In Africa, China Is the News
Beijing’s infrastructure projects may grab headlines, but its efforts to shape the media are more dangerous.
Washington has long been concerned about China’s “no strings attached” infrastructure deals in African markets. These large port, rail, and road projects grab headlines and stoke fears about African government debt levels and Chinese political influence. But the real strategic threat for the United States is not bricks-and-mortar projects but rather China’s efforts to reshape African countries’ media landscape.
In just over a decade, China has dramatically expanded its media presence in Africa, urging not just African publics to “tell China’s story well” but also influencing the continent’s underlying telecommunications, data, and information standards. Given that the United States has historically held a competitive advantage in communications and media, it should pay attention.
Today, mobile devices and television have near-universal penetration in Africa’s media markets. China’s telecom investments through Huawei Technologies and ZTE, whose largest shareholder is a Chinese state-owned firm, have established more than 40 third-generation telecom networks in more than 30 African countries. And Chinese firms make a huge chunk of the cell phones sold there. Transsion Holdings, which does not operate in the United States or Europe, accounts for 30 percent of African phone sales (under its brand Tecno Mobile), ahead of second-place Samsung at 22 percent. Transsion recently announced plans to raise more than $420 million for expansion through an initial public offering on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s STAR Market technology board.
In South Africa, meanwhile, Huawei accounts for 14.5 percent of phones sold, the second-highest share and significantly more than Apple’s 4 percent. Although much of Africa consumes media through mobile devices, TV sales are growing among the middle class, and Chinese electronics companies are aggressively pursuing that market. Konka Group has set up a factory in Egypt to serve the regional market and has partnered with Jumia as a sales platform. In South Africa, Hisense, with investment from the China-Africa Development Fund, operates production facilities in Cape Town and is the leading player in the TV market with more than 22 percent market share. By dominating how media is delivered, Chinese companies are literally acting as the window to the world for millions of Africans.
With its unmatched access to African audiences, China is also investing in the content and infrastructure for African television. In 2012, China established CCTV Africa—renamed China Global Television Network (CGTN) Africa in 2016 and made a part of the Voice of China media group in 2018—an English-language news channel run by the Chinese state broadcaster. It was the first international investment in a $6.6 billion global plan to strengthen China’s global presence. CGTN, with a large broadcasting subsidiary in Nairobi, lacks popular appeal in African markets. But it is offered nearly everywhere.
In Kenya, China’s Pan-Africa Network Group (PANG) won the right to be one of two broadcast distributors in 2015, when the country switched from analog to digital. Not a single U.S. company competed. There were rumors of corruption in the deal, and PANG is partially owned by StarTimes, a Beijing-based media and telecommunications firm with strong ties to the Chinese government. It has subsidiaries in more than 30 African countries and was selected as the sole contractor for the “10,000 villages” program announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Johannesburg in 2015. This initiative will bring digital TV services to more than 10,000 villages across 25 African countries.
StarTimes, partially owned by the China Development Bank’s China-Africa Development Fund, offers middle-class consumers a full range of services in the digital TV sector. The company’s big selling point is its affordability: The most basic digital cable package in Kenya costs just about $2.50, compared with $9.50 for the South African-owned DStv. No wonder that it has 10 million subscribers across the continent, with 1.4 million in Kenya alone.
China’s media plays are not limited to expanding or operating its own companies but also to investing in established African media companies. In Kenya, articles from Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, fill English-language newspapers without citation. And in South Africa, companies linked to China have a 20 percent stake in Independent Media, the country’s second-largest media group, which includes 20 prominent newspapers. The outlet proved less than independent when it drew controversy by canceling a column that focused on the plight of Chinese Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, a touchy subject for Beijing.
Incidents like this combined with the heavy subsidization of its own content and other investments indicate the seriousness with which China takes its penetration into African media, not merely as a commercial endeavor but also as an instrument of state policy. Some observers have argued that the Chinese government uses its media subsidiaries in Africa much as the Russian government uses RT in Europe; finding the cracks in Western media and filling them with alternative narratives deemed favorable to Chinese interests.
As it has been increasing its media presence on the continent, China is also shaping the careers of African journalists through high-level media cooperation initiatives and new China-Africa press centers. Each year about 1,000 African journalists participate in training programs in China with the aim to build deeper understanding and cultural ties with the country. This is a concerning practice given China’s history of media coercion and censorship.
Despite the influx of Chinese investment in the media space, the United States still has many assets to leverage. In 2016, CNN established a multiplatform bureau in Lagos to focus on its digital presence in Nigeria, and Bloomberg launched an Africa edition to target the continent’s growing audience of business and financial professionals. Netflix has been available continentwide since 2016 and in December 2018 announced it would begin investing in original series from Africa.
But U.S. corporate media growth in African markets has been relatively slow, and China’s rapidly increasing investment will certainly chip away at the incumbent advantage in the near term. There are several things the United States can do to keep its advantage. It could convene an Africa media and technology investment forum, for example, which would help identify and address the issues preventing greater U.S. investment in the media sector in Africa’s largest markets. U.S. President Donald Trump could also appoint a member of a U.S. media company to the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa, which is an advisory council made up of U.S. companies with economic interests in African markets with the aim of enhancing the country’s commercial policy toward African countries. And he could assign a senior Commerce Department official the task of liaising with top American media and tech companies—YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, WarnerMedia, Facebook, Google, and others—in order to develop a sectoral strategy for advancing opportunities in African markets.
By marrying soft power and commercial success, the United States can do much more than simply help the bottom line of American companies—it can win the next generation of hearts and minds in some of the world’s fastest-growing and youngest markets.
Aubrey Hruby is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Africa Center and an adjunct instructor in the African Studies Program at Georgetown University.