By Huang Hongxiang.
One China-Africa observer from the US recently pointed out that “Chinese companies in Africa are not that different from western companies on environmental protection, labor treatment and so on. The biggest difference is really about them being terrible at communication”.
Based on my three years’ intensive interaction with Chinese companies in Africa, this is very much on the mark: Because of language barriers (though a minor issue actually), culture (the less you talk the wiser you seem), rigid company management systems (no communication allowed unless the boss approves), and a lack of understanding on the media and NGOs, there is a huge communication gap affecting Chinese companies in Africa.
This gap has created two isolated narratives: In the Chinese one, Chinese companies are making great sacrifices in Africa to help the continent, while jealous westerners use NGOs and the media to attack the China-Africa friendship; in the global one, Chinese companies are exploiting Africa, polluting the environment and smuggling ivory and rhino horns.
This communication gap is like a tripwire inherent in each Chinese restaurant, China-constructed building, and China-invested factory in Africa. But because of projects like the Africa-China Reporting Project, the appearance of Chinese journalists in Africa are starting to address this communication gap.
You may say there have been Chinese journalists in Africa for a long time: CCTV, Xinhua News and so on. However, the limitations of SOE-style Chinese media have prevented them from serving as an effective communication bridge. In fact, because Chinese companies in Africa are so used to the style of CCTV and Chinese state media (for example, journalists can provide Chinese companies with story drafts from them to make suggestions and edits before publication), they may have even more challenges in working with local and global media who do not behave in this way.
Chinese journalists from market-oriented media in China are different: They care less about “propaganda” (a term many Chinese companies fail to understand the negative implications of in English), they just want to tell exciting and balanced stories.
And different than western media, these Chinese journalists can gain access to Chinese business communities in Africa, which most non-Chinese journalists would fail to do, or they would at least not be able to understand Chinese communities in Africa as thoroughly.
These Chinese journalists from market-oriented media write in both Chinese and English: In Chinese for people in China to better understand Chinese companies in Africa: There is much more business than aid, there are challenges and conflicts as well as successes; and in English for people in Africa and the rest of the world to hear from Chinese companies in Africa: They are not as bad as you think.
In China, because the true situation of Chinese companies in Africa can seldom be portrayed in full, sometimes Chinese companies can take advantage of such communication gaps: They may say to their Chinese stakeholders that they are very respected in Africa, while the truth is much less so; they could explain to their headquarters that any failures is because of attacks from malevolent anti-China powers instead of their own mistakes.
For global media, despite the likes of BBC, CNN, New York Times, Al Jazeera etc. all having the journalistic objective of being objective and balanced, in practice the results are far from ideal. And this is understandable: These journalists usually have poor access to Chinese business communities in Africa because of communication gaps, to the extent that you rarely find Chinese people’s quotations in their stories. How could you tell a balanced story without even hearing from one side?
Case in point: Al Jazeera poaching documentary
The recent Al Jazeera documentary about Chinese rhino horn traffickers in South Africa (Al Jazeera Investigates - The Poachers Pipeline) is a perfect example. If the filmmakers had managed to talk to some Chinese people who understand Chinese communities in Africa (in a open way, instead of undercover), it could have been much more balanced. I remember some words from a Chinese person in the Al Jazeera film was used to “prove” Xi Jinping’s delegation trafficked ivory and rhino horn from South Africa to China.
If the film crew had done some interviews with Chinese communities in Africa, they could have made it better understood how many Chinese people, like any human beings in the world, would in daily life say things they do not necessarily know for a fact, and that this could not be used as if it is evidence without fact checking. When I was in eastern DRC some people told me that UN flights are trafficking diamonds out of the country. It could be true, but I cannot record this undercover and put it in a film without doing some fact checking about how trustworthy the claim is and how likely the person would be to know such a thing.
If the film crew had asked someone with insight on Chinese communities in Africa, they would know that there could be many so-called Chinese delegations visiting Africa. These could consist of business people or local government officials (even from the township and village levels) who would come to Africa at the same time as official visits by Chinese politicians and call themselves “delegations”, but in fact they have nothing to do with the official delegation.
With a bit more research the film crew would ascertain that among the official delegation there are also many business people who come along and they are usually the ones smuggling things back to China, if it actually does happen. They would also know that even if a low level government official (such as a bodyguard) in the government delegation secretly smuggles ivory back to China, it could not be interpreted as “Chinese government smuggles ivory”, or “Xi Jinping’s delegation smuggles ivory”. One government official in the US could smuggle drugs, even if the whole US government is against it. You could not catch one person in the government and say he represents the whole US government.
If the film crew had managed to get more insights, they would even know that since a few years ago, Chinese government delegations to Africa have had very strict internal warnings against smuggling things like ivory back to China. Therefore, it is highly unlikely – but of course still possible – that Chinese official government delegations to FOCAC in South Africa would smuggle ivory and so on, considering the benefits and risks.
Such gaps in understanding is not entirely the fault of non-Chinese journalists who try to write about Chinese business in Africa. We could not expect them to understand subtle differences and complicated dynamics among Chinese communities in Africa, especially given that the Chinese community in Africa is a very closed community. But the emergence of Chinese journalists could better fill the existing gaps for a more open and healthy China-Africa dialogue.
Huang Hongxiang is the founder and CEO of China House.