The Chinese media presence across Africa has expanded dramatically over the past ten years as Beijing invested millions of dollars to build out a vast distribution network for its newspaper, radio and TV content. China’s flagship TV network CCTV broadcasts daily from its regional hub in Nairobi, China Radio International broadcasts in-language programming on the FM dial in places like Dakar and the China Daily newspaper is even printed-locally in South Africa.
Although there is a growing variety of Chinese content available in Africa, news programming remains at the center of Beijing’s media strategy. The Chinese government, like many in Africa, has long bristled over how the Western media frames the news in Africa. Western news outlets, critics argue, have created a set of so-called “embedded narratives” when reporting Africa. These commonly-seen narratives too often reduce Africa and its people to a number of deeply-entrenched caricatures that range from starving babies, dancing children, endless war to the land of safaris.
Whereas Western journalism celebrates its role as a “watchdog” in society, challenging governments and supposedly serving as a check on the powers of the establishment, the Chinese have an entirely different approach to covering the news both at home and in Africa. Since all official media in China are under the firm control of the communist party (which is different than the government), there is no tradition of adversarial journalism. Instead, the Chinese have developed a concept known as “constructive journalism.”
“Constructive journalism can be both positive and negative, but the purpose is to find solutions,” explains Zhang Yanqiu, director of the Africa Communication Research Centre at the Communication University of China. “The idea is to give a new kind of balance and shine a new kind of light on the continent. Instead of just reporting on the situation, it asks ‘ how can we help them?’ The Western media may be telling the truth, but if you are telling the truth and things are just getting worse and people are afraid of traveling to Africa, for whose good is this?”
So the Chinese are aiming to portray a more upbeat view of Africa on its various news platforms. This means you will never see coverage of Sam Pa and his allegedly corrupt influence network or inappropriate Chinese arms sales to South Sudan and so on. Instead, the main CCTV newscast will feature positive stories about “win-win relations” and how ‘African leaders praise China’s role in African development.’
Not surprisingly, CCTV and other Chinese news outlets are widely panned in the West for promoting propaganda and not accurately reporting the news. While that certainly may be the case in some instances, professor Zhang argues it is not accurate to compare Chinese and Western journalism in Africa as they are not intended the same objectives. Whereas western journalism’s sole objective is to inform, Chinese news content is considered to be an extension of Beijing’s broader political and diplomatic agenda.
Professor Zhang joins Eric & Cobus to discuss the role of Chinese media in Africa, journalism in particular, and why she thinks it is so important that there are new voices in the market there to challenge the longstanding Western narratives about the continent.
- The Guardian: Chinese media in Africa illustrate difference from western media by Roy Greenslade
- Al Jazeera English: Chinese media expands Africa presence by Colin Shek
- African Arguments: Propaganda or proper journalism? China’s media expansion in Africa by James Wan
Professor Zhang Yanqiu is deputy dean of journalism and the Director of Africa Communication Research Centre at Communications University of China in Beijing. Professor Zhang is a pioneer in the field of media literacy research in China. Her 2012 dissertation “Understanding Media Literacy: Origins, Paradigms and Approaches” was among the first in-depth Chinese studies in the field. Professor Zhang has been a visiting scholar at London School of Economics and Political Science and University of New South Wales, Sydney.