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Neither devil nor angel: The role of the media in Sino-African relations

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Neither devil nor angel: The role of the media in Sino-African relations
Li Anshan
2012-05-16, Issue 
On April 23, 2012, an article written by Mohamed Keita was forwarded to a Google email group called 'Chinese-in-Africa, Africans-in-China,' of which I am a member. The article was formerly published in New York Times on April 15, entitled 'Africa’s Free Press Problem.' [1] The title itself is fine, raising a question regarding a problem in African society. Yet, if you read the article from beginning to end, you will find another message: China’s influence on African press freedom. This article has caused some discussion among the Google email group, with some for and some against this message.. 

As a Chinese person, I think the viewpoint is very interesting and needs some discussion. Obviously, the Chinese government is eager to change the image created by the coverage of the West media, and therefore spends a lot of effort on the construction of a positive image. 

There are three points concerning the article, which I would like to address. First, according to the author, there is a linkage between the increase of the Sino-African economic activities and the increased repression of the media in Africa. Yet the author offered very thin support for his argument. This is really quite contradictory to the fact since the increase of media freedom goes hand in hand with economic development in China. He stated, 'The prisons in Ethiopia, like those in China, are now filled with journalists and dissidents, and critical websites are blocked.' I am not sure whether his accusation holds the water. Yet as a Chinese person, I enjoy a free life. There are various human rights problems in China for sure, as in other countries, yet we can hear different voices and various opinions in many fields, and I can criticise the policies of the government in my class. I am not saying that there is no press control in China (as in other countries), but press freedom has been greatly improved since the opening up of the country. This fact is acknowledged by many international scholars, including John Thornton.

Keita also argues that the suppression of Africa’s press freedom is intentionally due to the Chinese government by claiming that 'powerful political and economic interests tied to China’s investments seek to stamp out independent reporting.' This is again illogical. I do not want to argue whether it is China’s fault for Rwanda’s previous problem of free press. Frankly speaking, it is a great problem for the Chinese government to control its own press since there are more than 2200 
newspapers in the country (as of 2006), and about 10.000 now, and more than 580 (as of 2009) publishing companies, more than 500 television stations as well. What is more, there have appeared a network of “tweets” or “microblog”. One popular actress named Yao Chen has 15 million fans. Even more than the readers of People’s Daily, an official newspaper. There are an increasing number of published journals year by year. How could it be possible for the Chinese government to exert influence on Africa’s press freedom, in addition to controlling the press in China? 

There is also a problem with the methodology of Mr. Keita’s argument. As pointed out by Dr. Yoon June Park, his article tries to 'generalize about the press in all of Africa.' There are more than fifty African countries and accordingly the situation differs across countries. China has the strongest economic ties with South Africa, how is the press freedom there? The author blames China for the problem in Rwanda. 'The volume of trade between Rwanda and China increased fivefold between 2005 and 2009. During the same period, the government has eviscerated virtually all critical press and opposition and has begun filtering Rwandan dissident news Web sites based abroad.' I am not sure whether his criticism of the situation in Rwanda is correct, yet I would like to ask this question: Is press freedom problem really directly linked to the increase of trade volume between China and Rwanda? The Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei have invested a great deal in Africa, and have been working hard to build information networks in African countries. Would this contribute to communication and press freedom or lead to a blockade of expression of ideas? 

Obviously there are some insights in Mohamed Keita’s article as well. As the Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, he correctly points out the positive role of free African press, which could serve as 'a key institution of development, a consumer watchdog and a way for the public to contextualize official statistics about joblessness, inflation and other social and economic concerns.' Yet we also have to realise that press freedom could develop healthily only with certain social and economic conditions such as social responsibility, sufficient education standards, a sense of citizenship, and basic economic needs being met.
I would also like to analyse the difference between popular misunderstanding and rumour. The first is by accident because of lack of aknowledge, while the second is intentional and spread through media or by mouth. In 2008, we paid a visit to Kenya to attend the 'China-African Civil Society Dialogue' organised by Boell Foundation. During the conference, I gave a public speech with two of my colleagues, Dr. Xu Weizhong and Dr. He Wenping. Chinese Ambassador Zhang Ming also made a speech. [2] During the question-and-answer of my speech, somebody raised the question, 'Are all the Chinese labourers in Kenya prison laborers?' We were quite surprised. My answer was of course definitely no, since it is almost unthinkable for the Chinese government or companies to use prison labor outside the country. Yet there are news reports about this fabrication. After the study of the pattern of the Chinese labor in African countries, I realised the reason of the misunderstanding of the local African people. 

The first reason is their appearance. Chinese labourers are mostly peasants who go abroad the first time to make money. They are dressed in their working clothes, and their expressions are usually less figurative. The second concerns segregation. The peasants know very little about the country where they are working, care less about the surroundings, and show no interest in the outside world. What is more, few of them know the local language. Therefore, they have neither the will nor the interest to communicate with the local people. To add to this, the factory is usually in a compound surrounded by fences or other obstacles and the workers seldom go out. The third concerns the workload. Usually the contracted Chinese company works to a very tight schedule since the contract takes much longer time to issue than expected, and the time period for work is not enough. [3] Therefore, the Chinese labourers have to work by three shifts, e.g. every shift works eight hours a day. Yet outside the worksite, the local people only hear the machines running and see the Chinese labourers working. This increases their speculation: those Chinese really are not the same as the other whites, and their look and behaviour are quite unique judging from the standard of the whites they have met. Who are they? They work hard, are dressed in shabby way and are locked in a compound; they must be prisoners. That is the local people’s speculation and misunderstanding, and it is natural and understandable. 
Yet there is another way of explanation - vicious rumour and groundless accusation as early as 1991, spread through American media by a former American official. A letter to the Editor of the New York Times appeared on May 11, 1991, which started the rumour. “The Chinese not only export goods made by prison labor, but they export prison workers too. While living in West Africa a few years ago, I learned of the case of a Chinese construction company building a road in Benin using prison labour. 70 to 75 percent of the construction workers were known to be prisoners. They were laboring on the Dassa-Parakou road in central Benin under a broiling sun and exposed to malaria and other tropical diseases. The company was the Jiangsu Construction Company, which also built a sports stadium in Cotonou, Benin's capital, and won a $3.5 million contract to build a hospital and mosque in Porto Novo. The company was able to underbid all its competitors by a wide margin because its labor costs were so cheap.” [4] Who is the author? The author was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the Carter Administration. Where did she get the information? Does she have any evidence? If yes, she would definitely indicate as much. If not, is this a rumor with vicious intention? 

It us interesting that BBC, TV5 of France, and CNN have existed for a long time in Africa, usually occupying prime-time slots . Then the convenient newspaper stands spread in almost all African cities with French and English newspapers, magazines and journals such as Guardian, Time, Jeune Afrique, etc., transported from European metropolitan countries. Moreover, there are African newspapers which copy news or opinions about China from European counterparts, either for the shortage of money, or channels or sources of news. This is a natural phenomenon with the historical heritage of colonial linkage, as well as in the period of globalisation. 

As for China, it is another story. There has been a great criticism from the West that China only emphasised summit diplomacy, or governmental contact, while neglecting contact in other fields and especially the exchange with African local people. Yet when China just started to set up its stand in Africa, began to express itself in its own way, there is again criticism. It is right that with more and more economic cooperation, exchange of other fields gets more and more frequent. Now there is an African Students Association in Peking University, and an African diaspora in Guangzhou, and I even once had a personal interview by a South African TV reporter in Beijing. Cultural exchange is getting more frequent, and we should encourage this media exchange. 
China has long been painted as a human rights abuser. During the 2000s, there were so many negative pictures in the Western media regarding China-African relations, such as 'scramble for Africa,' 'neo-clonialism,' 'economic imperialism', etc. And China has been described as a authoritarian monster years ago and is still criticised today by the West who likes to be the master and preacher, yet China is still progressing with its own pace. 

On May 13, 2000, The Economist published a special issue on the African situation with the humiliating title 'The Hopeless Continent.' [5] Yet this bad press could not hinder the progress of the Africa, and the continent has been going forward with its own speed and rhythm. The situation in Africa changed the tone of the press, so that at the end of last year, The Economist published another article entitled 'The Hopeful Continent: Africa Rising.' [6] Therefore, it seems that the effect of the media is not that important, and it could be changed by the situation. 

There is no doubt that the Chinese government is eager to balance the international media in the coverage of Chinese image, as correctly pointed out by Yoon June Park and Deborah Brautigam in their letters to the Google email group, and this approach is becoming more and more urgent for Beijing’s strategy of engagement in Africa. Yet is the issue that important? In an early article, I once pointed out that the most important is to do the right thing. If you are doing the right thing and take responsible action, you do not have to worry about what others talk about you. [7] Yet the strategy of public diplomacy becomes an important tool in the creation of a positive image of China abroad, 'soft power,' a concept coined by Joseph Nye, started to spread. Later, it is introduced into the government document and many articles are published on the issue. [8] Yet I am opposed to the usage of the expression by the Chinese government. 
First, the word 'power' itself used in the context of international relations is usually linked with the meaning of coercion, threat, and militarycontrol. This does not quite fit China’s traditional philosophy of peace under the heaven or peaceful co-existence. Secondly, Joseph Nye developed this concept at a time when the U.S. military power, that is the hard power, is declining. It is an imperative for the U.S., a superpower, to find another kind of power to exert its influence, thus to develop the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce and rather than using force or money as a means of persuasion. It is natural for a big power which is used to controlling the world with force. Yet China is pursuing a policy of peaceful rise and calls for the building of a harmonious world. To use the concept of 'soft power' would be contradictory to its principle. What is more, to encourage or seek 'soft power' may scare away the old friends of developing countries, especially those small and weak nations. 

Therefore, the conclusion is that the press is neither the devil nor angel. Although we cannot neglect its role, we should not care too much for its coverage. If we do things according to our own determination and strategy without too much caring for what others say, we can achieve our goal. As an Arabic proverb goes, 'Dogs are barking, yet the camels are heading forward.' 

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[i] Mohamed Keita, “Africa’s Free Press Problem”, Op-Ed contributor, New York Times, April 15, 2012 ,
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* Li Anshan is based at the Center for African Studies, Peking University
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[ii] “Speech by Ambassador Zhang Ming in the Public Lecture on China-Africa Relations”,
[iii] Interview in a meeting with Chinese State-owned companies, Nairobi, Kenya, May 23, 2009.
[iv] Roberta Cohen, “China Has Used Prison Labor in Africa”, New York Times, May 11,1991. I got this source from Yan Hairong and Barry Sautman. I would like to thank them both for sending me their unpublished article which will appear in the forthcoming issue of China Quarterly.
[v] “The Hopeless Continent”, The Economist, 13 May, 2000.
[vi] “The Hopeful Continent: Africa rising”, The Economist, 3 December, 2011, p.13.
[vii] Li Anshan, “In Defense of China: China’s African Strategy and State Image”, World Economy and Politcs, No.4, 2008, pp.6-15.
[viii] I searched “ruan shi li”, the Chinese translation of “soft power”, in the Chinese search-engine Baidu, the number of the expression reaches 19,000,000 entries.