China makes voice heard above din

Updated: 2013-01-21 13:57

By Xiaoling Zhang (China Daily)

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China makes voice heard above din

Global media push is aimed at providing different perspectives on events

As the main engine of global economic growth in the 21st century, China is making its presence felt throughout the world. Africa is no exception. China is Africa's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade surging from $10 billion in 2000 to $200 billion in 2012.

There are those who say that China, apart from the flourishing trade ties it enjoys with the continent, has already displaced European, US and Japanese diplomatic and financial soft power in many sub-Saharan African countries, as part of its global outreach campaign to promote its language, culture, values and diplomacy.

In addition to establishing 29 Confucius Institutes and classrooms in 22 African countries, China has focused on increasing its media presence on the continent. It is using media in Africa as a testing ground to compete with other transnational media companies.

Chinese media's engagement with Africa deepened significantly from 2000 when the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was set up, providing a framework to foster China-Africa cooperation in the media sphere.

Major changes occurred in 2006 when the state news agency Xinhua moved its regional editorial offices from Paris to Nairobi, a central hub in Africa for China's going-abroad media strategy. In 2006, the state-run China Radio International was launched in Kenya.

With more than 20 bureaux in Africa, Xinhua has become a primary source of information. It markets itself as a cheaper alternative to Western agencies such as Reuters and Associated Press by offering insightful information thanks to its closer relations with African political leaders.

Its newly developed English-language TV channel CNC World connected with cable television audiences in Africa at the beginning of 2011, following an agreement between CNC and MIH Group of South Africa. Xinhua's launch of mobile news in sub-Saharan Africa in April 2011 has given 17 million Kenyan mobile phone subscribers access to Xinhua's latest news. It is also believed to have signed news-content deals with state media in Zimbabwe and Nigeria as well as in other parts of the world such as Cuba, Mongolia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Turkey, making it a leading source of news in some regions.

China's broadcasting giant China Central Television launched CCTV Africa, a news production center and studio in Nairobi a year ago. It produces the one-hour news program Africa Live for the global CCTV News in English daily, a 30-minute Talk Africa on Sundays and a documentary, Faces of Africa, on Mondays.

The program, aired between 8 and 9 pm, local prime time, aims to win over opinion leaders and others who have traditionally learned about the country through global political news circles. The director of the CCTV Africa News Production Center recently announced plans to increase its programming to two hours a day.

CCTV, in addition to its greatly increased presence in Africa, is also keen to enter local networks by exchanging news programs with local media organizations. A deal between the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and CCTV in late 2011 is a case in point.

China Daily has just launched its African edition, again in Nairobi. The weekly, a sister publication to the daily's European Weekly and USA Weekly spin-offs, aims to "explain the relationship between China and the African continent", Zhu Ling, China Daily's publisher and editor-in-chief, has said.

Other initiatives include giant news screens in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, training scholarships for African journalists and a new Sino-African news center that will sponsor Africa correspondents to live in Beijing and report on China.

The speed and scale of this Chinese media expansion is especially noticeable at a time when many Western media houses struggle to survive. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said there is a new battlefront: the growing "crowded field of state-financed satellite television news". Citing the emergence of international broadcasters Al Jazeera, Russia Today and CCTV's global English-language broadcast, Clinton told the Senate's foreign relations committee in March 2012 that the US is "engaged in an information war".

"We are losing that war," she said.

What is noteworthy is that for the first time the Chinese media are hiring local media professionals, a strategy common among global news media broadcasters. CCTV Africa now has more than 70 local employees; only 40 are from China. This practice ensures the expression of more subtle views on African and African-related international issues.

These local employees did a three-week training course in Beijing before they took up their posts with the station in Africa. Among the things that attract them include the news center's state-of-the-art technology and the much bigger international platform that enables them to travel all over the continent. Working in all sectors of CCTV Africa, they bring with them different experiences from their previous employers or institutions, many of them private media companies, to the state TV organization.

In February 2012 CCTV launched its second overseas English news production center, CCTV America, and a new studio in Washington, further evidence of China's challenge to the established world order of English-language media. And lessons learned in Africa will be invaluable to China's long-range strategy.

Analysis of CCTV's hour-long program Africa Live confirms this argument. It shows that Africa Live serves as a platform for re-emphasizing China's critical stand on foreign intervention in African affairs, the need to reform international systems and the promotion of a positive image of China, while trying to win over African audiences from its Western competitors such as CNN and the BBC.

In gearing up for international competition, CCTV often engages in discussions conducted on Talk Africa on domestically sensitive topics such as democracy, revolution, elections, crisis and stability.

China's media advance will not be without complications. It remains to be seen how locally employed media professionals negotiate their often Western-oriented understanding and practices of journalism within a Chinese state organization.

But China is without doubt claiming its place in the increasingly crowded global media sphere. As in other areas of reform that adopt the "from point to surface" approach, or "from local experiments to national policy", Chinese state media are using Africa as a testing ground for competing internationally.

With international viewers as their target, they challenge the longstanding Western monopoly on information, transmit a Chinese perspective on events and produce their own stories and images otherwise portrayed in a critical light by the Western media.

The author is associate professor of Chinese Studies at the China Policy Institute, in the University of Nottingham's School of Contemporary Chinese Studies. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.