In many developing countries the rise of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the international arena seems to provide an alternative model to the familiar yet critically questioned Western hegemonic appeal. Infrastructure development in Africa is a well-known field of contention, since the PRC has established development cooperation there at an unprecedented speed, and with a unique strategic clout, seemingly without normative intentions. The field of journalism and communication in Africa seems to be in a process of recalibration as well. As does the West, China knows about the power of grand narratives and its President Xi Jinping called in 2013 to 'tell China’s story well'.
To better understand the dynamics on the ground, it would be quite interesting to know more about African journalists who are employed in Chinese media organizations in Africa, and about their motivation, agency, and self-reflection. Dr Emeka Umejei, who recently began a postdoc research fellowship at the Centre, does exactly this. Emeka has a background in communication studies and prior experience as a foreign correspondent for a US-based magazine. To approach his topic, Emeka settled in Nairobi, because Kenya is the operational hub of Chinese media organizations in Africa (China Global Television Network (CGTN), Xinhua New Agency, China Daily newspaper). He observes ‘a certain segmentation’ in Chinese media organizations, where leadership consists of Chinese nationals, whereas journalism on the ground is done by African journalists (low level positions). Emeka notes the contrasting experience during his own time as a foreign correspondent, where he ‘had a very mutual relationship with [his] bosses'. Certain kinds of content are omitted by editors based in Beijing, and this seems to happen regularly when aspects of Chinese culture and society are at issue. 'Positive reporting' is a label used by Chinese media organizations. Not entirely alien to Western news outlets, the Chinese understanding clearly demands a different mindset. Emeka received a variety of responses from his African interlocutors. Some of them want to continue with 'positive reporting'. For others 'this has nothing to do with journalism'. In his book 'Chinese Media in Africa: Perception, Performance, and Paradox', he reflects on a telling case during Pope Francis' 2015 visit to Kenya. The African journalists had the intention to write about it because it moved the whole country but the Chinese editors simply ignored it.
In our discussion, Emeka sketches a broader picture and weighs up the arguments. There is the post-colonial aspect and the Chinese presence provides for a viable alternative model, but when it comes to governance structures and the media, responses and other evidence suggest that the level of trust is low [press freedom map, Reporters sans Frontiere]. Africans in his view, however, lack the agency to mitigate Chinese influence. This concern is not diminished by growing dependencies in ICT infrastructure. China builds and maintains 70% of installations (main contractors are Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE) and there is uncertainty how this will play out in a possible future conflict. By and large, there is a level playing field ('If you don't get the money from the World Bank, you go to China'), but most African actors don't think in the long term and turn a blind eye to compliance, international rule, and debt development beyond their term of office.
Dr Umejei recently detailed his research during fieldwork in July 2021 with a focus on trainee programmes for African applicants, organized by Chinese media organizations in cooperation with Chinese embassies and the Chinese 'Public Diplomacy Network'. He sums up first findings for us here:
While participants were unanimous over the human capacity benefits of Chinese-sponsored media exchanges and training programmes, they tend differ over its journalistic content. The variation was evident among short-term (3-weeks), medium-term (6-10 months) and long-term (Master's study) participants. Short-term participants in both countries perceived the exchanges to be short on journalism content and an avenue for channelling China’s soft power. Medium-term participants perceive the training to have journalistic traction, they, however, emphasise that it seeks to introduce African journalists to the 'Chinese way' of doing things in the media.
Western recruitment procedures are not entirely different in that participants are 'socialized' and meet for possible future contracts, but the study finds specifics in the composition and focus of those programmes.
Whereas in the West you would have lectures about ethical reporting and reporting techniques, the Chinese run their own stuff, engagement with the Communist Party, government officials, Chinese heritage and political system with only a small component of media training.
What does it mean for the future of the African media scape?
If China continues with its engagement, we're likely to see a kind of journalistic tradition emanating. There will be a Western orientation and a Chinese orientation, coexisting on the African continent but formed by media systems. Authoritarian regimes will favour the Chinese journalistic culture but in Westphalian system type countries you will have an inclination towards a Western understanding of culture and democracy.
This seems to be a convincing idea but at the same offers perspective on an enhanced (substitute) form of system competition.
Dr Umejei himself is quite positive to join the Centre's World order research group. In a world of geopolitical tension between the US and China, he expects for some time a combination of Chinese oriented and Western oriented societies and an upsurge of the Chinese model may happen in Africa. But in the long run, he suggests, a multi-lateral governance model may prevail.
Umejei, Emeka (2020). Chinese Media in Africa: Perception, Performance, and Paradox, Lanham MD, Lexington.
Interview: Emeka Umejei on the “Unequal Equal” Relationship Between Chinese and African Media, China Digital Times, posted by Oliver Young, November 23, 2021.