By Emeka Umejei.
Chinese media expansion into Africa has elicited widespread debate among scholars and practitioners on its impact on journalism and democracy on the African continent. These concerns are informed by the modus operandi of the domestic media in China, where the interest of the party-state is perceived to be superior to other interests.
Chinese media expansion into Africa
The ‘going out’ campaign of Chinese media was launched in response to the Western media’s framing of events leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Some of these events include the deaths of several construction workers at the Bird’s Nest Stadium, Steven Spielberg’s protest over China’s position on Darfur, the Communist Party’s campaign to eradicate Falun Gong and allegations that Chinese media censored the news of Tibetan riots. The perceived ‘anti-Chinese’ coverage of these events in the Western media came to a head on April 9, 2008, when Cable News Network (CNN)’s Situation Room host, Jack Cafferty described Chinese products as “junk,” and remarked that “Chinese people were basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years”. This attracted strong condemnation from the Chinese government and CNN was compelled to issue a public apology, and Chinese authorities expressed displeasure over what they saw as the western media’s “willful determination to misunderstand China” on several issues including Tibet and Falun Gong.
On the other hand, increasing bilateral trade between China and Africa also provides an important background to China’s media expansion as it has been accompanied by waves of perceived ‘misinformation’ that China was giving aid only to resources-rich countries in Africa. In response, the Chinese government is eager to balance international media coverage of China’s engagement with Africa.
China has framed its media expansion into Africa as telling the true African story to a global audience. This was highlighted by Liu Guangyuan, former Chinese Ambassador to Kenya, at a seminar on China-Africa media cooperation in Nairobi in 2013. “The fact is that only a small number of countries monopolize the international media discourse. In this ongoing conspiracy, both the images of China and those of Africa have suffered gross distortions. It is unacceptable to continue to portray Africa as a continent overtaken by poverty, war and turmoil. It is also unethical to force a bad image on China-Africa relations. Indeed, China and Africa should flatly refuse to be part of this insincere scheme,” said Liu.
“The Chinese and African media should strengthen capacity building to enhance their international clout. We particularly commend the African media for their efforts in supporting self-determination and resisting neo-colonisation. On our part, Chinese media are ready to fully cooperate with their African counterparts in order to improve their capacity for communication and global recognition. Through this way, we shall tell the ‘story of China’, the ‘story of Africa’ and the ‘story of China-Africa friendship’ to the global audience.” Liu’s statement presents a point of departure for examining whether Chinese media organisations in Africa tell the true African story or whether they tell a Chinese version of the African story.
What is the African story?
What constitutes an African story? What are its components? In order to tell an African story, it is important to understand what it means to be African. In his book, Africa’s Media, Democracy and the Politics of Belonging, Professor Francis Nyamnjoh of the University of Cape Town explains what it means to be African: “It is to be a social actor or actress enmeshed in a particular context that has been and continues to be shaped by a history of connections and disconnections informed by interconnecting local and global hierarchies.” He explained further that journalists form part of a race or an ethnicity that constitute the communities in which they perform their duty. Hence, journalists are human beings that are located within a specific socio-historical context. In his 1979 Reith Lecture, African Condition, Professor Ali Mazrui identified “five different cleavages” troubling Africa namely religion, ethnicity, ideology, nationality and class. This means that a narrative of Africa that is devoid of its ethnicity and religion cannot provide a true representation of the African story. This correlates with Nyamnjoh’s thesis that journalism that downplays the African personhood and belonging is “hardly in tune with the quest by Africans for equality of humanity and for expression, recognition and representation” It is, therefore, relevant to ask whether Chinese media organisations, in their attempt and framing of win-win and mutuality that inform China-Africa relations, reflect issues that pertain to African humanity and identities.
Dual structure and agency in Chinese media
Drawing on my extensive interviews with African journalists working at CCTV, Xinhua and the China Daily newspaper in Nairobi, Kenya, it was established that there are two organisational levels of journalistic agency within Chinese media organisations based in Africa. This is also reflected in the categories of stories that African journalists are likely to be able to cover within Chinese media organisations. Some stories are supposedly the exclusive preserve of Chinese journalists. For instance, stories that impact negatively on China’s image in Africa are most likely to be covered by Chinese journalists. African journalists do not have autonomy to cover these kinds of stories because it involves Chinese interests and the Chinese management in Kenya are cautious about how such stories will be received by senior government officials in Beijing.
In the same vein, there are two editorial conferences in Chinese media organisations based in Africa. There are editorial conferences between Chinese editors and local African journalists in Nairobi; and another between Chinese editors and their colleagues in Beijing. The motive of the two editorial conferences is to ensure that officials in Beijing are kept abreast of developments in Africa and that content produced by African journalists does not offend Chinese interests on the continent. For instance, China Daily holds two editorial conferences on Wednesdays and Fridays every week. The local version takes place on Wednesdays in its Nairobi office, where journalists propose story ideas; and the transnational version takes place on Fridays in Beijing, where story ideas that have been proposed in Africa are either approved or rejected. This pattern of editorial conference is similar across the three Chinese media organisations under study. However, African journalists are excluded from the transnational editorial conferences between Nairobi and Beijing.
This dual structure and agency also finds expression in the editing process and journalistic agency in which Chinese journalists have higher agency than African journalists. There is an African level of gatekeeping that is occupied by African editors, and a Chinese level occupied by Chinese editors. The Chinese editors are on the final level of gatekeeping while African editors are on the second tier. There are certain categories of stories that can only be authorised by editors that are based in Beijing. For instance, stories that concern Chinese economic and political interests on the African continent are filtered by Chinese colleagues in Beijing while other kinds of stories are filtered in Nairobi.
Chinese media downplay African agency and belonging
The dual structure and agency that exist within Chinese media organisations in Africa result in journalism that de-emphasises African agency and belonging. A particular example was the visit of the Pope to Kenya in 2015. African journalists working in Chinese media organisations in Africa explained that they were not allowed to cover the Pope. Most of them expressed displeasure that they could not cover the Pope when other international media organisations reported extensively on the visit of the Catholic pontiff to East Africa. This is an emotional issue as some of these African journalists are Christians who would have been glad to cover the Pope.
On the other hand, some African journalists also disclosed that matters that pertain to ethnicity are not welcome in Chinese media organisations. This is also significant consideration that ethnicity plays an important role in Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, it becomes pertinent to argue that Chinese media organisations in Africa are not telling the true African story to a global audience, rather they are telling a Chinese version of the African story to a Chinese audience.
Emeka Umejei is a PhD candidate in Journalism and Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
 See Deborah Brautigam’s The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, especially page 3