China is dramatically increasing its media presence in the world. China Central Television (CCTV) established regional media hubs in Africa as well as in the United States and is currently planning another regional center in Europe. Xinhua News Agency is opening new offices and launched its own 24-hour television news; while the English language paper China Daily is publishing regional editions in different parts of the world as well. Furthermore, Chinese media are supplying facilities and journalism training to various countries, especially in Africa. These activities by China attract increasing attention by media professionals and scholars abroad, but they also cause skepticism. In early September, three international conferences provided insights into China’s emerging soft power efforts and gave plenty food for thought.
One basic, but fundamental, insight is the very fact that Africa plays an important role when it comes to China’s international communication efforts. This increasing importance is reflected in the growing academic interest and engagement. Therefore, two of the conferences dealt explicitly with Africa, namely the conference on “China’s Soft Power in Africa: emerging media and cultural relations between China and Africa” in Ningbo and the “China and Africa: Media, Communications and Public Diplomacy” conference in Beijing. The rather broadly conceived conference at Tsinghua University in Beijing on “China’s Media Go Global” also saw a number of presentations dealing with China and Africa. Winston Mano, Director of the Africa Media Center at the University of Westminster, for example talked about what China’s emerging soft power means for Zimbabwe. Mano pointed out that China has given Zimbabwe a favorite destination status, which helped Zimbabwean businessmen and journalists to develop close links with their Chinese counterparts. In 2011 alone, some 30 journalists went to China to undertake training.
Vivien Marsh, a longtime BBC journalist, compared CCTV’s “Africa Live” program and the BBC World Service TV’s “Focus on Africa”. She finds substantial differences in Africa news priorities in terms of topics covered, deployment of correspondents and geographical spread of news. Revealing was the observation that both programs were launched in 2012, but CCTV started some time earlier. Of course, setting up a new TV program needs plenty of time for preparation, but at least the impression that BBC followed suit may point to a new “battle for Africa”. This time, however, it is not a battle for raw materials but for hearts and minds.
This notion of the “battle for Africa” points to a second insight, namely the fact that at times there were heated debates between Chinese scholars and their western counterparts about what “good” journalism has to be and what role journalism and media should play in society. These debates did not focus so much on Africa as such, but Africa was more a subject-matter which was used to illustrate different points. Chinese scholars would, for example, argue in favor of so called “constructive journalism” which covers positive and solution-focused reporting while western scholars would highlight the importance of watchdog journalism instead. And at times it seemed that both sides wanted to convince their African counterparts that their respective approaches would be more suitable for the media landscape in Africa.
A third insight concerned the role of the audience. It became clear that a lot of studies focus on the sender, thus on the media infrastructure and architecture, but not so much on the recipient or receiver of media content. One of the very few presentations dealing with the receiving side provided interesting insights into how China’s soft power push works, or does not work, in Africa. Jacinta Mwende Maweu from the University of Nairobi analyzed how CCTV is perceived in Kenya. She found, for example, that it is targeting mainly the elite and that locals had the impression that “CCTV is too biased”.
This essentially confirmed one important observation by Gary Rawnsley, who reminded both academics and practitioners, that all these communication efforts have to be seen much more from the audience perspective, because it is the audience that makes something out of any message. A government can provide the best and most expensive infrastructure and certain contents to communicate with foreign audiences, but it has no control over how messages are perceived, interpreted and understood by the receivers. And this, it seems, is a particular important point to keep in mind when analyzing China’s attempts to communicate with the world and shape its international image. China is heavily investing in all sorts of media outlets, as these conferences have illustrated, but as the Beatles already knew: „Money can’t buy [you] love.”