Xinhua and CCTV launch satellite TV in Africa

November 26, 2011

China Central Television (CCTV) plans to launch an English and Swahili service for Africa, competing with CNC TV, a worldwide network launched by the Xinhua news agency (which does not have a domestic television channel in China).

According to a source quoted by a Kenyan news portal, Jackal News, “CNC TV became the most watched TV station in the Asia continent mostly [for] the Africa stories.” A source that spouts such nonsense is hardly worth much (it is in fact impossible to ascertain from CNC’s website when they have launched their services and where they are available), but Jackal News confidently asserts that “CNC TV is planning to start poaching employees from both local and international stations.”

A South African news site, meanwhile, reported that CCTV “has launched the biggest raid on personnel across Kenyan TV newsrooms … as the station prepares for its launch in December. “Top editors of what will be the Kenyan office and continental satellite studio for the Chinese have already been trained in Beijing and are preparing for what is being described as a ‘transformation of international TV experience.'”

Al-Jazeera is also launching a Swahili service and “poaching” journalists from Kenyan stations.

Semi-official Chinese commentators have long been saying that Western influence on media in Africa (and more recently Burma) is a key obstacle to a better image of China. The expansion of Chinese media overseas has been set by the government as a goal to serve the growth of China’s “soft power.” Li Qiangmin, the current Chinese envoy to the Southeast African Common Market and a senior diplomat, recently said in an interview that Africa’s “misunderstanding” of China is largely because of the “demonisation” in Western media and the absence of Chinese media from the continent. Since the failure of the Southern Media Group, which has a liberal reputation and has recently been attacked by nationalists in China, to buy Newsweek in 2010, however, this expansion has mostly been proceeding in Chinese-language media.

According to a Tanzanian news site, the Chinese government has also “expressed interest to establish an FM radio that will use Chinese and Kiswahili languages as a symbol of friendship with Tanzania.” Li Wei, the Vice-Minister of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), who made this announcement, said that “the first step we took is to translate a Chinese play into Kiswahili which is called Doudou.”

“China seeks tips on how to boost Christianity,” or Wang Zuoan meets Max Weber in Kenya

June 5, 2011

Kenya’s Sunday Nation reports that a Chinese government delegation “led by State [Administration] for Religious Affairs minister Wang Zuoan is in Kenya to ‘copy good practices’ that could help it grow Christianity.”

“Religion is good for development,” the minister reportedly said at Bishop’s Gardens in Nairobi, at a meeting Kenya’s Anglican archbishop. He also said that “he was happy with the localisation of Anglican Church in Kenya after independence, so that all its bishops are locals.”

Well. Where to begin?

China has used religion, including exchanges of clerical delegations and references to religion in official meetings, in its diplomacy before, notably Buddhism (especially in relation to Thailand) and Islam (with the Middle East and Indonesia). In fact, in the Indonesian case — as documented by Johanes Herlijanto –the image of China as a country that protects Islam and has even propagated it in the past, in the person of the famous Admiral Zheng He, has contributed to a surprisingly widespread view of China as a reliable developmental patron in the context of increasing Chinese investment in Indonesian infrastructure. Something similar is clearly going on in Kenya.

The link to this article reached me via the weekly news bulletin of Peking University’s Centre for African Studies, directed by Li Anshan, a researcher of overseas Chinese who rose at an opportune moment tobecome the main voice of China’s official Africa research. In Chinese, the link is entitled 中国向肯尼亚学习处于里宗教事务的经验 (China learns from Kenya’s experience of dealing with religion), a very different message that de-emphasizes the somewhat risque suggestion that China actually wants to promote the growth of Christianity, and stresses instead that China is learning from Kenya. This is in keeping with the official line — untiringly represented by Li — that Chinese exchanges with Africa take place on a basis of equality.

Still, I think Wang’s statement is more than mere diplomatic posturing. That a Chinese minister says he wants to promote Christianity, or religion in general, and that this declaration is picked up by a research centre that positions itself as very close to the government’s ears, suggests an increasingly clear trend in China, namely that the government, or at least parts of it, really does promote religion, as long as it is hierarchically organised under government control. One of the reasons is the government’s concern with social morality; another is that the religious hierarchy provides an additional channel of ensuring Chinese people’s identification with the official discourse of nationhood and weeding out subversives. A third is the reason Wang suggests: the religious subject, and perhaps the Christian subject more than any other, in many ways fits the description of the self-disciplined, community-oriented Chinese citizen desired by the state. The prosperity gospel (the idea that getting rich is a sign of the Lord’s blessing), embraced by many African politicians and churches, is influential in China (see Cao Nanlai’s ethnography of Wenzhou “boss Christians:” Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou).

Pure Swahili culture, World Heritage and a Chinese port

January 14, 2010

An 11 January article by Jeffrey Gettleman in The New York Times (“Future Kenya Port Could Mar Pristine Land”) is such a textbook case of China-in-Africa discourse that it merits its own entry. All the ingredients are there: heritage, nature and (minority) culture versus the greedy Chinese, with the usual vagueness.

The article states that Lamu, an island on the Kenyan coast and “one the last outposts of pure Swahili culture” whose old town centre has been registered as World Heritage. According to a local politician,

Lamu has been marginalized for decades (…) because
the people here are Muslim and coastal, while Kenya, since its
independence in 1963, has been ruled by Christian politicians from the
highlands. (… T)ourists started flocking here in substantial numbers in the 1990s, precisely
because the area was so underdeveloped and environmentally and culturally
pristine. The villages around the island are studies in poverty. There is
no electricity and no running water. The houses are built from mud, sticks
and string. Malaria is rampant. Many of the children sitting idle in their
homes or clutching saggy soccer balls on the beach have their feet chewed
up by chigoes, the tiny fleas that lay eggs under people’s toenails.

On the positive side,

the omnipresent smells of donkey dung and sweetly rotting fruit and the
crescent-sailed dhows plying the sea make the island feel like a glass
museum case — one with a living culture inside.

But all that may be about to change

because “the Chinese government, one of the most aggressive investors in Africa, is
backing the” Kenyan government’s project to build “the biggest port in East Africa here.”

The biggest worry is the environment. (…) Lamu fishermen fear that the planned dredging of the port will ruin fish breeding grounds.

“They will break the rocks where the fish hide,” said one angler, Mohamed
Shabwana. “They will destroy everything.”

As it turns out at the very end of the article, the proposed site for the port is a actually

a few miles away from Lamu island on a desolate stretch of the mainland. But residents of Lamu town fear that the blast radius of the port — the crime, the pollution and the overall
seediness — will reach them. Kenyan government officials admit, when
pressed, that Lamu and its traditional Muslim culture will be affected.

Well, maybe. But the conclusion seems cavalier. And nothing is said about the Chinese plans apart from the fact that Chinese companies are “studying” the site. Still, the Chinese element gives the article a sinister touch.