China’s media investments in Africa stay in the news

May 21, 2012

Just a few months after the announcement about a new CCTV African service and the opening of Beijing Review‘s Johannesburg bureau, it is China Daily‘s turn to start an African edition, beginning with a Johannesburg office with one in Nairobi planned. CCTV has recently opened a new New York operation, while China Daily — China’s original officially-desoignated foreign-language paper that has recently undergone a big makeover to make it more readable and credible in the eyes of foreign readers, e.g. by printing critical articles and inviting well-known foreigners to publish op-ed pieces — is now distributed as a weekly advertising supplement of the International Herald Tribune in parts of Europe.

All this is perfectly in sync with the Chinese government’s recent “opinion” on expanding Chinese media abroad, which calls for a comprehensive global media network with  coverage that will “centre on developed and neighbouring countries”  but “use developing countries as a[n intial] base.” (It should also  “rely on the Chinese-language overseas market,” one in which investment from China started earlier but is off Western radar screens.

I am usually tired of the widespread view that takes every Chinese investment in Africa as part of a master plan by the Chinese government. But in this case, where the actors are all centrally controlled state enterprises, there is no doubt that their goal is to satisfy government officials (a nd beat each other to it).

The news have triggered a round of commentary by Mohamed Keita in the New York Times, Deborah Brautigam, Li Anshan on Pambazuka, and Bob Wekesa in China Daily itself, among others, andaddressing a variety of issues — is media freedom an absolute good (no, say Li and Wekesa); does it really existin the West or is it in fact just an ideolgical ploy (the latter, sayWekesa andLi); is  China’s goal to help African governments limit media freedom (no, says Brautigam); is that the net result of Chinese investment anyway? (It can be, say I, at least insofar as a Chinese model of a state-financed public television with an overt mission to support the government no longer necessarily looks outdated and embarrassing, and protestations to the contrary are no longer de rigeur. Considering Ethiopia is one of countries with the least free media, the Ethiopian news agency’s plans to launch a multilingual 24-hour news channel is probably inspired by Xinhua ‘s CNT or Russia Today rather than BBC or Al Jazeera.)

For me, the most intriguing question is whether the new cohort of young Chinese journalists around the world — and the young African and other journalists that Chinese money will train and employ — will, quite apart from their employers intentions, pursue their own investigative agendas and generate a more complex picture of the world, in China and elsewhere. The Party line in China is that the current effortis to generate a more balanced view (that is in English publications; Chinese-language  communiques usually frankly speak about a more favourable view of China). I don’t believe that this is really the intention of the Chinese government, but it may nonetheless be an unintended result as more young Chinese begin reporting on the globe.

What are the sources of Peking University’s “African Tele-Info”?

November 16, 2011

I regularly read the e-mail newsletter put out by Peking University’s Centre for African Studies. As the centre is one of the main Africa research centres in China and — at least if we believe its director, Li Anshan, who graces each issue with a personal message — one of those with most frequent access to policy makers’ ears, it is interesting to see which foreign news items it reproduces, stamping them thus with an authoritative cachet for its mostly Chinese readership.

Most of them are simply taken from Africa news aggregrators like, but occasionally there are links to left-wing or antiglobalist sites like Pambazuka or Counterpunch, and more rarely, to mainstream Western news sites. As one would expect, those praising China predominate, but while the choice is certainly not balanced, critical articles are not completely absent.

Rather than in the reporting on China, I see a much more clear and disturbing bias in the newsletter’s choice of representing Western — specifically American — views to underpin the message of a U.S.-led global conspiracy to dominate the world, and within it, Africa. Articles from the English-language website of Pravda — the newspaper of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, formerly the Soviet Union’s People’s Daily but by now a marginal publication — or the Centre for Research on Globalization, a Canada-based New World Order conspiracy theory site that most academics in the West would probably regard as wacky, are offered up without any comments, creating the appearance that they represent mainstream views in Russia and North America.

In the 25 October issue (No. 65), Li — whose signature lecture in Englh is on how China’s foreign policy is driven by Confucian values — quotes Paul Craig Roberts’ article on Counterpunch in his weekly letter to readers as accusing the U.S. government of assassinating Gadhafi. According to Li, it is not by chance that he was killed a day after Hilary Clinton expressed the U.S. government’s hope to see him captured or dead soon.

Who knows, maybe Roberts — and Li, who doesn’t accuse but insinuates — are right. The problem here, though, is that Roberts is identified simply as a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, creating the impression that the U.S. has all but officially confessed to engineering the murder. Now, Roberts had that position for two years in the Reagan administration. Today, however, he is known as a radical critic who, according to Wikipedia, has called the U.S. a puppet state of Israel and said “There is probably more democracy in China than there is in the west. Revolution is the only answer…”

Watching African sea turtles

September 30, 2011

With the rapidly growing number of Africans getting PhDs in China, it will be interesting to understand their motivations and impact if they return home. (In China, such highly skilled returnees are called ‘sea turtles’ 海龟, a homophone of the expression ‘overseas returnee’.

In a recent issue of the weekly newsletter PKU African Tele-Info, Li Anshan, the scholar-official heading Peking University ‘s Centre for African Studies, reported that Uganda’s minister of finance, visiting Peking for a training, asked him about the possibility of pursuing her doctorate there. Now, she may have asked the same question in London — there is a time-honoured tradition of African dignitaries pocketing LSE degrees — but that she would even think about Peking is interesting.

A Congolese PhD student at the same centre, Antoine Roger Lokongo, recently published an article on Pambazuka analysing the South African, Libyan and Ivorian political situations and coming to the conclusion that all three are examples of Western political manipulation plus armed intervention. I was surprised by the promotion of former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo as a positive example of standing up for the national interest, and the article has too much of a conspiracy-theory flavour to it, but while it mounts some arguments in favour of Gaddhafi, Museveni, Mugabe, and the ANC Youth leader Julius Malema, it falls short of endorsing them fully. What is clear is that the author backs a mixture of nationalism and state control of capital with increased redistribution in the interests of social justice. China’s role in Africa is not discussed, but one can see that its form of government has many parallels with what Lokongo advocates.

Yet Lokongo clearly also locates himself on the Left, which in today’s China’s domestic politics can be associated with an oppositionist stance. So how will Lokongo and other intellectuals in similar positions view the practices of Chinese enterprises, many of them state-owned, in Africa? This is not a matter of whether their practices are good or bad. Rather, the fact is that their presence, even if it is based on government-to-government deals rather than the market, is nonetheless a corollary and a catalyst of the liberalisation of African markets, the polarization of social classes and the flexibilisation of labour practices, phenomena the African Left stands against.

Meanwhile, Mwesiga Baregu, a Tanzanian visiting professor at the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University wrote his first column in The Citizen, a Dar-es-Salaam newspaper, of a series intended to cover his observations in China. He comes to the conclusion that the Communisty Party, “for better or for worse, is still one of the main drivers of change in China.” Another driver is accountability. He compares favourably “China’s zero tolerance of corruption in public service” and the disciplining of officials for negligence — such as in the case of transport disasters — to the situation in Tanzania.

“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).