirety of Chinese media’s output cannot be explained through a single explanation. E.g. “Rather than *simply* being constrained, they suggest, Chinese media may *also* have a different philosophy of journalism to begin with.”

    I appreciate though that you would have liked this point to have been emphasised even more and that you are very sceptical towards the arguments of some of people I quote, but I tried to give space for people on different sides of the debate to air their views for readers to judge.

    Secondly, you take issue with the China vs. the West thread running through the piece. I of course am very familiar with the critique that too much China-Africa reporting falls into this simplistic binary, because I often make the same argument! However, the reason that I gave space to those kinds of arguments in this particular article was that this tended to be how the audiences, practitioners and analysts I spoke to discussed the issue. When looking at the Chinese media organisations popping up, those I spoke to tended to think of them in relation to other international media that has popped up and so tended to speak about them alongside or in contrast to (usually) Western media. I’d love to go beyond this in subsequent articles (though they would have to be about Chinese media in Ethiopia, Nigeria or Zambia rather than ‘Africa’ as a whole as the media contexts and effects vary hugely) but for this more abstract high-level Africa-wide perspective, I felt this framing was useful.

    Thanks again for your comments. This kind of scrutiny is much appreciated, though I also think the discussion would be well-served by addressing the issues raised in the piece (rather than just the piece itself). For example, I get the impression from your comments that you think Beijing’s role in its Africa-based media houses is very palpable and that the whole ‘constructive journalism’ argument is a post-hoc justification for censorship – is that an accurate reflection of your view?

  6. Howard French I salute you. Exactly: big is not better. Let’s stop for a moment to gasp and try and take in the sums of money we’re talking about (even more extraordinary now the stock market has crashed. Where does this money come from? Is any of it actually real?) As you identify, it’s more important to ask why certain Chinese interests (which ones exactly? What do we mean when we say ‘the party’ or the ‘state’) clearly do want a Chinese state presence in parts of Africa- but why?

    I am delighted to see that statements like ‘vast majority of Africans’ being interogated, or conceptual ciphers like ‘The West’ being really critically exploded.

    Howard your comments are sublime. It perhaps says more about me that it made me so happy that you’d taken the time to dissect this piece- which unfortunately, is bad journalism, and bad academia. Sorry James. It smells heavily of no real primary evidence, and regurgitating previously written material. I think if you are going to write about stuff like this, at least travel to Africa and ask people there what we think?

    Bob Wekesa is on a Chinese funded post grad scholarship in a Chinese university: you can draw your own conclusions about how easy it is for him to be critical and candid. Many of us- including people who like me who write (both academically and journalistically) about China/Africa (does this make me an expert? I’m not sure) were at a conference last year in Nngbo, China. Some really interesting work will be coming out of a book from this conference, later in the year, edited by Prof Hermann Wasserman, and Dr Winston Mano and Prof Xaoling Zhang.

  7. Thank you Lina, Thembi and James for your replies.
    My intervention yesterday was somehow truncated or garbled, perhaps because of its excessive length. I had tried to conclude in saying:
    “For a publication called African Arguments, one expects more of an Africa-first perspective: the Chinese (or for that matter, the US, the UK or “the West”) are doing X, Y or Z. Here’s what it means it means for Africa.” For starters, getting at that means privileging rich and varied African voices and African analyses.
    Themba, in fairness, I don’t know Bob Wakesa, but your line of thinking had certainly occurred to me, too.
    Lina, discursive space is an interesting term, but for me it only scratches the surface of what is at stake here for China. In my view, one spends $7 billion not just to build soft power, but for power “tout court.” Again, I am more interested these days, though, in the largely undeveloped line of analysis that emphasizes how these things work out for Africa, and my tentative conclusion is that journalism in many African countries, speaking generally, is stronger than journalism in China. This raises the potentially uncomfortable question of whether China has a model of journalism to propose that has any relevance for the continent?
    To take a slight detour, there was an amusing thing on Twitter this morning about Jeune Afrique giving lessons to Africa about the shoddiness of Chinese construction. My tweeted response was to say that Jeune Afrique is, of course, an entirely French media house. The insidious way that a Paris-based publication like this, which has been historically close to the French state has gained mindshare in Africa reveals in its own way how relatively crude Chinese attempts at influence via the media in Africa remain to this day.
    James, in answer to your question, I don’t think one invests $7 billion without wishing to have a palpable influence. Furthermore, China is not known, on the whole, for laissez faire, in matters of media, or better put, propaganda.
    To the extent that “constructive journalism” has any meaning at all, this seems to me to be an extension of Chinese journalism practice in China, where one very basic propaganda approach is to limit the capacity of the press to indict those who govern for political responsibility and to emphasize, after bad things have happened, how earnest the cleanup has been.

  8. Hmmm, the comments section is far longer than the article, so I don’t even know if I’ll be adding value to it. I just wanted to say this, I think we can all agree that all these global media companies, the British, the Americans, the Chinese and the Arabs all have an agenda they are trying to push. What I like about the the Chinese, Arabic, and to a lesser extent the British, approach is that they use African’s to tell the story.

    A question we have to ask ourselves though is why isn’t there an pan-African news organisation to check into our leaders? We can’t keep relying on foreign pressure to bring us into line. South Sudan has been at war for almost 2 years now, 2 years, thousands dead and millions displaced, yet there seems to be as little pressure now as there was when it was a seem as a few rebels. Burundi seems to be teetering on the edge of civil war(I would posit that one day we’ll look back on this time as the true beginning of the war) while we watch on helplessly. Meanwhile in Rwanda it was reported with much amusement rather that incredulity that only 10 people opposed the 3rd term of the president. Don’t even get me started on Egypt.

    I’m not sure what the point of this comment is, I seem to have gotten lost in thought. Maybe what I’m saying we need to stop wondering what other people are doing and figure out how we do it ourselves.

  9. Thank you for the follow-up Howard French, I agree that power is the ultimate motivation and maximizing it is the purpose. Tho, it’s interesting to ponder in what ways emerging powers are doing so. I would also agree with you that there is here a subtle, insidious way that does not totally alienate African’s agency as we have seen with traditional powers (and we still see reflected in Jeune Afrique, Economist, et al.) On the contrary, for China’s power in Africa, African agency is a necessary ingredient. It helps increase and legitimize power instead. But does this mean plus ça change plus c’est la même chose for Africans?

    I also wanted to quickly point out that I have interviewed a news anchor from CCTV Africa when I was in Nairobi last March, I was told that there were red-lines. When I asked how the journalists deal with them or even know they exist, the answer was that the editorial team has some power over this and that staff meetings with the big boss also draw some of these lines. Also interesting was the news anchor’s description of the sub-cultural atmosphere of these general meetings. She talked about how it is difficult for a Kenyan journalist not to be critical, upfront, and talk as equal to the boss. At CCTV she said, the work environment is rather hierarchical. The upshots of having that job in the interviewee’s viewpoint was the experience, traveling, the comfort of working in such well-equipped and well-funded news agency, etc. There definitely were trade-offs in that interview I recorded. This makes me wonder even to what extent are researchers/scholars presented with different view points on the same issue.

  10. I’m not sure why westerners are so scared of China, but at this point it’s becoming a bit hilarious. Chinese media presence in Africa is a welcome alternative to the drivel that is consistently put out by western outlets. The term “Constructive Journalism” is a very useful one, one that western media practitioners would do well to try to understand and put to good use instead of slavishly putting out what the corporations that run them tell them to do. I find it interesting that China is criticized for putting out “propaganda” or being “state-run,” when most western media is “corporation run” or even “CIA-run” (eg. the New York Times) and “MI5-run.” Let’s not even talk about how General Electric, a major U.S. government and military contractor, enthusiastically embedded it’s NBC journalists into the US army during the Iraq war, following those same journalists’ happy drumbeat of the very U.S. government’s lead-up to the said war. What incentive did those journalist have to bring up criticisms of the lies being told to justify the war? I think westerners should try fixing the sorry state of their own media before trying to analyze what is behind China’s forays into the African continent. And, by the way, the BBC is also State-run. Anyone who thinks otherwise is quite naive. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/9055183/BBC-admits-receiving-millions-in-grants-from-EU-and-councils.html

  11. Kehinde says:

    Oh My God!
    Kehinde, would you please campaign for chief Journalist of the Federation, Please, Please , Please.
    Nigerians and Africans need to be educated very well about the EVILS of the Western media towards Africa.
    If not for lots of Africans who migrated to the West to study, most westerners would still be thinking that every African has his own personal Cecil the Lion and Tarzan, with whom he swings sleeps and eats.
    The ridiculousness and the Idiocy of the west leave much to be desired.
    They are AFRAID of mingling with the black Man , ewe! but are afraid China is taking over their space everywhere.
    They cannot prevent the rise of China and will find out eventually they are becoming less useful to the world as time goes on.
    You cannot stop evolution.

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