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June 11, 2018

How media and film can help China grow its soft power in Africa

By Yu-Shan Wu, Research Associate at the Africa-China Reporting Project. Originally published on The Conversation.

Some observers of China’s global rise conclude that its influence is limited to military and economic capabilities. For example, it’s set to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy before 2030. There is one area in which China lags behind. That’s the use of “soft power”. It’s a phrase coined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye to describe the intangible resources that help a nation achieve its interests by influencing the preferences of others.

Take the popularity of Hollywood films, as a conveyor of American values. They are an unofficial and formidable source of US global influence. But China’s influence could be changing, as suggested by recent developments in media and film, specifically in Africa.

It clearly matters in the highest echelons. China’s President Xi Jinping has recently encouraged the media to,

tell China’s story well, spread China’s voice well, let the world know a three-dimensional, colourful China…

China has since the 1950s assisted African governments with media facilities and organised journalist and technical media exchanges.

However, the drive to promote its own narrative originated from the 2008 financial crisis. Its economic resilience and expanding links abroad were put under the spotlight. Coupled with this, was its hosting of the Beijing Olympics in the same year. Yet, at the time its role in places like Darfur and Zimbabwe was criticised by foreign activists and reported by third party news.

That sparked China’s drive to directly engage with audiences in strategic regions of the world, by establishing broadcast centres in global capitals such as London, Moscow, Nairobi and Washington.

Already since 2012 China has been actively reporting to and covering Africa. The main players include China Central Television, which was rebranded as China Global Television Network in 2016, and China Daily’s Africa Edition.

Viewership and readership numbers remain uncertain, as does commercial viability. But these players are adding diverse sources and voices in their reports, including room for African perspectives. There is also increased interaction between Chinese and local African media staff who are working together on a daily basis.

These developments have even stirred other news media organisations, who have themselves reported on it.

Questions may linger over the true impact of China’s ability to compete and win African hearts and minds. But its role is not static. Chinese media engagement is advancing and includes the provision of telecommunications hardware, to facilitate greater mobile access, as well as affordable pay-TV service providers. These linkages confirm that China’s image is also, to an extent, built open its constructive commercial and infrastructure role on the continent.

Deep pockets

Film is another area that could benefit China’s soft power. It highlights the country’s deep pockets and potential for wider audience appeal. This is demonstrated by the deepening role of Chinese conglomerates in Hollywood. An example is the Beijing Wanda Group’s acquisition (estimated at $3.5 billion) of the film studio, Legendary Pictures, who together co-produced “The Great Wall”, starring Matt Damon.

Similar interest in engaging the South African film market is developing, albeit not yet to the extent of China’s interest in Hollywood. The highest-ranking production (estimated earning USD$852 million) in China for 2017 was “Wolf Warrior 2” – it was filmed in parts of South Africa, including in Durban, Soweto and Alexandra.

The action film centres on a war hero who defends medical aid workers in a fictitious African country. At a local movie reception, Ambassador Lin Songtian of the Chinese embassy in South Africa, described it as,

an excellent Chinese film that carries forward patriotic enthusiasm and friendship between China and Africa.

China’s role in the local film industry could be increasing in other ways.

First is the establishment of shared film festivals, such as the China–Africa International Film Festival launched in 2017. South Africa will be hosting the upcoming third BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Film Festival, which coincides with its hosting of the tenth BRICS Summit in July. This is an added opportunity to share best practises and drive investment and consumption in respective film industries.

Second, South African film makers are being awarded scholarships to study in China, for instance at the Beijing Film Academy. This forms part of the surge in Anglophone African students seeking education in China. Last year, China surpassed the US and European Union as the primary destination for these African students.

Finally, films are providing platforms to build new China-Africa narratives. A good example is “Golden Lion and the Red Dragon”. This South African-Chinese co-production, which is still in development, is set against the construction of America’s transcontinental railroad during the 1900s, built by Chinese and African slave labour.

One of the film’s South African producers, Mayenzeke Baza of AAA Entertainment, emphasised in our discussion the development of China-Africa narratives as a “two-way street”. He added that there is a real hunger for foreign content in China.

While there are still quotas on the number of foreign films in the Chinese market, his company stated in another interview that there are gaps for filmmakers targeting China, specifically those with stories of “cultural cohesiveness”.

Largest film market

It may still be some years before China’s economy overtakes America’s, but it is already the largest film market as of the first quarter of 2018. Moreover, it has the funds to finance film productions outside of China. These facts will increasingly matter for emerging film markets – like South Africa – that could become significant contributors to national incomes.

The ConversationChina is slowly but surely becoming a noteworthy player outside of the financial and military spheres. What remains to be seen is whether its engagement in the film and media space can motivate deeper interaction between Chinese and other societies, expanding its soft power.

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