By Emeka Umejei
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been described as China’s most ambitious push
for a dominant role in global geopolitics and trade. Launched in 2013 by China`s President Xi Jinping the overarching goal of the BRI is to promote interconnectivity and partnership among countries along the ancient maritime silk road which spans Asia, Eastern Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The US-based Council on Foreign Relations estimates that 139 countries that have signed up to the BRI: 49 of the 54 African nations are signatories.1 In 2020, the African Union and China signed an agreement to promote the BRI in Africa, becoming the first agreement signed between China and a regional body to jointly promote the initiative. The BRI has three fundamental objectives: to explore drivers of global growth in the post–great recession era, to rebalance globalization, and to create new models for regional cooperation in the twenty-first century. It is underpinned by five components: policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds. The people-to-people segment is where media sits in the ecology of the BRI.
An action point from the Forum on Africa-China Cooperation (FOCAC) in Dakar in 20212 was for the two sides to “actively promote exchanges and cooperation in the field of press and publication”. But the going out’ campaign of the Chinese media was first launched in response to the Western media’s framing of events leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. This, along with China’s increasing bilateral trade with Africa, provided an important background to its media expansion on the continent. It was eager to counterbalance international media coverage of China’s engagement within Africa, that framed it as being driven by self-interest and a desire for natural resources. In 2007, with the objective to tell a different story of China-Africa relations and support from former prime minister, Wen Jiabao, who urged China to extend its cultural engagement with other countries, the country’s efforts to shape the African it was confirmed that Chinese media outlets going international would receive funding to enable them ‘present a true picture of China to the world. By 2006, the Africa regional editorial office of Xinhua News Agency had already relocated from Paris to Nairobi. But in 2010 it commenced mobile news delivery. These developments were followed in 2011 by the establishment of China Central Television – now renamed China Global Television Network (CGTN) – in Nairobi, the first and largest bureau of CGTN outside China. The following year saw the launch of the African edition of Xinhuanet, an online service of the Xinhua News Agency (XNA). The Economist estimates that China now spends as much as US$10 billion annually on its media internationalization project globally.
However, there are growing fears that Chinese media expansion into Africa is impeding freedom of expression4 and engendering limited professional autonomy among journalists. This, in part, accounts
for why Chinese presence in the media space on the continent continues to elicit widespread anxiety both
within the industry and among outside observers. While some express concern over the authoritarian
model employed by Chinese media, others are worried about how its narrative may impinge on, and
indirectly impact, the continent’s fragile democratic space.
On the whole, Chinese media outlets subscribe to a model of journalism that emphasizes ‘positive
reporting’ over the western model of ‘watchdog journalism’ that seeks to hold leadership to account.
This ‘positive reporting’ model of journalism entails collaboration between the media and government
which limits scrutiny of the latter’s actions. There are concerns that if Chinese media replicate this model
of journalism in West Africa democratic governance will be further threatened by authoritarian tendencies. But the expansion of Chinese media challenging dominant Western narratives about the continent and has sparked competition between China’s state led media and the Western media organizations for audience. African-focused broadcasting programmes such as the BBC’s Focus on Africa and CNN’s Inside Africa which started in 2012 and 2014 respectively, responded to the creation of CTGN and its two hours of dedicated Africa news bulletins, which began in Reflecting on these dynamics this paper will outline some of the key ways in which China engages and cooperates with African media operators and rather than months – perceived it to lack journalism content and viewed it more as an avenue for channeling China’s soft power.