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May 23, 2024

Media wars: A comparative assessment of the role of US-China media outlets in the battle for digital hegemony in Africa

By Thomas Lethoba, Digital Media Project Assistant, The Africa-China Reporting Project. First Published in The Africa Governance Papers, Volume 1 | Issue 4 | October 2023 by Good Governance Africa.

Abstract

Between 2017 and 2018, US President Donald Trump introduced a Section 301 investigation into China’s trade practices following allegations of unfair trade practices against China (Bown & Kolb, 2018). The battlelines first emerged when China surpassed the US in 2009 to become Africa’s largest trading partner, having signed bilateral trade agreements with over 40 countries in the African continent. By the second decade of the 2000s, the rise of the digital economy, estimated to grow at between 15% and 25% annually in emerging countries (WEF, 2017), drew Africa into the crosshairs of the US-China trade war.

Between 2018 and 2023, over 36 Chinese high-tech companies were blacklisted by the US, citing concerns over national security (Sevastopulo et al., 2022). Against this background, the article places the US-China standoff over digital supremacy in Africa in a media context, bringing novel dimensions into consideration that illuminate a media war focused on competing hegemonic agendas.

The article springboards off Bastiansen et al. (2019, pp. 5-8) to argue that the trade war between the two countries presents an ideal setting to study partisan and elite perspectives reflected in news reporting on the international conflict. By expanding the scope of analysis to the media as a mode of information, the article’s main departure point is that the trade war between the two countries that began in 2009, when China surpassed the US to become Africa’s largest trading partner, is being interlocuted through the agency of soft power, with media outlets playing a pivotal role in shaping public biases.

A central theme emerging from the research is that media publications have clear biases. Generally, the US news media outlets analysed are heavily critical of the Chinese government and its cutting-edge technologies in Africa. In contrast, the popular Chinese media outlets analysed adopt a defensive stance in their responses to the US. Revealing this through thematic analysis can contribute valuable insights into the dynamics of the tech war between China and the US.

Introduction

Two headline stories in 2018 and 2019 drew public attention to the centrality of digital data and its political ramifications in the developing contest between the United States (US) and China for global dominance of the 21st-century digital landscape. Widespread media reportage of the arrest of Huawei’s deputy chair and Chief Financial Officer, Meng Wanzhou, on 1 December 2018 at Vancouver airport on charges of wire fraud seemed to draw new battlelines in the developing trade war between the two global powers.

A bid by the US to extradite Meng failed when the charges were dropped, and Meng was released. Still, US media outlets’ initial portrayal of Meng as a villain exemplified the complex and strained relations between the US and Chinese corporate tech giants. A year later, in August 2019, The Wall Street Journal ran a story under the headline, “Huawei Technicians Helped African Governments Spy on Political Opponents” (Parkinson et al., 2019). The report accused Huawei Technologies Co., described in the article as “a Chinese technology powerhouse”, of “personally helping African governments spy on their political opponents, including intercepting their encrypted communications and social media and using cell data to track their whereabouts“ (Parkinson et al., 2019).

When both stories eventually ran cold, the damage to Huawei’s reputation lingered in the public imagination. There is no exact starting date for the use of big data and the media as a form of soft power, understood as the battle for hearts and minds, but we can trace the full embrace of this form of soft power to the 2012 US presidential elections as justification for a technological turn in the narratives round contestations for control. Having earned the appellation of “big data president”, Barrack Obama’s strategy revealed something more profound about the shifts in public attitude toward data and the scope of the fields to which data analysis could be applied. His successful campaign led some reporters to declare that we are entering a new political era, “where data scientists have pushed out the … experts“ and where hard data proves the invalidity and obsolescence of “political instinct“ (Vos, 2012; Scherer, 2012; Horsey, 2012).

Several months after the election day, Wired magazine speculated on the success formula for the next US president in 2016 as “Big Data + Social Data = Your Next President“ (Chahal, 2013). Shortly after his election as Obama’s successor in January 2017, Donald Trump made one of his top priorities the introduction of a Section 301 investigation into China’s trade practices following allegations of unfair trade practices against China (Bown & Kolb, 2018).

Around that time, the rise of the digital economy – estimated to grow at between 15% and 25% annually in emerging countries (WEF, 2017) – drew Africa into the crosshairs of the US-China trade war. Between 2018 and 2023, the US blacklisted over 36 Chinese high-tech companies, citing concerns over national security (Sevastopulo et al., 2022).

Shortly after the ban, the US tech giant Google stopped licensing its Android operating system to Huawei. So severe was the blow to Huawei’s sales that, by the first quarter of 2021, the Chinese tech giant was elbowed off the list of the top five smartphones worldwide (Sevastopulo et al., 2022). The US Department of Commerce deals with national security and high technology issues. Since its Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) introduced its Entity List in 2019, the US has urged its allies in the rest of the world to be cautious of permitting Chinese tech firms to do business in their countries, citing data breaches and national security risks (Kurtenbach, 2022). This has been interpreted as a strategic move by the US to reduce China’s global footprint in what has been characterised as the biggest trade war in economic history (The New York Times, 2018).

As the China-US Tech emerged as a combustible key issue between the two superpowers, various media outlets in the US and China have shed light on different aspects of the China-US Tech War. In light of this emerging power dynamic, ongoing discourses on US-China rivalry thus require serious scholarly examination into the mode of data, and more importantly, the role of the media as a mode of information dissemination and, therefore, soft power. Against this background, the article places the US-China standoff over digital supremacy in Africa in a media context, bringing novel dimensions into consideration that illuminate a media war focused on competing hegemonic agendas.

The article springboards off Bastiansen et al. (2019, pp. 5-8) to argue that the war between the two countries presents an ideal setting to study partisan and elite perspectives reflected in news reporting on the international conflict. By expanding the scope of analysis to the media as a mode of information, the article’s main departure point is that the trade war between the two countries that began in 2009, when China surpassed the US to become Africa’s largest trading partner, is being interlocuted through the agency of soft power, with media outlets playing a pivotal role in shaping public biases.

The broad approach of the article is a comparative review, through an assessment of sources and descriptors in stories generated by Chinese and US media outlets, the role played by the media in shaping public opinion in the hope that we may add a new layer of understanding to the ongoing rivalry
between the two powers.

The findings reveal that content produced by Chinese state-owned print media publications has emphasised positive reporting in their strategy to counter the US by publishing content that is neutral and balanced to debunk myths. On the other hand, the US has tended to politicise technological issues and use them as ideological tools (MFA News, 2023). Much of this concerns media reflections of a more aggressive stance by the US to clamp down on globally competitive Chinese high-tech enterprises and place Chinese tech firms on the BIS entity list.

The following section presents data collection methods for media analysis. Section 3 summarises themes emerging from a comparative content review of selected US and Chinese media content on the strategic postures of the US and China in the African digital landscape. Section 4 deepens the understanding of the dominant themes by focusing on the reportage of allegations of cyber espionage against Huawei in Zambia. Section 5 discusses the findings conceptually, while section 6 concludes.

Methodology

McCombs & Shaw (1972) coined the term “Agenda Setting”, understood as “the power to structure issues in the media in such a way that people think about what they are told, but at no level do they think what they are told”. The agenda-setting hypothesis could be presented thus:

  • Public debate is represented by salient issues.
  • The agenda derives from a combination of public opinion and political choice.
  • Mass media news and information reflect the content and order of priority
  • This representation of issues in the mass media exerts an independent effect on issues and relative
    salience in public opinion.

The strategic question to be answered in the context of this article deals with reported information by selected US and Chine se media outlets. The content analysis deals with the following aspects:

  • The sources of information. (Who were they?)
  • Message content with an emphasis on social, political and economic matters
  • The role of news in shaping the dominant narrative.

In summary, what is the news agenda, and to what extent do media outlets deal with news as an agenda-setting narrative in the public domain? Drawing on McCombs & Shaw (1972), this paper uses content analysis to explore the media’s emerging narrative by analysing selected news articles from US and Chinese media outlets. A mainly qualitative structured method was used to examine how the agenda-setting media construct public understanding of news. By focusing on interpretation, not just quantification, the former helps uncover patterns in how meaning is constructed in media texts.

Since this article aims to study the role of media outlets in the tech war between the US and China, we saw the mode of gathering and interpreting data occurring through descriptive themes that could be carried forward in a way rigorous enough to facilitate discourse analysis and knowledge construction.

Content reviewed from the US and China ranges from 2012, when many US publications ran stories accusing Chinese Tech giants of cyber espionage, to 2017-2019, when Donald Trump triggered a fullscale cyber war with China. During the latter period, the Trump administration placed Chinese tech companies on the BIS Entity List until May 2023.

Since 2018, US and Chinese companies have been locked in an intense techno-war for supremacy in Africa, with media outlets in both countries engaged in smear campaigns against each other. Since an exploration of media reportage on US-China rivalry for digital hegemony in the African context needs to examine the question of coverage and media biases in the latter, thematic content analysis requires an inductive exploration of the construction of dominant narratives and whether reportage implicitly favours sectional accounts of the story. A structured qualitative content analysis on several newspaper reports included a mix of Chinese and US media outlets listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Select US and Chinese media outlets

Country Publication titleFrequencyOwnership status
United States
Quartz NewsPrivate
The New York TimesDaily
Private
The Diplomat
Private
The Wall Street Journal
Private
China
China DailyDaily State-owned
Global TimesState-owned
South China Morning
Post
Private
People’s Daily OnlineState-owned

According to Hallin & Mancini (2004), comparing media reportage necessitates a nuanced approach. Building on Hallin & Mancini, this article’s departure point is Wang Zhenhua’s studies on Appraisal Theory and The Study of News Reports (2001, pp. 13-20) that news reports should be fair, objective, and neutral. Understanding China’s and the US’s respective press regimes and journalistic traditions is necessary to compare the journalistic practices of the two countries.

While the US media system is regarded as a libertarian model – which means freedom of the press from censorship -the Chinese press is strictly regulated by the Communist-led government (Josephi, 2005). US news media outlets analysed due to their role in the tech war were The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Voice of America, Quartz News, The Financial Times, TechCrunch and The Diplomat. These media outlets were found to be sufficiently robust as data sources due to their firm readership, widespread coverage of the Chinese regime, and focused attention on the African continent.

Chinese media outlets analysed included the South China Morning Post, China Daily, People’s Daily Online and Global Times. These well-known publications with huge influence have been criticised for their pro-Chinese Communist Party slant in their reporting (Freedom House, 2022). They have covered the US- China technological war in a naturalistic approach and in response to news reports primarily from The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. A list of general themes emerging from more comprehensive reportage on the US and China in Africa was summarised.

To develop our argument at a more granular level, we leveraged data from US media articles on Huawei’s alleged involvement in aiding the Zambian government by providing data used to spy on opposition parties and movements. The reports were coded for sources to establish who the primary definers of the story were. The source analysis included people and organisations quoted directly or who provided information that formed part of the basis of the article. The selected articles were coded for lexical choice of key terms as these expose the underlying semantic frames used in defining the event.

These semantic frames may, in turn, point to the opinions and biases of the article (Hansen et al., 1998). A distinction has been drawn between nominal and descriptive characterisations. The former concerns itself with value-neutral descriptions of events, while the latter makes judgments about the report. This aspect of the analysis mainly focused on the choice of terms used to describe the Huawei incident and whether these choices could be considered nominal or descriptive characterisations. The emphasis was thus on an interpretation of content and not the reader’s experience of content.

Themes emerging from a comparative review of US and Chinese media reportage

A review of select reportage by US and Chinese media outlets on US-China rivalry in Africa can be grouped under several general, exploratory topics used to develop the argument at a more granular level in the case study on Zambia and further analysis and interpretation in the discussion section. To analyse the content material, a search navigation was used to retrieve news items for all included media outlets in the paper depending on the country: “the United States publication viewpoint on Chinese technologies in Africa” or “Chinese publications retaliation on the Tech War“ with the relevant keyword to make an argument in this paper.

They can be summarised thus:

US Media coverage on the dominance of Chinese-manufactured smartphones

Figure 1: Mobile Vendor Market Share Worldwide, June 2022 – May 2023

Chinese media outlets’ interpretation of Techno War and debunking myths of data breaches

Contrary to reportage in US media publications of unfair trade practices against China, Chinese popular media outlets across a sample of platforms, including online news publications such as the South China Morning Post, China Daily, Global Times Daily and People’s Daily Online, viewed the claims of US media outlets as a direct attack, through false accusations, against China intended to impede the country’s economic growth. Chinese news publications were reacting to news reports, particularly in The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. These outlets have been regarded as highly popular, with the highest-rating sites, according to China Whisper (Wang, 2014).

In response to The Wall Street Journal article on Huawei employees deployed to help political parties in Uganda and Zambia to conduct espionage against opposition figures, Klein (2019) stated in an article published in South China Morning Post that Huawei refuted a US media report about the tech company aiding the governments of Uganda and Zambia to spy on political opponents, with Huawei’s legal representative demanding an apology from the US publication as the article did not have substantial evidence to the claims made (Klein, 2019). The Chinese publication Global Times defended Huawei, stating that the US’s attack on China was an attempt to slander Huawei and diminish China’s credibility, technological expansion, and market dominance in the African continent (Wenping, 2019).

The Global Times slammed the article published in The Wall Street Journal and as an old trick by the US to discredit Huawei (Wenping, 2019). In light of the US’s entity list to restrict Chinese tech companies, Global Times took a different stance, claiming that Africa had become an increasingly important location for Chinese tech firms’ global expansion despite the US’ threats (FT Stass reporters, 2022).

In an interview with the Global Times, Fu Liang, an independent tech expert, stated that Huawei and ZTE, among other Chinese tech giants with established footprints in the African continent, are powerful and strongly impact the African market (FT Staff reporters, 2022).

Tight US-China competition over social network platforms in Africa

As the internet advances, social media platforms have become a communications mainstay for billions of individual users on global corporations such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, WhatsApp, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and WeChat. In 2021, over 4.26 billion people were using social media worldwide, estimated to climb to over six billion in 2027 (Statista, 2022). In January 2022, Statista reported that US social network platforms were dominant players globally, with Facebook leading, followed by YouTube and WhatsApp (Statista, 2022).

China has recently entered the race to dominate social media platforms and their users, expanding its investment footprint into platforms such as TikTok and WeChat. The growth of these apps has not occurred without tensions between China and the US over the scramble by their respective news media for supremacy. Particularly noteworthy was an attack by Quartz News on Chinese social media platforms WeChat and TikTok, alleging that WeChat posed a national security risk.

Comparative analysis and interpretation

Data

Identifying the role of media content in constructing dominant narratives of US-China rivalry in Africa entails identifying trends in media content, defining the criteria for content, and then applying the latter to conceptions of the political role of media outlets, media content and audiences. By the approach of this article, we unpacked the themes that emerged from an assessment of the sample of publications. In this section, we present an analysis of the findings. This included analysing the lexical biases of Chinese and US reportage and their descriptors. We also examined how the different perspectives corresponded, overlapped or contradicted each other.

US media coverage on the dominance of Chinese-manufactured smartphones

Quartz News’ stance on Chinese-made mobile phones

Despite the apparent surge in China’s market share, Quartz News accused Transsion Holdings, the China-based phone manufacturer, of click fraud malware installed in Chinese-made phones. The report was published shortly after Transsion reported a boom in Africa’s mobile market. It claimed that over 844,000 Transsion phones were sold preinstalled with harmful malware, which downloaded subscription apps and signed users up for paid services without their knowledge (Kazeem, 2020).

Quartz News (Ngila, 2022) reported that the rollout of the 5G network in Africa between 2020 and 2022 deepened the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China. The US government cut off Huawei operations in the US in May 2019, citing security concerns. Rest of World, a global nonprofit publication focused on the impact of technology, saw this move as an attempt by the US to retain its global power (Idris, 2021). During this period, analysts predicted that the Chinese 5G rollout would add $2.2 trillion to Africa’s economy by 2034. Other analysts have since weighed, arguing that the US is far behind China in the race for 5G network rollout in Africa (Ngila, 2022).

  • The Wall Street Journal’s stance on Huawei’s growth

The growing prominence of Huawei in Africa sparked criticism against the Chinese tech giant from some media houses in the US. They accused Huawei of selling products containing security holes that China’s government could use for spying (Berman et al., 2023).

Chief among them was The Wall Street Journal, which was strongly critical of Huawei’s significant growth; it published an article accusing Huawei of cyber-espionage and labelling the company a national security threat (Strumpf et al., 2018). The media smear emerged just as the Chinese tech giant began rolling out massive ICT infrastructure across sub-Saharan African countries and pledged to increase its investments further pursuant to digital transformation in other parts of Africa where it had not yet achieved market dominance in ICT innovations (Berman et al., 2023).

  • The Diplomat’s criticism of Huawei’s involvement in cyber-espionage

Notwithstanding China’s success in rolling out Huawei phones in countries such as Zambia, Egypt and Uganda, The Diplomat lambasted China’s market presence in some African countries, claiming that African governments used China and its tech companies as a disciplinary whip to repress people’s freedom. Some observers stated that Huawei built a data centre to help the Zambian government to spy on political opponents (Kulantzick, 2020). The same strategy was applied to Uganda, where Huawei helped the government monitor political rivals (Kurlantzick, 2020). The Diplomat reported that China breached cyber security and stole the African Union’s data, accusing the Chinese government of transferring data from the African Union offices in Kenya to China over five years using Huawei IT equipment.

  • Voice of America’s criticism of China’s distribution of high-tech wires

Voice of America (VOA) published an article criticising China’s issuance of the high-tech wires, claiming they were bogus ultra-high frequency signals (Xie, 2020). In the article, VOA claimed that hundreds of thousands of high-tech wireless towers for 5G were not fully operational. The article went on to criticise China’s project pipeline.

  • The Wall Street Journal, Quartz News and The New York Times smear campaign against Huawei

The growing prominence of Huawei in Africa sparked criticism against the Chinese tech giant from some media houses in the US. Publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Diplomat, Reuters and The New York Times accused Huawei of selling products containing security holes that China’s government could use for spying purposes.

The media smear emerged just as the Chinese tech giant began rolling out massive ICT infrastructure across sub-Saharan African countries and pledged to increase its investments further pursuant to digital transformation in other parts of Africa where it had not yet achieved market dominance in ICT innovations (Council on Foreign Relations, 2023).

US digital publications primarily focused on the theme of Huawei as a national security threat to the US and the world without providing coherent, logical evidence, and the narrative of the articles published from the three selected publications hard-pressed countries across the globe, especially in Africa to be suspicious of the company’s spying allegations.

  • In an article, The Wall Street Journal author Siobhan Gorman accused Huawei of cyber-espionage and labelling the tech giant as a national security threat while noting that Huawei may have violated United States laws. (The Wall Street Journal, 2012).
  • The Wall Street Journal’s article claimed that Huawei provided the Zambian government with technology that intercepted encrypted data and used cellphone data to spy on political opponents.
  • The Wall Street Journal also alleged that similar information about the Ugandan government was disseminated (Parkinson, 2019).
  • Reuters stipulated in an article that the rollout of Huawei’s 5G network poses a cyber security risk and alleged against Huawei that they have such applications that are spying on Huawei consumers worldwide without giving a shred of logical evidence. (Reuters, 2021).
  • The New York Times (2019) published an article raising a concern that Huawei’s computer chips can
    be easily manipulated, which positioned users at high risk. Furthermore, the article narrowed down
    on how these chips are not made in the US; therefore, the engineers who designed and programmed them can slip a back door and make fabricated applications to extract confidential data for fraudulent activities.
  • Notwithstanding China’s success in rolling out Huawei phones in countries such as Zambia, Egypt
    and Uganda, The Diplomat lambasted China’s market presence in some African countries, claiming
    that African governments were using China and its tech companies as a disciplinary whip to repress
    people’s freedom (Kulantzick, 2020).
  • Some observers stated that Huawei built a data centre to help the Zambian government to spy on political opponents (Kulantzick, 2020). The same strategy was applied to Uganda, where Huawei helped the government monitor political rivals. The Diplomat reported that China breached cyber security and stole the African Union’s data, accusing the Chinese government of transferring data from the African Union offices in Kenya to China over five years using Huawei IT equipment (Kurlantzick, 2020).

Table 2: US media articles discrediting Huawei

Publication List of topics covered
to discredit Huawei
Number of articles
published
Publication years
The Wall Street
Huawei flagged as a
possible spy threat &
US asks allies to shun
Huawei equipment
Over 28 articles were published accusing Huawei of cyber-espionage.
2012, 2018, 2019,
2020, 2021 & 2022
ReutersU.S. flags Huawei’s 5G
mobile infrastructure
citing network security
concerns
11 articles were published in relation to the alleged cybersecurity
risks related to 5G networks, and
how the US convinced its allies to
back their bill that effectively bars
China from rolling out 5G.
2019, 2020 & 2023
The New York
Times
Huawei has a secret
back door to extracting
data
At least 6 related articles published raised a concern that Huawei’s computer chips can be easily
manipulated, and this positioned
users to be at high risk.
2019, 2020 & 2021

The number of articles listed in Table 2 shows the extent to which US publications’ news coverage centred on discrediting Huawei and trying to lobby the world to restrict Huawei in their countries. In these articles, publications drew on US government statements and opinions from non-objective analysts. They concluded that people are worried about Huawei technologies amid security concerns. However, none of these allegations were confirmed. Rest of World, a global nonprofit publication focused on the impact of technology, saw this as an attempt by the US to retain its global power (Idris, 2021).

During this period, analysts predicted that China’s 5G rollout would add $2.2 trillion to Africa’s economy by 2034 (Ngila, 2022). Other analysts have since weighed in, arguing that the US is far behind China in the race for 5G network rollout in Africa (Ngila, 2022).

Chinese media coverage of the dominance of Chinese-manufactured smartphones

  • Global Times’ positive stance on growth in Africa

In light of US restrictions on Chinese IT firms, Global Times took a different stance, claiming that Africa had become an increasingly important location for Chinese tech firms’ global expansion (FT Stass reporters, 2022). In an interview with the Global Times, Fu Liang, an independent tech expert, stated that Huawei and ZTE, among other Chinese tech titans with established footprints in the African continent, were strengthening the African market where Chinese enterprises were not subject to restrictions (FT Staff reporters, 2022).

  • Global Times’ defence of Huawei

The Global Times defended Huawei, stating that the US’s attack on China was an attempt to slander Huawei and diminish China’s credibility, technological expansion and market dominance in the African continent (Wenping, 2019). The Global Times slammed the article published in The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post as an old trick by the US to discredit Huawei (Wenping, 2019). The pact was denounced by Global Times as “very irresponsible“ (BBC, 2019). Despite the apparent surge in China’s market share, Quartz News held the opposite view, accusing Transsion Holdings, the China-based phone manufacturer, of click fraud malware installed in Chinese-made phones.

The report was published shortly after Transsion reported a business boom in Africa’s mobile market. Quartz News claimed that over 844,000 Transsion phones were sold preinstalled with harmful malware that downloaded subscription apps and signed users up for paid services without their knowledge (Quartz News, 2020).

The publication further claimed that even though Transsion suggested that the malware problems were fully resolved, the impact will lead to distrust of Chinese products in some African markets and their association with being counterfeits.

US media perspectives on Chinese social network presence in Africa

  • Quartz News, TechCrunch and The Washington Post

As the internet advances, social media platforms have become a communications mainstay for billions of individual users on global platform firms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, WhatsApp, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and WeChat. In 2021, over 4.26 billion people were using social media worldwide, estimated to climb to over six billion in 2027 (Statista, 2022). In January 2022, Statista reported that US social network platforms were dominant players globally, with Facebook leading, followed by YouTube and WhatsApp (Statista, 2022).

China has recently entered the race to dominate social media platforms and their users, expanding its investment footprint into platforms such as TikTok and WeChat. Notably, there was an attack by Quartz News on Chinese social media platforms WeChat and TikTok, alleging that WeChat posed a national security risk (Sonnad, 2017). The same publication also accused WeChat of censorship. The article, entitled, What happens when you try to send politically sensitive messages on WeChat (Sonnad, 2017), was published as part of a campaign by Quartz News to back then US president Donald Trump’s ban on Chinese apps.

TechCrunch, an American publication strictly focusing on tech news, criticised TikTok, a Chinese online video-sharing social networking service, for fueling disinformation and political tension in Kenya ahead of the country’s general elections held in August 2022 (Njanja, 2022). The author Njanja (2022) stated that social media does not regulate disinformation and propaganda, and it hampered Kenya’s election outcomes. The Washington Post, in an article entitled, Why Dangerous Content Thrives on Facebook and TikTok in Kenya (Yang, 2020), also discredited TikTok, claiming that during Kenya’s elections, the app allowed hate speech and false information from political opponents. The article alleges that TikTok took advantage of Kenya’s weak regulatory regime.

Chinese media perspectives of US media accusations

  • South China Morning Post & China Daily

The South China Morning Post (Deng, 2022) argued that the Chinese company Tencent Holdings, which had invented WeChat, ran a pop-up notification denying rumours that it had restricted Shanghai-related posts to local users only. The publication also asserted that Trump was irrational to ban China’s two popular apps, TikTok and WeChat. The White House, under the new administration of Joe Biden, dropped Trump’s attempt to ban these applications. China Daily, owned by the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party, slammed the US ban on Chinese high-tech companies, including its social media platforms, as a blatant attack on China’s tech companies, further asserting that the US had been trading blows with Chinese tech companies (Jingxi, 2022).

In one noteworthy report, the publication accused the US of harbouring a long-standing agenda to blunt the competitive edge of Chinese high-tech companies by manufacturing smears in violation of the principles of fair competition and international trading rules.

Content analysis: Sources, primary definers and terms to describe stories

Suppose the central issue with which this article is concerned is the role of Chinese and US media outlets as interlocutors of US-China rivalry for digital hegemony in Africa. In that case, it is appropriate at this stage to discuss the sources, primary definers, and lexical terms of stories as cross-cutting themes. This analytical framing has the advantage of synthesising the data and analysis undertaken in this article as a more general set of conclusions.

Source analysis

Hallin and Mancini (2004) point out that comparing media systems necessitates a more sophisticated approach. We must first comprehend each country’s journalistic traditions and press institutions to compare journalistic methods in China and the US. While the US media system is regarded as a libertarian model – which means freedom of the press from censorship - the Chinese press is strictly regulated by the Communist-led government (Josephi, 2005, pp. 575–590).

Thus, US news media outlets extensively analysed and covered China’s digital sovereignty in Africa. Reportage in US publications also revealed how the US advised its key allies, especially sub-Saharan African countries, to be cautious about Chinese tech firms in a context of rising concerns that a growing number of African countries were forging closer trade and investment ties with China (Nyabiage, 2022).

US state authorities were the dominant sources of critique against Huawei in the dataset, followed by US big tech companies. Legal experts and policy experts followed. Chinese state authorities and Huawei accounted for the lowest of all source categories. Of these, only an official statement by Huawei denying wrongdoing was quoted in response to allegations of cyber espionage. Significantly, few US articles carried interviews with Huawei and state officials in Zambia. Of all the US media articles reviewed, only three showed any attempt by a journalist to obtain a balanced account of events. There is scant evidence of journalists having asked Zambian state officials accused of conspiring with Huawei to spy on government opponents the simplest and most basic question, namely, “What happened?” Overwhelmingly, they relied on official sources of information and US business perspectives for information and analysis. The US fears that the global predominance of Chinese technology firms such as DJI drone, Transsion and Huawei may give China a decisive competitive advantage in the looming global trade war between the two countries (Chafkin & Brustein, 2018). This indicates that ideology plays a significant role in shaping media narratives in China and the US. The sources also emphasise the importance of contextual factors and the relative importance of societal events in determining media coverage.

Primary definers

Both Huawei and Zambian state officials had an even smaller share of the primary definers of stories than they did as sources. The US state authority voice provided most of the source material for media coverage. However, it is essential to note that contextual factors and biases may influence the media’s portrayal of the tech war. Additionally, there is a need for more analysis of the key actors involved in the tech war. These actors, including members of Congress, the intelligence community, and think tank researchers, play a pivotal role in shaping and implementing policies related to the tech war.

Top terms used to describe stories

This aspect of the analysis focused on the terms used to describe the Huawei cyber espionage event in Zambia and whether these choices could be considered nominal or descriptive characterisations (Hansen et al., 1998, p. 109). The diversity of terms used to describe the event was telling. The word “cyber espionage” entered the lexicon of terms on the day the story broke but gradually declined in frequency over the period, to be replaced by “cybersecurity”, “encrypted communications”, “digital surveillance”, “censorship” “theft of intellectual property”, “spying”, “pilfer”, “malware”, “intercept“ and a host of other variations. The terms carry a value judgment about the event, namely that Huawei strategically set out to monitor and pilfer state information. Other terms, though, did not apportion blame for the events or even single out one actor as the primary aggressor and another as the main victim.

The reduction in the frequency of the term “cyber espionage” could be attributed to the controversy around the use of the term. Some commentators argued that the term was not being used appropriately because it reflected a biased judgment of the event. It is significant that many of the articles that used terms other than “cyber espionage” also referred to the control apparatus of China’s model of digital authoritarianism that entered lexical narrations in more recent times. When combined with this subject matter, the lexical choices conveyed the impression that the incident occurred outside a fierce rivalry between the US and China for hegemony in Africa’s digital landscape. In other words, there was no adjudication of the claims made by the actors on both sides. The reportage substituted what was arguably a more nominal term (‘tech warfare’) with inappropriate value judgments.

Discussion

Analyses of sources used, primary definers, and lexical choices strongly suggest that the US media constructed a public understanding of events that presented the official account of Chinese tech companies in Africa as being self-serving and agenda-setting. The absence of Chinese tech companies, African state officials, and citizens’ accounts meant that no alternative narrative emerged to challenge the dominant perception of events.

Furthermore, press reporting failed utterly to explore the sequence of events that led to allegations, in the case of Zambia and Uganda, against China’s most prominent tech corporation, Huawei, of cyberespionage, leaving the reader with the impression that Huawei was guilty of conspiring with state officials to thwart opposition parties and movements. These representations created the general impression that Huawei was predisposed to illegal conduct, including conspiring with African autocrats.

Another theme of early reporting, although subsidiary, which counterbalanced somewhat the impression created of Chinese tech companies acting in under-handed ways, focused on deploying Chinese social media platforms as alternatives to US ones as a disciplinary whip to monitor citizen and opposition party behaviour.

Given this general framing of reportage, unacknowledged biases came into play in the reporting. The fact that China, as a significant player in Africa’s digital space, has surpassed the US since at least 2009 as an investor in Africa seemed to frame US reportage on Chinese big tech companies.

Indeed, a dominant theme of US reporting, especially in the immediate aftermath of the arrest of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer in 2018 and Trump’s ban on Chinese tech companies that same year, concerned the reputation of Chinese companies. Here, the most visible sources of analysis were journalists, news commentators, risk assessment firms, and legal experts. They all expressed concern, without supporting evidence, that China was propping up African autocrats. That China’s agenda-setting goals had triggered the cyberespionage scandal was, according to The New York Times, evident in products sold by Huawei containing security holes that China’s government could use for spying purposes (Berman et al., 2023).

A related theme was Huawei’s reputation, which jeopardised the company’s market value, thereby dissuading investors. These dominant narratives constructed Chinese tech companies as corrupt and prone to manipulating African governments. They were seen as predisposed to cyber warfare, strongly suggesting a latent trope of digital authoritarianism. These narratives cut across the sample of US media outlets but were implicitly biased towards the political agenda-setting case.

The thematic content analysis suggests that the dominant narratives constructed, at best, did little to unsettle official Chinese counter-claims that Chinese companies had good intentions, which was a subsidiary theme to the dominant narrative, and, at worst, implicitly favoured the official account of the US state narrative. There were alternative narrative themes by neutral Non-Profit Organisations that placed China’s and the US’s rivalry in a more appropriate context, but this was also a subsidiary theme to the dominant narrative. The coverage generally provides an important context that locates China’s rising digital footprint in Africa in the US’s hegemonic ambitions. The narrative constructed by US media outlets was designed to mediate US ambitions. Given this general framing of reportage, unacknowledged biases came into play in US media reporting on cyber espionage.

The fact that China has displaced the US in Africa and has grown spectacularly framed reportage. The overarching theme was that US media has taken on a particular character, focussing mainly on the misconduct of African political leaders and Chinese tech corporations. This practice of journalism is state-centric, assuming that agendas come primarily from above. All these factors limit spaces for journalism that expose how soft power works in society. This study has not focussed on audience perceptions of stories. However, without balanced reportage, the uncritical reproduction of dominant narratives in the media will likely influence common-sense understandings of the tech war.

Conclusion

This article compared the news coverage of the techno-war between China and the US, tracking the US’s published stories critical of China and its media attempt to smear China’s digital platforms, ranging from smartphones to networks and social media platforms. The sources highlight that the tech war is led by US official sources, mediated through the agency of bipartisan mainstream actors such as the media.

The article reviewed a selection of articles from US and Chinese media outlets to measure the media narratives. US media critical of Chinese initiatives were mainly Quartz News, The New York Times, The Diplomat, and The Wall Street Journal. The three publications criticised Chinese firms for fraud malware on Chinese-made phones, accusing the Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies of selling products containing security holes that China’s government could use for spying. Articles from the three publications took a negative approach towards China and denounced its low domestic investment in and production of ICT rollouts in Sub-Saharan African countries.

As a result, media in the US were more prone to employ combative language in their articles. Responding to US media claims, Chinese media defended its technologies and innovations in Africa. China’s two prominent publications, Global Times and China Daily tended to be more forward-looking and focused on how China’s technology can help developing countries in Africa. The irony of the findings is that the US media maintained considerable independent judgment on issues. The pluralism of the US news media establishment allows diverse opinions, both criticising and supporting the US government. However, notwithstanding press freedom, the US media framed the tech war in a pro-American perspective. In contrast, Chinese media took a more balanced approach, thus indicating that ideology plays a significant role in shaping media narratives, both in the US and China.

(please see original paper for footnotes and full references)

Biographical Details

Thomas Lethoba is a Digital Media Project Assistant to the Africa-China Reporting Project (ACRP) at the Wits Centre for Journalism of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He served as an intern at the Africa-China Reporting Project from July 2021 to June 2022. Before joining the ACRP, he gained valuable experience working as the Marketing and Communications Officer, as well as a journalist.

More research supported by the Africa-China Reporting Project, published in the TAGP research journal:

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  5. Media wars: A comparative assessment of the role of US-China media outlets in the battle for digital hegemony in Africa by Thomas Lethoba
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