Chinese Media Influence and People-to-people Exchanges in Francophone Africa

Last week, the U.S.-based think tank National Bureau of Asian Research published a roundtable edition of its Asia Policy journal that shared African perspectives on the China-Africa relationship. One essay was written by Mauritian democracy scholar Roukaya Kasenally, who examined the history of China’s engagement in Mauritius’ media and information environment. Through interviews with local journalists, Kasenally documented an increase in Chinese propaganda in Mauritian media, a divergence in China-related coverage between public and private media, and Chinese training and material support for local media institutions:

Most journalists interviewed emphasized the need for balanced reporting and were aware that China pushes the “propaganda card.” In recent times, full-page color advertisements have appeared in major newspapers to promote key Chinese projects or events, such as major real estate development or the hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. This marketing of China is further supported by a number of locally based Sino-Mauritian platforms, including the Mauritius Chinese Business Chamber and the Mauritius Chinese Friendship and Cultural Association, which showcase China in local media through interviews, featured articles, and opinion pieces. 

[…] There seems to be a marked difference in the coverage of Chinese news items between the state broadcaster and private media. The state broadcaster covers government-to-government news items at great length, often emphasizes China as a friendly country, and devotes extended coverage to the key development projects China finances. Notably, several journalists working at the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation have trained at Chinese universities. In addition, the broadcaster’s building was constructed using an interest-free loan from China. On the other hand, private media is more cautious in balancing coverage between China and other foreign entities. Journalists from private media have been more willing to write critical pieces pertaining to China’s real estate development, infrastructure campaigns, and Safe City project, among other activities.

[…] In 1994, Mauritius’s Media Trust was established to provide training for Mauritian journalists, among other aims. The Media Trust receives most of its funding from the government but also engages with other entities such as international organizations and foreign embassies. […] Since 2019, the Media Trust has also had a verbal agreement with the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA), which established an exchange program. Due to Covid-19, however, this program has only existed in conception. In September 2019, two board members of the Media Trust, who are also journalists, attended the Belt and Road Journalists Forum held in Beijing. That same year, the Chinese embassy in Mauritius donated three laptops and a mobile phone to the Media Trust. [Source]

Speaking with Le Projet Afrique Chine this week, Selma Mihoubi, a researcher at the Sorbonne University in Paris, shared similar insights from her own fieldwork in Senegal and Niger as part of her research on China’s influence in francophone African media. Mihoubi described how greater Chinese engagement on the continent, including China-Africa journalist exchanges, has led to francophone African media increasingly carrying Chinese content. Commenting on the future of Chinese influence in African media, she predicted that Chinese entrepreneurs will likely invest in more local media and Chinese media outlets will recruit more local journalists. 

Both of these studies are consistent with trends in other African countries. In Ghana, for example, Chinese companies and government agencies have hosted journalist exchanges and pushed for greater Chinese content in local media, at times enticing journalists with financial rewards for positive coverage of China. CDT recently documented that Ghanaian state media carries a substantial amount of Chinese propaganda, as do a range of local outlets in Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, many of which employ journalists who have participated in Chinese training programs. 

A pillar of China’s expanding media influence is its people-to-people diplomacy, which forms a fundamental part of its soft power and alternative knowledge production in the Global South. Highlighting the different methods that Chinese and African media use to cover the news, one Mauritian journalist described the purpose of her visit to Chinese media outlets during her training program in China: “to compare, take what is good, and maybe bring it back home with us.” Chinese elites have recently emphasized the importance of these exchanges for China’s global image. Last month, Beijing and Zhejiang hosted the 11th China-Africa Think Tanks Forum, where Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Deng Li and hundreds of other officials attended discussions on topics such as “strengthening people-to-people exchanges and cooperation.” On Saturday, when asked by the Beijing Daily how to improve China’s external relations with the West, Wang Huiyao, head of the influential think tank Center for China and Globalization, stated: “The first suggestion is to restart the exchanges between enterprises and governments as soon as possible.” 

Some figures in African media have critiqued the unequal relationship cultivated by these exchanges, whereby China preaches equality with Africa while promoting Chinese hegemony in the media. In June, the Ghana-based Afro-Sino Centre of International Relations criticized the instrumentalization of journalist exchanges meant to boost China’s image:

The training received by most Africans from Chinese people should be devoid of serving instrumental purposes but instead focused on addressing systemic issues. Why should African media personnel be trained by Chinese experts only to “tell Chinese stories better?” Being the fourth estates of governance, media persons should report the news that does not favor prescribed narratives based on their Chinese-funded seminar priorities. [Source]

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