Sunday September 16, 2018
By Azad Essa
I wrote about Chinese oppression in a South African paper. Hours later, they cancelled my column.
The managing editor of China Central Television Africa, Pang
Xinhua, shows a local journalist in Nairobi how the organization has
expanded in different parts of Africa on June 12, 2012. (Simon
It is official. After more than a decade of planning, setting up, and
bankrolling African media, the Chinese are finally ready to cash in on
Last week, I decided to dedicate my weekly column in a South African
newspaper to discussing the persecution of more than 1 million Uighur
Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
The column looked
at the discrimination suffered by the Turkic-Muslim community and the
inability of the more than 40 African leaders in Beijing for a historic
China-Africa forum to seek clarity from their host. No more than a few
hours after the piece was published by newspapers belonging to
Independent Media, South Africa’s second-largest media company, I was
told that the column would not be uploaded online.
A day later, my weekly column on neglected people and places around
the globe, which I have been writing since September 2016, was
immediately canceled. I was told the “new design of the papers” meant
that there was no longer space for my weekly venting.
Given the ownership structure of Independent Media, with Chinese state-linked firms holding
a 20 percent stake, I understood when I wrote the column that it might
rattle the higher-ups. I didn’t expect the exorcism to be so immediate
and so obvious.
I had, it would appear, veered into a nonnegotiable arena that struck
at the very heart of China’s propaganda efforts in Africa.
In 1999, China embarked on an economic and social outreach program to
the continent, known as its “Going Out” policy, in which it injected
millions of dollars of investment into the African media. To counter the
rampant negative perceptions of China in Western media, the project
looked to take back control of the country’s image in a continent where
its interests were only set to grow.
This meant investing heavily in China’s own state media presence,
including expanding bureaus; supporting privately owned Chinese media
that set up offices on the continent; purchasing stakes in private
African media; and conjuring up partnerships or organizing sponsored
trips to China for cash-strapped African newsrooms.
As the soft diplomacy of China’s agenda has been propelled by the
state-owned Xinhua press agency, China Global Television Network, the
African edition of China Daily, and the monthly magazine ChinAfrica, based in Johannesburg, it is yet unclear whether African audiences have been accepting Chinese versions of their own reality.
is private media companies that have most effectively become vehicles
for forwarding the interests of the Chinese state, in cahoots with local
So, in Kenya, press junkets at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation
or special Beijing-sponsored seminars for Kenyan journalists have turned
the Nation Media Group into a spectacle of press release rewrites
promising an injection of Chinese collaboration into the continent.
In South Africa, Independent Media—partly owned
by the China International Television Corporation and China-Africa
Development Fund—is replete with sycophantic praise for Chinese
investment, lacks critical engagement with the much-ballyhooed BRICS
(Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) project, and fails to
ask basic questions on Chinese motives in Africa. Instead of holding
power to account, it has become its most ardent cheerleader.
Meanwhile, the Chinese-owned StarTimes Group is now operational in 30 countries across the continent and describes itself
as the “fastest growing and the most influential digital TV operator in
Africa.” Though privately owned, StarTimes has benefited from a close
relationship with the Chinese state, as Emmanuel Dubois notes, especially as a tool for exporting Chinese culture and services.
It’s true that the China-Africa story is one that has long been
marred by false dichotomies. But what’s needed is clear-eyed coverage,
not different distortions. In the Western press, the Chinese are either
portrayed as aggressors or neocolonizers, while the Africans are
described as weak or corrupt. In China-friendly media, the pattern is
reversed; the Chinese are benevolent benefactors or partners, while the
Africans are eager recipients.
And where the Western press has done its utmost to reveal African
corruption and fiscal recklessness, Chinese media does its best to
As it stands, there’s little coverage outside of either the Western
portrayal of Africa as being overrun by resource-hungry and ruthless
Chinese companies or the Chinese-sponsored media efforts that extol the
Chinese development model or offer a projection of Africa in
outlandishly positive terms.
A lack of nuance in reporting on China has allowed selfish business
leaders to use the often unfair media portrayals of China and BRICS
nations, or the global south, as an excuse to promote a more
authoritarian, unaccountable business ethic on the continent under the
guise of economic development.
This is precisely how former South African President Jacob Zuma
justified his corruption, which culminated in the widespread use of the
phrase “white monopoly capital” to dismiss all criticism of his business activities.
Some African governments have recognized the value of a media that
toes the state line in lieu of a national agenda. The positive spin
about the continent keeps African leaders happy (in a self-satiating
bubble), and China establishes itself as a “true friend” of the
Companies that take on Chinese ownership are likely to experience the Chinese model of censorship; red lines are thick and non-negotiable.
Given the economic dependence on the Chinese and crisis in newsrooms,
this is rarely confronted. And this is precisely the type of media
environment that China wants their African allies to replicate.
In 2015, Faith Muthambi, then South Africa’s former communication minister, went
to Beijing to understand how the country’s state-owned broadcast media
works. Media freedom in China is among the worst in the world. So it
beggars belief that the minister traveled to learn anything other than
how to control the news.
On the U.S. government side, though, the focus on the situation in Xinjiang comes after a spate of criticism of what is being described as China’s “debt-trap diplomacy.” As valid
as these concerns may be, there’s a strong element of Western
self-interest here. Many of the recent attacks have come off the back of
U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war with China.
That the United States is among the first to threaten
sanctions on China on account of the treatment of Uighur Muslims, while
the Trump administration continues its ban on visits from citizens of
several Muslim-majority countries, shows up the hypocrisies involved.
The Uighurs, it would appear, only represent an opportunity to take a
strike at the dragon.
For the Chinese, meanwhile, silence about a million people imprisoned
without trial is golden. As non-Western powers such as Malaysia begin
to raise the Uighur issue for the first time, potentially endangering
President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road project, the battle for
African public opinion is becoming particularly heated. The culling of
my column came just as Xi pledged $60 billion to the continent, in the form of projects, assistance, investment, and loans, in an event described as the “largest and most high-profile diplomatic event” ever held in Beijing.
The timing to raise the plight of the Uighurs, it turns out, was wrong. And, evidently, just right.