Africa, tune in for the ‘real China’

By Greg Nicolson 7 September 2012

Money can’t buy a reputation, can it? Despite the investment China’s pouring into Africa, in some circles the country’s still viewed as an exploitative predator. It’s all a misunderstanding, it says. A foray into the media, however, might change those perceptions – if it survives. By GREG NICOLSON.

Chinese companies operating in Africa are often accused of bringing their own workers instead of employing locals. But when Chinese Central Television chose Nairobi to established its first broadcasting hub outside Beijing, it avoided that problem and poached some of Kenyan media’s biggest names.

The team, the majority of which is Kenyan, now broadcasts its African programmes – Africa Live, Talk Africa and Faces of Africa – to viewers across the globe. Kenya seems a natural choice to set up shop. Nairobi is a regional hub for English news and has long hosted many international correspondents.

The question is, why did Chinese Central Television, ominously abbreviated to CCTV, choose Africa for its first broadcasting hub outside of China? Official explanations start by saying there’s a need to offer an alternative to the African calamity reports coming from the West. “We want to keep a balance,” CCTV Africa boss Song Jianing told AFP. “We are not only talking about war, diseases or poverty, we are also focusing on economic development.”

But the broadcaster hasn’t just been providing good news stories. Recent topics covered on the weekly Talk Africa include politics in Ethiopia after the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawe, the Marikana mine tragedy, the challenges facing Somalia, and HIV/Aids. It’s aiming to emulate CNN, a professional news source which offers some nuance on the key issues (CCTV’s logo is almost identical to CNN’s).

The move into Africa follows Chinese state media agency Xinhua’s expansion on the continent. It has established 20 bureaus, while its Western rivals have been cutting their correspondents. Partly, the expansion is about providing the best service. As both Chinese and African middle classes grow, it makes sense for outlets like CCTV and Xinhua to offer both groups of consumers the best global news.

Largely, however, it’s about the Chinese government wanting to write its own profile. “Hostile international powers are strengthening their efforts to Westernise and divide us,” wrote President Hu Jintao in this year’s Communist Party journal. “We must be aware of the seriousness and complexity of the struggles and take powerful measures to prevent and deal with them.”

The Nairobi launch was awash with how the channel would provide news about the “real Africa” and the “real China”. “CCTV Africa will provide a platform for its Chinese audience to better understand Africa and promote the China-Africa friendship, so that the real China can be introduced to Africa, and the real Africa can be presented to the world,” reads the broadcaster’s bio.

The $7-billion campaign to enter African media is largely about boosting China’s image on a continent which is fighting for an increased international voice at organisations like the UN, and which holds many of the world’s strategic resources. In 2009, China overtook the United States as the continent’s top trading partner, and two-way trade hit $166 billion in 2011. 

China’s been criticised for exploiting the continent’s natural resources and taking a no-questions-asked approach to politics. President Zuma recently said what happened with Europe showed that such a relationship was unsustainable and warned countries to be careful when entering into partnerships. On a local level, Chinese corporations have a reputation for treating workers poorly. A Chinese mine manager in Zambia was killed last month over a wage dispute.

“China is actively introducing its culture and values, and distributing favourable images through its media to achieve its goals of reducing fears of its military strength, developing closer relations with developing nations and expanding its international influence,” wrote Yu-Shan Wu from the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Jinghoa Lu from Frontier Advisory agrees. “There’s no doubt that a Kenyan office being set up shows a lot about China’s interest to also spread its own voice around the world to maybe counter what the Western media has promoted about China,” he told CNN.

If you’re interested in receiving some of that counter information, DStv offers CCTV in its Great Wall Package, currently available in over 30 African countries. But the news source may struggle to build credibility if content is censored. Programmes have so far seemed avoid sensitive issues, but editorial agendas will only become more glaring as China continues to penetrate local industries.

“The Chinese are not interested in bringing freedom of information and expression to Africa,” Abebe Gellaw, a producer for Ethiopia Satellite Television, told the New York Times. “If they don’t provide these freedoms to their own citizens, why should they behave differently elsewhere?”

CCTV hopes it can temper such fears and, through the “Great Wall” package, offer a more palatable version of China than Western media would have us believe. It’s not an easy sell, but the broadcaster already has some of Kenya’s most well-known journalists on board. DM

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Photo: The China Central Television (CCTV) building is pictured in Beijing, October 28, 2011. (REUTERS)


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