Interview: Emeka Umejei on the “Unequal Equal” Relationship Between Chinese and African Media

Xi Jinping’s call in 2013 to “tell China’s story well” accelerated an existing trend of Chinese media fanning out across the globe to strengthen the country’s external propaganda and international discourse power. Media outlets have since expanded their international footprints, with Xinhua news agency now reporting from over 200 offices around the world. State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) rebranded as China Global Television Network (CGTN) to help appeal to international audiences. Chinese media organizations have professionalized their foreign-language reporting by hiring hundreds of experienced foreigners to write and translate stories. Partnerships have sprung up between Chinese and foreign media to facilitate content-sharing agreements and journalist exchanges. The Belt and Road News Network (BRNN), a collective of media organizations from dozens of BRI countries, emerged in 2019 as a medium to share news content and host workshops for journalists. Increasingly, Chinese media are collaborating with foreign media around the world to disseminate news. 

Africa is an ideal setting for Chinese media to reach foreign audiences, since China’s success stories may particularly resonate with the African public. China’s economic transformation from a poor country to a leading economic power provides a potentially attractive model to other developing countries in Africa. Similarly, the vociferousness of Chinese global media has inspired some African journalists to replicate the Chinese formula as a way to create alternative narratives of the global south to those propagated by dominant Western media. 

Chinese media initiatives on the continent attest to the important relationship between China and Africa. In April, China Media Group, which owns CCTV, CGTN, and China Radio International, opened a new headquarters in Nairobi, where CGTN had previously established its own African headquarters. China Daily has run its weekly Africa edition, ChinAfrica, for almost a decade. Chinese media company StartTimes has cultivated over ten million subscribers in over 30 African countries. The China-Africa Press Center was the first Chinese-international press center established, and Chinese journalist training programs source heavily from African countries. Official media collaboration began in the 2006 edition of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a triennial summit whose 2021 edition kicks off this weekend in Dakar, Senegal, and since the 2015 edition China has committed to training over 1,000 African journalists per year.

Emeka Umejei is a lecturer at the University of Ghana’s Department of Communication Studies, and a close observer of China’s media expansion into Africa. His most recent book is titled “Chinese Media in Africa: Perception, Performance, and Paradox,” which engages with African journalists working in Chinese media organizations to explore the paradoxical nature of Chinese media on the continent: simultaneously preaching equality with Africa and promoting Chinese hegemony in the media. Umejei joined CDT for an interview that is published below.

China Digital Times (CDT): How does China play a role in the contra-flow of media to, from, and within Africa? What implications does that have for democracy on the continent?

Emeka Umejei (EU): Chinese media is expanding in Africa and China is seeking to entrench its narrative of the new world order in Africa through collaboration with local media organizations on the continent. So, China is using the platform of the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN) to channel its narrative of the new world order in Africa. The Belt and Road Initiative has necessitated a rethink of China’s media engagement in Africa. The new approach seeks to use local media organizations on the African continent to frame the narrative of China’s version of the world. In terms of contra-flow, the presence of Chinese global media corporations on the continent provides African audiences an opportunity to have a different view of African events on the global stage. For instance, when events happen on the continent that make it to the global stage, African audiences are likely to gauge the true narrative of the event using both Chinese and Western media framing of the event. In this instance, Chinese media organizations tend to help African audiences reach a middle-ground view of events on the continent. Hitherto, the Western media enjoyed a dominance of framing of events on the continent but Chinese media organizations are recalibrating the dominance of Western media on the African continent.

CDT: In what ways do Chinese media in Africa not tell the “true” African story? How does that compare with shortcomings in Western media accounts?

EU: One of the promises of China’s state-led media is that it will provide an African narrative of global events, but this is not entirely true. Instead, what Chinese media organizations provide is a Chinese narrative of African events. This means that Chinese media organizations frame African events to suit Chinese perspectives even when such narratives do not represent an African narrative. In my book, I used the example of the Catholic Pontiff’s visit to Kenya and the blocking of African journalists [working at Chinese media outlets] from covering the visit because the CCP does not recognize the Pontiff. If China actually believed in an equal and win-win partnership with Africa, Chinese media organizations should gladly allow African journalists an opportunity to cover events that are central to African humanity, such as the visit of the Catholic Pontiff to Kenya.

CDT: What findings stood out or surprised you during your research for Chinese Media in Africa?

EU: The fact that despite China’s promises of mutuality and equality, Chinese media organizations in Africa promote an “unequal equal” relation between African journalists and their Chinese counterparts.

CDT: In your book, you documented several factors that create an unequal relationship between China and Africa when it comes to Chinese media on the continent. It seems like actors on the Chinese side are content to maintain their advantages, so what steps can African journalists, governments, and citizens take to bring about a more equal relationship?

EU: As aptly described by the former president of Tanzania, China-Africa relations is a relationship of “unequal equals.” This also manifests in Chinese media organizations in Africa; the hierarchy is the Chinese first, white Westerners second, white South Africans and lastly, black Africans. Unfortunately, African governments cannot do much because they are all waiting for handouts from China; African journalists are also limited because local media organizations in much of Africa are not remunerating as much as Chinese media organizations. The implication is that it is better to have half bread than no bread at all. For African citizens, they don’t seem to count much because African governments tend to depend on China to provide infrastructure that affects its citizens. So, inequality happening within Chinese media organizations weighs less on the agenda of African citizens, not even when they think China is providing funding for the minuscule infrastructure they are enjoying in much of Africa.

CDT: How do you imagine Chinese media outlets in Africa will evolve over time? How popular will they become among African audiences, and why?

EU: I would imagine Chinese media outlets will become popular when they privilege African narratives of African events over Chinese narratives of African events. If this happens, Chinese media could gain traction in Africa. As it stands, Chinese media still lags behind Western media organizations in Africa in terms of popularity with African audiences.

CDT: Considering the likelihood that China’s media engagement in Africa will continue for the foreseeable future, what aspects of the Chinese orientation to media may be beneficial to African media and development, and how can they be integrated in a sustainable way that protects African interests?

EU: First, we need to come to terms with the reality that China and Africa are two different contexts, entirely. This means that media orientation in China is more suited to the Chinese lived reality than it is to Africa. For instance, “positive reporting” is good for China because China has attained a certain level of development which is absent in Africa. For instance, I don’t think China is looking to gain stable electricity or basic social amenities. This is not the same in Africa, where there is the need to continue to keep African political actors on their toes, else they forget about delivering the dividends of democracy to the African people. In this sense, I would not suggest that Africa should adopt the Chinese media model, but African journalists and media organizations may benefit from China’s technological advancement in media developments. For instance, algorithmic journalism or computational journalism could become the game changer in Africa if well-adopted. Again, development journalism could also be useful, but the problem is that it could be abused by political actors on the continent who may abuse it and undermine Africa’s fragile democracy.

CDT: What fears about China’s impact on the future of the African media landscape are overblown? What fears are overlooked?

EU: The fears that the Chinese journalism model of “positive reporting” will supplant the legacy of libertarian journalism in Africa [are overblown]. However, there is the possibility that both Chinese and Western journalism models will coexist on the African continent. Policymakers and political actors in Africa overlook the fact that Chinese media is reproducing the “unequal equal” relationship existing between Africa and China in the media in space in Africa.

CDT: Many voices in the Western debate on China’s media influence in Africa tend to project already-held biases and omit African perspectives. How can we amplify African voices and incorporate their perspective into the debate in the West?

EU: I think this is what China Digital Times is doing by speaking to an African scholar, who studies Chinese media in Africa. Even though there are few scholars from the continent researching Chinese media, debates in the West on Chinese media in Africa should allocate spaces to African voices, including scholars as well as African journalists working in Chinese media organizations on the continent.

CDT: How do you assess the current and future impact of the Belt and Road News Network? How might it evolve over time?

EU: This is the elephant in the room that nobody in Africa and the West seems to be talking about. This is likely to provide China with the greatest traction in the media space in Africa. There is the likelihood that more African media organizations will join the network and afford China’s narrative of the new world order. This means that more local media organizations in Africa will become platforms through which China channels its narrative of the new world order and it is likely to gain much traction with African audiences.

CDT: What projects related to China-Africa media engagement are you currently pursuing? What questions or topics are you most interested in investigating in the future?

EU: I am studying Chinese influence operations in the African media space through the platform of the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN). In this study, I am interested in how African media organizations on the BRNN report on critical issues such as Taiwan, Uyghurs, and Hong Kong protests in the African media space. I have also expanded my research to focus on the implications of the US-China rivalry for everyday life and political participation in Africa. For instance, how do African political actors draw upon the Chinese rhetoric of development to promote a model of political governance in Africa?

CDT: Which scholars do you recommend our readers consult for more information on China-Africa media engagement and for African perspectives on this topic?

EU: Iginio Gagliardone, Herman Wasserman, Dani Madrid-Morales, and Bob Wekesa.


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