China Mobilizes BRICS Media in Praise of Xi

In only his second trip abroad this year, Xi Jinping attended this week’s BRICS summit in South Africa in the hope of scoring a major political victory. The five-member group—comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—announced at the end of the summit on Thursday that it would add six new members as of January 2024: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Xi argued that the “historic” membership expansion “shows the determination of BRICS countries for unity and cooperation with the broader developing countries.”

As Steven Erlanger, David Pierso, and Lynsey Chutel wrote for The New York Times, there may be more symbolism than substance in Xi’s “victory” at the BRICS summit

Still, the appearance of success for China may turn out to be the most significant takeaway from the summit meeting, which otherwise failed to deliver on its long-stated goal of establishing a BRICS currency to rival the hegemony of the U.S. dollar. The group instead encouraged members to use local currencies in trade.

[…] The meetings are “all about symbolism,” said [Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs economist who coined the term BRIC in 2001], adding, “It’s not clear to me that BRIC summits have done anything.” 

[…] With China’s economy in the doldrums, with a real estate scandal, the unexplained ouster of the foreign minister and the sudden firing of top generals, Mr. Xi needed a political win to display back home, suggested Philippe Le Corre, a China expert with the Asia Society Policy Institute. [Source]

Christian Shepherd at The Washington Post described how Xi’s true motivation in pushing for an expansion was to strengthen the group’s role as an alternative to Western-led forums:

This year has seen “the most open and explicit push from Xi Jinping to turn the BRICS into a kind of ‘anti-hegemonic’ vehicle,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

Xi’s speeches have been “a blow-by-blow case against the U.S. alliance system and U.S.-dominated financial systems,” as well as a pitch for building “alternative, non-Western frameworks” for developing countries to trade, Small said.

[…] Small said the intent is clear. “It’s part of the long-term bet China has made. They think relations with the West are going to deteriorate and the future of relations with the world will be rooted in the developing world, so they want to find ways to institutionalize and entrench resilient systems,” he said.

[…] The summit sent a clear message to the United States and its allies that “you cannot contain or suppress China because it has friends all over the world,” said Ming Jinwei, an independent political commentator [who previously worked as an editor at the state-run Xinhua News Agency]. [Source]

In the media domain, BRICS cooperation is presented as promoting global development and addressing challenges for the mutual benefit of its members. But a closer examination of news coverage by Chinese state media and their content sharing partners reveals an intensely Chinese-centered media coordination campaign aimed at criticizing the West and elevating Xi Jinping’s “core” leadership.

The BRICS Media Forum is a prime example. This flagship media initiative was proposed in 2015 by China’s official state news agency Xinhua, whose president, Fu Hua, is the forum’s executive chairman. The sixth and latest edition of the forum was held in Johannesburg from August 18-20, under the theme “BRICS and Africa: Strengthening Media Dialogue for a Shared and Unbiased Future.” It gathered around 200 participants from around 100 media outlets, think tanks, and international organizations from 30 countries, according to a readout. At the opening ceremony, Fu Hua stated that the purpose of the forum was to “further promote communication and cooperation in greater depth among BRICS media and among BRICS countries.” But he also used the occasion to unveil two research reports, by Xinhua’s think tank New China Research, about “Xi Jinping’s economic thought” and the CCP’s “Second Integration” theory. As a Xinhua article explained, “The report on Xi’s economic thought comprehensively expounds on the core meaning, spiritual essence and rich connotations of Xi Jinping’s economic thought from philosophical, strategic and tactical dimensions as well as with a global perspective, providing an authoritative interpretation for people to better understand Xi Jinping’s economic thought.” 

Xinhua reporter Miao Xiaojuan interviewed various participants in the media forum and produced a video montage titled: “Global South Against Western Media Monopoly.” The video showcases participants’ “growing disillusionment with Western media narratives,” a sentiment that Miao said she “heard echoed time and again.” One interviewee was Mahasha Rampedi, editor-in-chief of the online news outlet Africa Times, who shared some strategies for BRICS media cooperation: “What we can do is start with content syndication so that we can all benefit from each other’s expertise… We need to start creating and identifying our own pool of expert commentators so that you don’t have West-leaning expert commentators dominating the platforms.”

This syndication strategy was on full display during the summit. On Monday, Xi penned an article titled “Sailing the Giant Ship of China-South Africa Friendship and Cooperation Toward Greater Success” for various South African media outlets, including The Star, Cape Times, The Mercury, and Independent Online (IOL), as China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated. What followed was a round of mutually laudatory media coverage echoing the same talking points. Not only did Xinhua cover Xi’s article, but CGTN produced a video segment highlighting how The Star, owned by IOL, published Xi’s article on the front page of its print edition, along with a huge portrait of Xi. (Qiushi and other Chinese state media also boasted about South African press coverage of Xi’s article.) IOL subsequently published an article lauding CGTN’s coverage of IOL’s own subsidiary’s coverage of Xi’s article. Bringing things full circle, the Chinese journalist who produced the CGTN video shared IOL’s post about its article on Twitter, as did The Star.

This episode illustrates the dizzying array of content syndication, the linkages therein, and the ways in which such syndication leans on its “own pool of expert commentators,” just as Rampedi suggested. One of the African interviewees in the CGTN video was Sifiso Mahlangu, editor-in-chief of IOL and a useful source for pro-China BRICS media. In an article published on Thursday by China Daily, titled “China, S. Africa set to strengthen ties, amplifying Global South voices,” Mahlangu is quoted saying: “Our history dictates that China has been our friend. The Chinese people, the People’s Republic of China, and the Communist Party of China have been the friends of the South African people.” Previously, Mahlangu delivered a speech at a media workshop of the Belt and Road News Network and gave quotes to the Global Times about it in 2019; he chaired a 100-person meeting on China-Africa media cooperation with a series of Chinese media-related organizations in 2020, and attended a seminar on “Chinese Modernization and Its World Significance” hosted by Xinhua in 2022. Another African interviewee in the CGTN video is Austin Thomas from the Sierra Leonean outlet Awoko. Thomas previously wrote a positive interview about the Chinese ambassador to Sierra Leone, and used his byline to publish an article that was copied from a China Daily article praising Xi’s role in the CCP’s 20th Party Congress. 

Beyond the CGTN video, IOL had more praise for China during the summit. Among the articles it published on Wednesday and Thursday were, “Chinese President Xi preaches unity and BRICS expansion during his speech,” “‘No strings attached’ to China’s help to end the power crisis,” and “SA and [electricity public utility] Eskom breathe a sigh of relief as China comes to the rescue.” 

Other media stories centered around Xi reverberated between outlets from China and the Global South. Before the summit, Xi sent a letter to a Confucius Institute in South Africa—the institute there has trained nearly 10,000 students since its establishment ten years ago—calling for closer people-to-people ties among the BRICS group. The letter was covered by Chinese state media, amplified on social media by Chinese state actors, and covered positively by other African press outlets. Moreover, CCTV and Hu Xijin seized on the opportunity to share a Twitter video of Xi receiving a medal of South Africa’s highest honor from its president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

For domestic audiences back in China, as Phil Cunningham documented with screenshots on his China Story Substack, CCTV glorified Xi’s performance at the BRICS summit

CCTV puts great stock into the pomp and circumstance accorded to Xi, and Xi alone, during this meeting with the leaders of India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and Russia (in absentia) at the table.

It arguably serves to show the world that Xi is first among equals, or just plain first, with no close second, but it does not augur well for Modi, Lula and even Putin’s stand-in Lavrov, who are downgraded diplomatically and indirectly snubbed by the showering of so much special attention on Xi.

[…] CCTV news shows the heavily-made up paramount leader giving a verbose speech, which is made longer during the news voice-over with the use of repeated images. It airs an identical, seemingly attentive, reaction shot of host Ramaphosa three times, but it can’t enforce audience attention as in China. [Source]

However, there were some minor media gaffs. Xi’s arrival at the airport was poorly handled by Chinese state media, as Cunningham noted, citing the unflattering lighting and constant flashes that appeared in the footage. “It’s been a long time since such subpar footage has aired on CCTV, and it’s subpar footage of Xi of all people.” Cunningham also speculated whether the absence of Qin Gang, known for his meticulous attention to detail in the area of diplomatic protocol, may have been a factor in the amateurish coverage. And later, when Xi mysteriously missed a speech that he was scheduled to give on the first night of the forum, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying erroneously stated on Twitter that Xi had given the speech. Lastly, there is the awkward video footage showing one of Xi’s aides (thought to be his translator) running to catch up with his boss, only to be intercepted by a security guard who closes the doors in the translator’s face, preventing him from following Xi into the forum venue. Needless to say, that particular incident was not highlighted in official Chinese or BRICS media.

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