The Wits China-Africa Reporting Project and the South Africa-China Economy and Trade Association (SACETA) held the Sino-South Africa Business & Journalism Seminar on Friday July 8 at the China Construction Bank Building in Sandton, Johannesburg. Billed as the first event of its kind in South Africa, the off the record seminar that featured four short presentations was a forum for candid discussion and engagement between local journalists and Chinese business people.
Chinese companies desire more and better quality reporting on their activities in South Africa, yet various factors impinge on the capacity of South African journalists to afford Chinese firms with such desired media portrayals. It is this gap between the media expectations of Chinese businesses and the reality of journalistic reporting that motivated the convening of this seminar. SACETA is a membership organisation representing Chinese firms in South Africa, and the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project works closely with journalists in Africa-China media and communications; it was thus convenient for the two entities to collaborate on this event.
The seminar very much lived up to expectations. Prominent Chinese firms such as FAW, CRI Eagle, China Construction Bank, ICBC, China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation, ZTE, Huawei and Hisense were in attendance, as were South African journalists from media outlets such as The Independent, Mail and Guardian and Kaya FM.
The seminar saw frank discussion on the sins of omission and commission on either side, providing the first steps towards more meaningful engagement and greater mutual understanding. Discussions touched on many issues, e.g. stereotypes and ignorance that underpin discussions on China by everyday South Africans. But more than that, the fact that the two groups sat around a table and discussed thorny issues was a breakthrough in itself.
On the Chinese business side various questions were posed: Why is it that Chinese companies are involved in many social responsibility activities that go unreported? Why is it that a blind eye is turned on the good deeds of Chinese firms but negative developments are emphasised? In particular Wen Jian, of the Chinese firm CRI Eagle, talked in his presentation of his firm's experiences of doing business in South Africa, the mistakes made and lessons learned. He also expounded on the Chinese traditional shyness when it comes to reporting their own achievements, and this was a insightful point of engagement with the journalists.
John Bailey, a local journalist with eNCA and longtime correspondent in Beijing, touched on the issue of how Chinese firms in South Africa can place greater emphasis on soft skills, particularly when dealing with local communities and the media.
A common issue expressed by the South African journalists was the difficulty in accessing information from Chinese firms. It was also said that deriving news and information from Chinese entities often takes too long amid fast-paced newsroom pressures. It was noted that some Chinese companies are in competition with South African counterparts who are more accessible, and this has negative implications for the Chinese firms. In the absence of information from Chinese firms, journalists are forced to either cover very little news on Chinese companies or fill information gaps by other means.
In his presentation Phillip de Wet of the Mail & Guardian provided a perspective on why Chinese firms in South Africa are often mistrusted due to pre-existing stereotypes and perceptions held by South Africans, and how Chinese firms can better navigate such a tricky landscape. His presentation inspired a meaningful discussion on these issues with the Chinese business people in attendance.
Both the business and journalism sides also admitted where they reckon they have fallen short. While a number of journalists admitted practicing a “Western” media philosophy inclined towards fault-finding rather than telling a good story, the Chinese firms admitted being media-shy as per Chinese culture. Could Chinese firms consider playing by the book in South Africa by being more vocal about their positive contributions? Can Chinese firms develop thicker skin against criticism? Can Chinese firms invest a little more in the media and communications arms of their entities? On the other hand, can South African journalists take time to understand the cultural milieu that informs Chinese firms and their media shyness?
The seminar was an eye opening experience. Discussion of the historical background informing journalists’ coverage of China was particularly informative. But above all the seminar served as a starting point for Chinese businesses to understand South African journalists and vice versa. Such an understanding can lead to appreciation of each other’s work and contributions and lay the foundation for greater mutual respect and understanding.