Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang is currently on a five-nation tour of Africa as part of his first official overseas trip in his new position. His itinerary includes Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin, and Egypt, continuing a 33-year tradition of Chinese foreign ministers taking their first official trips to an African country. A brief analysis of the online media environment surrounding Qin’s visit to Ethiopia, the first nation on his tour, reveals how intertwined Chinese and Ethiopian actors are in promoting positive images of China’s engagement in Africa.
As early as Tuesday and continuing well into Thursday, a swarm of Twitter accounts posted identical copies of a number of tweets commenting positively on Sino-Ethiopian relations. These tweets include the hashtags #Ethio_China and #Africa_China, and tag various accounts from the Chinese government, along with online media outlets such as China Digital Times, The Financial Times, and China Media Project, as well as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Here is a sample of the text in some of these tweets, all of which praise China’s engagement in Ethiopia:
China’s investors are second to none in Ethiopia, demonstrating the two countries’ strong win-win relationship bound by strong diplomacy. #Ethio_China #Africa_China @iingwen @ChinaEmbAddis @MFA_China @CDT @CECCgov @JiRongMFA @Chinamission2un [Source]
The proverb A friend in need is a friend indeed perfectly describes Ethiopia-China relations. #Ethio_China #Africa_China @USCC_GOV @ftchina @chinascio @cnmediaproject @iingwen @ChinaEmbAddis @MFA_China @CDT @CECCgov @JiRongMFA @Chinamission2un [Source]
Without China’s assistance, it would have been difficult for Ethiopia to overcome the threat posed by the COVID19 pandemic. #Ethio_China #Africa_China @cnmediaproject @iingwen @ChinaEmbAddis @MFA_China @CDT @CECCgov @JiRongMFA @Chinamission2un [Source]
Ethiopia has benefited greatly from Chinese investment. In the country, there are approximately 400 Chinese construction and manufacturing projects worth more than $4 billion. #Ethio_China #Africa_China @MFA_China @CDT @CECCgov @JiRongMFA [Source]
China’s multifaceted assistance greatly aided Ethiopia in overcoming both natural and man-made challenges faced over the last four years. #Ethio_China #Africa_China @ftchina @chinascio @cnmediaproject @iingwen @ChinaEmbAddis @MFA_China @CDT [Source]
The source of these bot-like tweets is unclear. It is possible that they originated from an orchestrated influence effort linked to the website Ethiopian Truth Media, which organizes social media campaigns (although its own Twitter account, attached to the homepage, is suspended for violating Twitter rules). The over 140 English-language campaigns on its website date back to early 2021 and mostly support Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and defend the central government in its war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. On Tuesday, the website published its first “Twitter Campaign” related to China, for “January 10 & 11,” that contained 15 different ready-to-tweet templates using the same format and text as the pro-China tweets described above. That webpage received over 13,000 views.
Some of the tweets eventually spread to Facebook, although the majority of them have received little to no engagement on either platform. Curiously, one of them was disseminated on Twitter by the Ethiopian ambassador to Sudan, not as a retweet, but issued as his own tweet using one of the exact same templates. His tweet was liked and shared by dozens of users and viewed almost 6,000 times:
China's investors are second to none in Ethiopia, demonstrating the two countries' strong win-win relationship bound by strong diplomacy. #Ethio_China #Africa_China @iingwen @ChinaEmbAddis @MFA_China @CDT @CECCgov @JiRongMFA @Chinamission2un pic.twitter.com/7mhtAD0Zfs
— Yibeltal Aemero Alemu (@Yibeltalaemeroa) January 11, 2023
It is not clear whether the Chinese embassy in Ethiopia had any role in the Twitter campaign, but the embassy did amplify local media coverage of Qin’s visit and reinforced a positive framing of the narrative through a photo news release on the embassy website. One of the three local media outlets referenced in the embassy’s news release is Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), whose vice president participated in the 2022 Media Cooperation Forum on Belt and Road, meant to “battle hegemony” by the West. One of ENA’s journalists has also participated in a media training program in China and recently wrote an article headlined “China’s FM Qin Gang’s Visit to Ethiopia will Take Cooperation Between the Countries to New Heights.” Another ENA article (with no byline) quotes Qin at length discussing the benefits of Chinese engagement.
The Chinese embassy has boasted of previous efforts at disseminating pro-China narratives in local media, notably by showcasing on its homepage an op-ed, written by the ambassador, that was published by a local news outlet. Another local outlet referenced in the embassy’s news release is Fana Broadcasting Corporate, which published an article one month before Qin’s visit describing how diplomats from the Chinese embassy led a session on “digital media engagement and communication strategies of the Chinese Foreign Ministry” for members of the Ethiopian foreign ministry’s communications team.
CDT has previously documented how China’s media engagements in Africa have helped in pursuit of its soft-power goals. Media forums and other people-to-people exchanges have promoted Chinese narratives and Chinese state-media content in local African media, catalyzed by China’s attempts to mediate regional conflicts and conduct “palace diplomacy.” As Council on Foreign Relations fellow Joshua Kurlantzick explained in a recent interview with CDT, these efforts are part of a larger “media offensive” that includes other influence operations in foreign media, such as mass social media campaigns that spread disinformation.
Qin Gang, who recently left his previous position as Chinese ambassador to the U.S., may have needed the extra boost from positive narratives in local media and on social media for his first official trip to Africa. Eric Olander at the China Global South Project noted that Qin’s meeting with his Ethiopian counterpart “appeared to be more focused on optics than substance, not surprising given that Qin is new to the Africa space and this tour is more about relationship building than policy.” Olander elaborated on the motivation behind Qin’s visit to Ethiopia:
The symbolism of Qin making Ethiopia his first stop is critical. In many ways, Addis Ababa is more ideologically aligned with Beijing than any other country on the continent (this includes opposition to unilateral sanctions, similar outlooks on the centrality of state power and sovereignty, and more), so it makes sense this was chosen as Qin’s introduction to African diplomacy. [Source]
Optics aside, African officials will aim to extract benefits from their interactions with Qin during his tour. Cliff Mboya, a researcher at the Afro-Sino Centre of International Relations, said that Qin “will be received well and African leaders will be keen to see what he has to offer. […] The African Union, the leaders who are there, would want to establish personal contact with him just to get an idea of his ideas and his strategy and see how to align themselves with what he will have to say or what China intends to do going forward.” For The Diplomat, Yixin Yu and Charlie Zong previewed the priorities of African countries on the tour:
For Ethiopia, 2023 is also a year of recovery – not from the pandemic, but from the two-year long war with Tigrayan rebels in the northern part of Ethiopia. To recover from the conflicts, restore disrupted economic activities, and rebuild ruined infrastructure, Ethiopia needs significant financing and investment support from its international partners.
China is Ethiopia’s largest trading and investment partner as well as one of its major creditors, with Chinese debts representing a quarter of the country’s total debts in 2021. While Ethiopia has been one of only three countries to date to request debt relief from what is known as the “G-20 common framework” (which includes China), Qin’s visit presents a key opportunity to engage China bilaterally to share Ethiopia’s ambitions for growth alongside debt management. [Source]