Voice of China: In pursuit of soft power

October 7, 2013 1:47 am0 comments by:

Written by Charmaine Pretorius ,

Headquarters; CCTV Tower; CCTV New Year's Gala; CCTV America; CCTV Africa; Television Broadcasting

Headquarters; CCTV Tower; CCTV New Year’s Gala; CCTV America; CCTV Africa; Television Broadcasting

China’s economic success and entry onto the world stage has firmly established the country as a force to be reckoned with, certainly in economic terms. China overtook Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in 2010 and there are scholars who forecast that it could overtake even the United States (US) within a few years to become the world’s largest economy.(2) But, despite its economic prowess, China has yet to match the soft power influence of the US.

Whereas hard power refers to economic and military coercion, soft power, a term coined by international relations expert and Harvard University Professor Joseph S. Nye, is the ability of a country to attain what it wants by attracting and persuading others to adopt its goals through threats or financial means.(3) There are several tools in a country’s soft power kit, including cultural influence, political ideology and public diplomacy. With the advent of the information age, the influence of mass media as a soft power tool has become increasingly important. China is endorsing this influence of the media in its ambitions to become a global power.

In recent years China has made a concerted effort to establish a soft power presence throughout the world, and specifically in Africa, using cultural influence and media.(4) This paper analyses the increasing involvement of China’s official media organisations in establishing soft power for China in Africa, through not only its own media outlets, but also investment in African media conglomerates in partnership with local elites. The paper examines why Africa in particular has become a focal point for China’s media outreach, and what China and Africa stand to gain or lose.

China’s ‘going-out’ strategy – counteracting negative images

China’s drive to improve its international image has increased exponentially in the past three decades, and since 1997 the country has been involved in brand imaging as it tries to promote itself as a peaceful rising power.(5) China’s national and international image management through cultural diplomacy and the media has thus become a powerful weapon in the Chinese government’s arsenal. At least 2,300 universities in more than 100 countries around the world now offer Chinese-focused programmes. Since 2011 some 350 university-affiliated Confucius Institutes and more than 400 Confucius classrooms at secondary schools have been established, 20 of them in Africa, including in Kenya and South Africa.(6) The aim of the Confucius Institutes is to provide Chinese culture and language learning to change Western attitudes about modern China. The teachings of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher who lived more than 2,000 years ago, stress the interests of the collective, and remain the basis for mainstream Chinese culture, day-to-day life and ideology, providing rules for work, personal ethical growth, and relationships.(7)

China’s global media expansion started in earnest in 2009. It forms part of China’s ‘Going out’ strategy, one of the focal points of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) twelfth five-year-plan, from 2011 to 2015, to accelerate economic and political development, and to increase China’s image as a global player.(8)

Using the media as a soft power tool is by no means a new phenomenon in the world. A prime example is Voice of America (VoA), a US federal government broadcaster that started transmitting during World War II to win international support for America’s war effort. By 1941, concerned about German propaganda in Latin America, the US was broadcasting 24 hours a day to Latin America via VoA. By 1943, VoA was broadcasting news in 27 languages across the world.(9) Today VoA broadcasts an average of 1,500 hours of news per week to 123 million people in 43 languages, from Tibet to the African continent.(10) The administrators of VoA, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), receives more than US$ 700 million in funding from the federal government each year, of which around US$ 200 million goes to VoA. In 2011, the agency approved a plan of action to address some of challenges brought on by the global communications revolution, including the planned launch of a global television network.(11) In Africa, too, there are plans to expand. An agreement with the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) now grants VoA access to audiences in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia, while in Sub-Saharan Africa VoA broadcasts to 49 million listeners in 48 countries. The BBG aims to reach an audience of 216 million people over the airwaves by 2016.(12)

At the other end of the continuum, China, too, is trying to reach ever larger audiences across the world. While an international media presence for China is not new, the renewed expansion drive is. The most influential arms of its global media empire now include the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV), Xinhua news agency, CCTV’s radio arm, China Radio International (CRI), and the English-language China Daily newspaper. CCTV went on air in 1958 and, since it commenced international broadcasting in the 1980s, has established relations with television stations in 80 countries.(13) By July 2009, CCTV’s Arab channel was broadcasting to 300 million viewers in 22 countries. In 2010 CCTV and CRI expanded overseas with CCTV America, and in 2012 CCTV Africa was launched. CCTV currently broadcasts in Arabic, English, French, Mandarin, Russian and Spanish.(14)

In the 1950s, Xinhua news agency, the largest of China’s state media institutions, became the first Chinese media outlet to enter Africa. At the time it was instrumental in fostering diplomatic ties with newly-independent countries as Africa entered a post-colonial era. It was therefore a logical decision for Xinhua to also lead China’s Going Out strategy in Africa. Its approximate 28 bureaus across Africa were ideally suited to make Xinhua the Voice of China.(15) Xinhua is one of the largest news agency networks in the world, and employs more than 10,000 people. It plans to expand the number of overseas bureaus from about 100 currently to 186.(16) As for the China Daily, China’s most influential English-language print newspaper entered the international media market with the launch of a US edition in 2009. In 2012 the newspaper entered Africa for the first time via Nairobi, Kenya, its only office in Africa so far. The China Daily is one of more than 2,000 newspapers in China.(17)

Whereas the US publishes spending information about its state-funded global media reach, the Chinese are not forthcoming. Determining exactly how much money is spent on China’s media expansion is not easy, although some estimates put the Chinese Government’s budget for expanding its English language service at 19 times that of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). For the 2009 financial year, it is estimated that China allocated more than US$ 8 billion towards international media expansion.(18)

How is this money being spent? In addition to expanding its own media empire, the Chinese Government has granted assistance to other governments in the form of technical support, training, media exchanges, and official agreements. In particular, China has assisted several African governments with media infrastructure projects such as the construction of buildings to house the Mauritius and Zambian state broadcasters. Additional financial assistance includes US$ 120 million to Uganda, US$ 14.4 million to the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), US$ 9.6 million to Guinea, and US$ 15 million to Lesotho.(19) Under the auspices of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which was launched in 2000, millions of dollars worth of media equipment has been donated, including US$ 8 million to Zambia.(20)

Soft power heads south

In countries in which China has no official media presence, it has other means at its disposal to make its voice heard, such as buying shares in foreign media conglomerates. In South Africa, China International Television, wholly owned by CCTV, and the China-Africa Development Fund, controversially acquired a 20% stake in Sekunjalo Independent Media Consortium, the new owners of Independent News and Media, which owns daily newspapers in all of South Africa’s major cities.(21) The deal was clinched with the assistance of top leaders of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).(22) While some doubt that the Chinese would be able to influence South Africa’s independent media, a 20% stake in Sekunjalo could give China’s state-owned institutions influence over content for a more sympathetic view of itself. The South African businessman who put together the deal, Iqbal Survé, has already indicated he would like to see more positive reporting on South Africa, a country in which the mainstream media reports aggressively on both government shortcomings and China’s involvement in the continent.(23)

Sekunjalo is not the only South African media conglomerate with links to the Chinese. South African media giant Naspers, listed on the Johannesburg-based JSE Securities Exchange, and the fifth largest media company in the world became the first foreign media entity to sign a joint venture in the newspaper sector in China in 2008.(24) China’s Anhui Daily Newspaper Group, one of China’s top 10 media groups and Naspers affiliate, Myriad International Holdings (MIH), created Xin’an Media Limited Company in Hefei, southeast China, which publishes 10 newspapers and 3 periodicals. Anhui owns 63% of Xin’an Media, valued at RMB 240 million (US$ 40 million), and MIH the remainder.(25) In addition to this stake, MIH’s other Chinese media shareholdings include a 34.6% stake in Tencent Holdings, China’s largest Internet portal, valued in 2010 at ZAR 92.7 billion (US$ 9 billion at current value); a 9.9% stake in Beijing Media Corporation Limited, valued in 2010 at ZAR 95.9 million (US$ 9.5 million at current value); and a 37.4% stake in the print media company, Hunan Titan Cultural Exchange Co., Ltd.(26) In 2012 MIH signed a cable network agreement with Xinhua CNC granting the Chinese broadcaster access to 4 million African homes.

China started relaxing laws to allow for foreign investment in Chinese media from 2004. Foreign partners can own up to 49% of shares in joint ventures. At that time, China’s print and television sectors were earning an estimated US$ 18 billion in advertising revenue. Naspers was among the first foreign investors, alongside New York-based cable and satellite network television Home Box Office (HBO), Nickelodeon, and the Washington DC-based National Geographic.(27)

Soft power, propaganda tool, or both?

Greater South-South news flow and the creation of non-Western media narratives are increasingly becoming issues with media organisations on the African continent. There is a shared sentiment between Africans and Chinese alike that Western media are part of a one-way flow of information benefitting only the West, as Western news reports portray Africa as “a scar on the conscience of the world” in need of constant aid and assistance, without explaining the details of why this is so.(28) In short, Western media reports have created media narratives that enforce the Dark Continent stereotype.(29)

Yet, as South-South news flow increases and China’s voice in Africa becomes louder, the question must be asked how much of what China is saying is just propaganda to rebalance criticism levelled against it, and how much, if at all, the Voice of China is actually contributing to changing negative narratives about the Third World.

On its way to entrenching its global power, China wants to be portrayed as a peaceful and responsible power with credibility. However, efforts to gain credibility have led to increased criticism, especially from the West. In 2012, as China became Africa’s largest trading partner with more than US$ 160 billion in trade and another US$ 20 billion pledged in credit for Africa over the following three years, narratives of neo-colonialism increased.(30) The country has been accused of endangering Africa through aid policies that ask no questions of the governments they support.

It is in response to these negative narratives, argues University of Westminster media Professor, Xin Xin, that China is pushing to correct the “mismatch between strong economic power and weak media.”(31) In other words, China is aiming to increase its soft power to balance its economic growth. And now, in its efforts to increase soft power through a media presence in Africa, accusations of media and cultural imperialism are also surfacing in Western media narratives and scholarly writings.(32)

There is growing criticism from within Africa too, as debate rages about whether China should be viewed as partner or predator. Newspaper tycoon Trevor Ncube, who publishes the Johannesburg-based weekly Mail & Guardian, summed up China’s presence in his home country Zimbabwe thus: “They are all over the place … If the British were our masters yesterday, the Chinese have come and taken their place.”(33)

It would appear that China’s media presence in Africa specifically has a two-pronged function – firstly to counter negative Western narratives about China’s involvement in Africa, and secondly to convince Africans of China’s good intentions. For instance, a Xinhua news report on 23 March 2013 headlined‘Western Countries’ African Exploitation Claims Unfounded, lashes out at Western media for their portrayal of China in Africa, and at the same time tries to counter the criticism by justifying China’s presence in Africa. It accuses Western media of making unfounded claims of neo-colonialism and uses negative phrases such as “they [Western media] neglect to acknowledge” and “Western countries …fail to realise.” The report then goes on to stress China’s importance in Africa as a risk taker, going where the West fears to tread.(34)

Chinese media reports on Africa are filled with stories about how China is improving Africa and how Africans have improved themselves in China. Xinhua’s Africa-dedicated programmes, such as Focusing on Africa and Africa Features, depict how some Africans have become successful in China, becoming Kung-fu masters and running successful businesses. Yet despite undertakings to the contrary, reports maintain negative narratives as they sing the praises of Chinese doctors working in dangerous Africa, which has claimed the lives of “dozens of Chinese doctors … when performing their duties on the continent far away from their homeland.”(35) Xinhua’s Africa in Pictures perpetuates the Western stereotyping of Africans – young girls with naked breasts, hungry children, and savage men with snakes draped around their bodies.(36) This is exactly what Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina warned against in this extract from his well-known skit How to Write about Africa:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.(37)

China has indicated that it aims to take a different approach with regards to its reporting in the Third World, that it wants to correct negative narratives. Xinhua news reporters are sent to Africa with specific instructions to report on Africa’s problems with sensitivity to its colonial past. But these reporters are not speaking with their own voices – they are “improving and safeguarding socialist China’s international images.”(38) They have been told to represent China’s interests, to avoid human rights issues and to avoid the use of controversial words such as ‘regime’ or to ignore news of Swaziland because of its diplomatic relations with Taiwan.(39)

This restriction on Chinese reporters in Africa has led to deep concerns regarding China’s influence on media freedom on the continent. It is estimated that around 80% of media income in China today is from advertising, but despite China’s media operating in a freer market economy than previously, media freedom in China is almost non-existent. Massachusetts-based non-governmental organisation Freedom House classified China in a 2012 press freedom report as the “world’s largest poor performer, with a restrictive media environment.”(40) Out of 192 countries, China was ranked 187th. In September 2013, Freedom House said that the Chinese state continued to implement media restrictions on reporting, for example on protests, violence and corruption. There is concern that the Chinese media model, of operating in a free market while speaking for the state, could be attractive to authoritarian governments in Africa.(41)

Concluding remarks

As a rising global power, China is trying to assert itself in the world. In doing so, it has taken the path of soft power, and that path leads through Africa. With its media expansion into Africa, China is not only attempting to counter the criticism it faces from the West about neo-colonial practices, it is also trying to convince Africans of its good intentions and to win public support. It is doing so by playing the card of ‘negative narratives from the West’, and it is trying to convince African countries that it instead could be the voice to change these narratives. China’s media expansion gained momentum only about five years ago and its true influence is yet to be gauged. Whether this is to the benefit of Africa, or greater South-South news flow, as China claims, remains to be seen.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that the battle for Africa’s audiences is just part of the soft power war between the US and China, as claimed by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.(42) As Africa became the battleground between the US and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the Cold War, it would seem that Africa has yet again become the battleground in the soft power war between China and the US.


(1) Charmaine Pretorius is a CAI Research Associate and a South African freelance journalist. Contact Charmaine through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Asia Dimension Unit (asia.dimension@consultancyafrica.com). Edited by Nicky Berg.ÂÂÂ
(2) Morrison, W.M., ‘China’s economic rise: History, trends, challenges and implications for the United States’, Congressional Research Service, 15 September 2013, http://www.fas.org; Hamlin, K. and Li, Y., ‘China overtakes Japan as world’s second biggest economy’, Bloomberg, 16 August 2010,http://www.bloomberg.com.
(3) Nye, J.S., ‘Propaganda isn’t the way: Soft Power’, International Herald Tribune, 10 January 2003,http://www.nytimes.com; Nye, J.S., ‘Soft power, hard power and leadership’, Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, Harvard University, 27 October 2006, http://www.hks.harvard.edu.
(4) Young, N.C. and Jong, H.J., 2008. China’s soft power: Discussions, resources, and prospects. Asian Survey, 48(3), pp. 453-472.
(5) Sheng, D., 2011. Branding a rising China: An analysis of Beijing’s national image management in the age of China’s rise. Journal of Asian and African Studies 46(3), pp. 293-306.
(6) ‘Confucius Institutes bridges friendship between China and Africa’, Crienglish, 17 February 2009,http://english.cri.cn; Peters, M. and Zhang, Z., ‘Confucius institutes propagate China and its culture’, China Daily, 25 September 2011, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn.
(7) ‘Confucius’, The Famous People, http://www.thefamouspeople.com; ‘Confucius’, Historywiz,http://www.historywiz.com.
(8) Yu, A. L. and Li, K., ‘Preliminary report on China’s going global strategy: A labour, environment and Hong Kong perspective’, Globalization Monitor, February 2009, http://www.globalmon.org.hk; Li, G., Kennedy, A. and Sleigh, A., ‘Five reasons for the world to care about China’s new five-year program’, Accenture, 2011, http://www.accenture.com.
(9) Nye, J.S., ‘Propaganda isn’t the way: Soft Power’, International Herald Tribune, 10 January 2003,http://www.nytimes.com.
(10) Voice of America website, http://www.insidevoa.com.
(11) ‘FY 2013 budget request: Executive summary’, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), 13 February 2012, http://www.bbg.gov.
(12) Ibid.
(13) ‘China’, Press Reference, http://www.pressreference.com.
(14) Yan, L., ‘China expands soft power through 24-hour news’, Radio Australia, 2 August 2010,http://www.radioaustralia.net.au.
(15) Xin X., 2009. Xinhua News agency in Africa. Journal of African Media Studies, 1(3), pp. 363-377.
(16) Mustafi, S.M., ‘Sino the times: Can China’s billions buy media credibility’, Columbia Journalism Review, 2 May 2012, http://www.cjr.org.
(17) Hu, Z. and Ji, D., 2012. Ambiguities in communicating with the world: the “going-out” policy of China’s media and its multilayered contexts. Chinese Journal of Communication, 5(1), pp. 32–37.
(18) Mustafi, S.M., ‘Sino the times: Can China’s billions buy media credibility’, Columbia Journalism Review, 2 May 2012, http://www.cjr.org.
(19) Wu, Y.S., ‘The rise of China’s state-led media dynasty in Africa’, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) China in Africa Project paper no. 17, June 2012, http://www.saiia.org.za;
(20) Ibid., ‘China Daily newspaper launches Africa edition’, BBC, 14 December 2012,http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(21) Sheng, D., 2011. Branding a rising China: An analysis of Beijing’s national image management in the age of China’s rise. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 46(3), pp. 293-306; China International Television Company website, http://tradeinservices.mofcom.gov.cn.
(22) York, G. ‘Why China is making a big play to control Africa’s media’, The Globe and Mail, 11 September 2013, http://www.theglobeandmail.com.
(23) Ibid; Wasserman, H., 2012. China in South Africa: Media responses to a developing relationship.Chinese Journal of Communication, 5(3), 336-354.
(24) ‘Xin’an Media Corporation Limited relies on Uniset’, Manroland, 8 August 2010,http://www.manroland.cn.
(25) Wu, Y.S., ‘The rise of China’s state-led media dynasty in Africa’, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) China in Africa Project paper no. 17, June 2012, http://www.saiia.org.za; ‘Xin’an Media Corporation Limited relies on Uniset’, Manroland, 8 August 2010, http://www.manroland.cn; ‘Xin’an Media Co., Ltd. Established’, Anhui News, 17 September 2008, http://english.anhuinews.com.
(26) Tencent company website, http://www.tencent.com; ‘Annual Report 2010’, Naspers, 2010,http://financialresults.co.za; ‘Xinhua’s CNC English-language TV channel to reach African cable audiences’, Xinhua, 10 December 2012, http://news.xinhuanet.com.
(27) Sheng, D., 2011. Branding a rising China: An analysis of Beijing’s national image management in the age of China’s rise. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 46(3), pp. 293-306; ‘Foreign media in scramble for China pay TV tie ups’, China Digital Times, 24 November 2004, http://chinadigitaltimes.net.
(28) ‘Reshaping Africa’s media narrative’, Black Star News, 2 November 2006, http://blackstarnews.com.
(29) Ibid; Stoller, P., ‘Media myopia and the image of Africa’, Huffington Post, 8 August, 2013,http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
(30) ‘China Daily newspaper launches Africa edition’, BBC, 14 December 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk; King, M., ‘China-Africa trade booms’, The Journal of Commerce, 18 July 2012, http://www.joc.com.
(31) Xin X., 2009. Xinhua News agency in Africa. Journal of African Media Studies, 1(3), pp. 363-377.
(32) Buckingham, K., ‘China’s going out strategy and the implications for agriculture and forestry resources in Africa’, China Policy Institute, 9 April 2013, http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk; Wasserman, H., 2012. China in South Africa: Media responses to a developing relationship. Chinese Journal of Communication, 5(3), pp. 336-354.
(33) Wasserman, H., 2012. China in South Africa: Media responses to a developing relationship. Chinese Journal of Communication, 5(3), pp. 336-354; Timberg, C., ‘In Africa, China trade brings growth, unease’, Washington Post Foreign Service, 13 June 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com.
(34) ‘China voice: Western countries’ African exploitation claims unfounded’, Xinhua, 23 March 2013,http://news.xinhuanet.com.
(35) Song, Y., ‘Chinese medical teams enjoy reputation in Africa’, Xinhua, 28 October 2006,http://news.xinhuanet.com.
(36) ‘Xinhua journalists cover Africa’, Xinhua company website, http://news.xinhuanet.com.
(37) Wainaina, B., ‘How to write about Africans’, Granta, Winter 2005, http://www.granta.com.
(38) Sheng, D., 2011. Branding a rising China: An analysis of Beijing’s national image management in the age of China’s rise. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 46(3), pp.293-306.
(39) Xin X., 2009. Xinhua News agency in Africa. Journal of African Media Studies, 1(3), pp. 363-377.
(40) Karlekar, K.D. and Dunham, J., ‘Press Freedom in 2011: Breakthroughs and pushback in the Middle East’, Freedom House, 2012, http://www.freedomhouse.org; ‘China’, Press Reference, company website,http://www.pressreference.com.
(41) ‘Censorship directives restrict reporting on protests, corruption, and deadly clashes’, Freedom House China Media Bulletin, No. 92, 5 September 2013, http://www.freedomhouse.org; Wu, Y. S., ‘The rise of China’s state-led media dynasty in Africa’, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) China in Africa Project paper no. 17, June 2012, http://www.saiia.org.za; Wasserman, H., 2012. China in South Africa: Media responses to a developing relationship. Chinese Journal of Communication, 5(3), pp. 336-354.
(42) ‘Hillary Clinton: US losing the information war to alternative media’, Global Research TV, 4 March 2011, http://tv.globalresearch.ca.

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