I was recently invited to write a piece on Chinese media's difficulties in finding and audience in Africa for the blog of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. The piece published in the blog can be found here. The piece published on the blog has been substantially shortened and edited, so I opted to publish here a longer, unedited version. Getting a chance to escape from formulaic academic writing is a relief and it also helps to connect with a wider audience, that audience we are unable to reach through academic journals. However, it is sometimes difficult to find the right tone that balances rigour and divulgation.
In mid-January 2017, the African branch of China's Central Television (CCTV) celebrated its 5th anniversary. It was a simple celebration where CGTN showed its appreciation to some of the 110 professionals working in the newsroom. There was a cake and sparkling wine, there were fond memories of the early days, and there were speeches. Pang Xinhua, managing editor at CGTN Africa, addressed the attendees and reminded journalists of the main goal of the station "We must have our own angle. We cannot just repeat what is happening or repeat the news by the Western media. If we always repeat, then I think there is no meaning for us to stay here. So, always remember, we must see the difference."
When it launched in 2012, CCTV Africa, recently renamed CGTN Africa as part of a global rebranding of CCTV's international operations, was the first overseas broadcast and production centre of China's national broadcaster. In five years, CGTN Africa has deployed one of the most extensive networks of TV correspondents in the continent, it has produced over 3.000 hours of exclusive television content about Africa and secured rebroadcasting agreements with several national television stations in the continent. In its efforts to become a major player in the production of news about African countries for African and global audiences, CGTN Africa is joined by other Chinese media outlets that have set foot in the continent in recent years, such as the English-language newspaper China Daily, the monthly magazine Chinafrica, the pay-TV operator StarTimes, the PRC's official news agency Xinhua and China Radio International (CRI).
Discussions in international media about China's increased engagement with African countries, often revolve around the same themes: natural resource extraction, transport infrastructure development, trade of low-cost goods... Yet, contemporary Sino-African relations are much more multifaceted. One often-overlooked domain is that of the communications sector, which I will operationalize in here in very broad terms: from laying out cable and mobile networks to licencing Chinese TV drama to African broadcasters. In the media and telecommunication sectors, the Chinese government as well as some corporations, most of which are closely linked to the State (ZTE, Huawei, CITV...), have engaged with African countries in five different ways: training and capacity building; direct investment in local media outlets; infrastructure development; content distribution; and, content production, particularly news.
The overall value of China's involvement in the communication sector in Africa is hard to quantify because of the opacity of many of the projects and bilateral agreements; it is a sensitive industry and transparency is not enforced. All in all, it seems safe to claim that regardless of the exact figure, the sector is seen as highly strategic by Beijing as it is at the core of China's global outreach and public diplomacy efforts. Presidents Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have both expressed their desire to use the media to increase China's voice in global politics and to help improve the country's image among foreign audiences. While the political will and the material support--in the form of seemingly bottomless budgets--of Chinese media's African operations are rather glaring, questions about audiences and impact appear to be much less straightforward.
Struggling to find an audience
Describing the current state of China-South Africa relations, Park and Alden distinguished between the "upstairs" dimension of the relationship, "involving bilateral and multilateral political and economic engagement," and the "downstairs," "the processes taking place at the level of small businesses and people." We see traces of this bidimensionality in the way Chinese media are consumed in African countries. "Upstairs," Chinese media have rapidly opened up their own space. Visitors to the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, often express surprise at seeing television screens across the building tuned to CGTN. It is also not uncommon to hear African politicians and policymakers talk about the latest edition of Talk Africa, CGTN's weekly talk show. Not less unusual it is to see copies of the weekly African edition of China Daily in government buildings and think tanks or to notice African diplomatic missions tweeting and retweeting stories published by Xinhua.
Still "upstairs," in a study of South African journalists funded by the South African National Research Foundation, Herman Wasserman, from the University of Cape Town, and I found that a small yet influential number of media professionals are also regular consumers of Chinese media. We presented the findings of the study in a recently published article. Based on interviews with two dozen journalists, we describe four ways in which journalists engage with news organisations from China, which in turn help categorize journalists into four profiles: adopters, pragmatists, unconvinced and resisters. Of particular interest were the first two groups, as they had not been clearly identified in previous literature. We defined adopters, as those whose views about the media are generally critical and who regard China as much of a reliable source of information as any other. Pragmatists are also consumers of Chinese media, but they do so less frequently and somewhat reluctantly. They tend to have an unfavourable view of China’s political system and, by extension, are highly critical of its media, but, from time to time, make use of Chinese sources to get acquainted with a different perspective.
The number of journalists, diplomats and policymakers that have incorporated Chinese media to their daily news consumption habits might be small, but it is noticeable, it appears to be growing and it includes opinion leaders with some power to set the public and media agendas. It is "downstairs" that Chinese media are struggling the most. In another forthcoming study, Herman Wasserman and I organized focus groups in South African and Kenyan universities in order to understand how younger generations engage with Chinese media, if they do at all. The group discussions revealed three major shortcomings in Beijing's efforts to win the hearts and minds of younger Africans.
#1 - Chinese media have low brand recognition.
When we asked students about their media consumption habits, not once was a Chinese media house mentioned. Conversely, BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and RT were frequently brought up. When prompted with a list of Chinese media organisations (from CCTV to WeChat or Weibo), few were able to recognise them. WeChat, which has run some high profile marketing campaigns in both Kenya and South Africa, seemed to be the most recognisable. However, when it came to actual use, students still preferred US-based apps such as WhatsApp or Messenger. The difficulty in becoming a household name for Chinese media is aggravated by recent rebranding processes which have affected all major news media, particularly online (CCTV is now CGTN, Xinhua is, again, New China, and CRI is China Plus News).
#2 - Chinese media suffer from China's own image problems.
While the most recent wave of the Afrobarometer, Africa's largest public opinion survey, shows that over 60 per cent of Africans believe that China's influence in the continent is somewhat or very positive, when asked about things that are not so good, 36 per cent of Africans mention the quality of Chinese products and 13 per cent complain about Chinese citizens taking jobs and business opportunities from the locals. Even though these factors are not strictly related to the media, they do seem to have an impact on people when they are asked to evaluate news published by Chinese media. In our focus groups, we presented students with news clips from Al Jazeera and CGTN. In both cases we masked out the origin of the clip. While Al Jazeera was easily recognizable to students, CGTN was not. In several occasions, students praised the content of CGTN, but then went on to change their opinion after they were told it was a Chinese news organisation.
#3 - Chinese media have chosen the wrong platform.
There is a mismatch between current consumption practices among young Kenyans and South Africans and the main outreach channels used by Chinese media. Mobile news consumption is on the rise in urban Africa, yet the main platforms through which Beijing is trying to engage with foreign audiences are television (mostly satellite) and print. Over the last year, there has been a push to increase content on non-Chinese social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook and YouTube), but Chinese media trail behind most (if not all) of their international competitors. For example, by late April, CGTN Africa's Twitter account had over 77.000 followers, far behind BBC Africa's 1.5 million, Reuters Africa's 500.000 or CNN Africa's 382.000.
During my last visit to what was still then called CCTV Africa, journalists and editors discussed openly some of the latest rumours: were plans to launch a 24-hour channel in Africa real? will there soon be a French version of the station? will CCTV Africa's two daily hours of live broadcast be extended? CGTN Africa is not a project with short-term goals. It is part of an ambitious plan to build a truly global news network that can propagate China's view on global affairs. The effectiveness of this plan, however, can only be achieved if there is an audience for it. As it currently stands, those paying attention seem to be just a small few.