It is official. After more than a decade of planning, setting up, and bankrolling African media, the Chinese are finally ready to cash in on their investment.
Last week, I decided to dedicate my weekly column in a South African newspaper to discussing the persecution of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
The column looked at the discrimination suffered by the Turkic-Muslim community and the inability of the more than 40 African leaders in Beijing for a historic China-Africa forum to seek clarity from their host. No more than a few hours after the piece was published by newspapers belonging to Independent Media, South Africa’s second-largest media company, I was told that the column would not be uploaded online.
A day later, my weekly column on neglected people and places around the globe, which I have been writing since September 2016, was immediately canceled. I was told the “new design of the papers” meant that there was no longer space for my weekly venting.
Given the ownership structure of Independent Media, with Chinese state-linked firms holding a 20 percent stake, I understood when I wrote the column that it might rattle the higher-ups. I didn’t expect the exorcism to be so immediate and so obvious. I had, it would appear, veered into a nonnegotiable arena that struck at the very heart of China’s propaganda efforts in Africa.
In 1999, China embarked on an economic and social outreach program to the continent, known as its “Going Out” policy, in which it injected millions of dollars of investment into the African media. To counter the rampant negative perceptions of China in Western media, the project looked to take back control of the country’s image in a continent where its interests were only set to grow.
This meant investing heavily in China’s own state media presence, including expanding bureaus; supporting privately owned Chinese media that set up offices on the continent; purchasing stakes in private African media; and conjuring up partnerships or organizing sponsored trips to China for cash-strapped African newsrooms.
As the soft diplomacy of China’s agenda has been propelled by the state-owned Xinhua press agency, China Global Television Network, the African edition of China Daily, and the monthly magazine ChinAfrica, based in Johannesburg, it is yet unclear whether African audiences have been accepting Chinese versions of their own reality.
It is private media companies that have most effectively become vehicles for forwarding the interests of the Chinese state, in cahoots with local elites.
So, in Kenya, press junkets at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation or special Beijing-sponsored seminars for Kenyan journalists have turned the Nation Media Group into a spectacle of press release rewrites promising an injection of Chinese collaboration into the continent.
In South Africa, Independent Media—partly owned by the China International Television Corporation and China-Africa Development Fund—is replete with sycophantic praise for Chinese investment, lacks critical engagement with the much-ballyhooed BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) project, and fails to ask basic questions on Chinese motives in Africa. Instead of holding power to account, it has become its most ardent cheerleader.
Meanwhile, the Chinese-owned StarTimes Group is now operational in 30 countries across the continent and describes itself as the “fastest growing and the most influential digital TV operator in Africa.” Though privately owned, StarTimes has benefited from a close relationship with the Chinese state, as Emmanuel Dubois notes, especially as a tool for exporting Chinese culture and services.
It’s true that the China-Africa story is one that has long been marred by false dichotomies. But what’s needed is clear-eyed coverage, not different distortions. In the Western press, the Chinese are either portrayed as aggressors or neocolonizers, while the Africans are described as weak or corrupt. In China-friendly media, the pattern is reversed; the Chinese are benevolent benefactors or partners, while the Africans are eager recipients.
And where the Western press has done its utmost to reveal African corruption and fiscal recklessness, Chinese media does its best to conceal them.
As it stands, there’s little coverage outside of either the Western portrayal of Africa as being overrun by resource-hungry and ruthless Chinese companies or the Chinese-sponsored media efforts that extol the Chinese development model or offer a projection of Africa in outlandishly positive terms.
A lack of nuance in reporting on China has allowed selfish business leaders to use the often unfair media portrayals of China and BRICS nations, or the global south, as an excuse to promote a more authoritarian, unaccountable business ethic on the continent under the guise of economic development.
This is precisely how former South African President Jacob Zuma justified his corruption, which culminated in the widespread use of the phrase “white monopoly capital” to dismiss all criticism of his business activities.
Some African governments have recognized the value of a media that toes the state line in lieu of a national agenda. The positive spin about the continent keeps African leaders happy (in a self-satiating bubble), and China establishes itself as a “true friend” of the continent.
Companies that take on Chinese ownership are likely to experience the Chinese model of censorship; red lines are thick and non-negotiable. Given the economic dependence on the Chinese and crisis in newsrooms, this is rarely confronted. And this is precisely the type of media environment that China wants their African allies to replicate.
In 2015, Faith Muthambi, then South Africa’s former communication minister, went to Beijing to understand how the country’s state-owned broadcast media works. Media freedom in China is among the worst in the world. So it beggars belief that the minister traveled to learn anything other than how to control the news.
On the U.S. government side, though, the focus on the situation in Xinjiang comes after a spate of criticism of what is being described as China’s “debt-trap diplomacy.” As valid as these concerns may be, there’s a strong element of Western self-interest here. Many of the recent attacks have come off the back of U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war with China.
That the United States is among the first to threaten sanctions on China on account of the treatment of Uighur Muslims, while the Trump administration continues its ban on visits from citizens of several Muslim-majority countries, shows up the hypocrisies involved. The Uighurs, it would appear, only represent an opportunity to take a strike at the dragon.
For the Chinese, meanwhile, silence about a million people imprisoned without trial is golden. As non-Western powers such as Malaysia begin to raise the Uighur issue for the first time, potentially endangering President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road project, the battle for African public opinion is becoming particularly heated. The culling of my column came just as Xi pledged $60 billion to the continent, in the form of projects, assistance, investment, and loans, in an event described as the “largest and most high-profile diplomatic event” ever held in Beijing.
The timing to raise the plight of the Uighurs, it turns out, was wrong. And, evidently, just right.
Correction, Sept. 17, 2018: An earlier version of this article misrepresented an argument made by University of Houston assistant professor Dani Madrid-Morales. It has been updated to remove the relevant passage.