Voracious”. “Devouring”. “Ravenous”. “Insatiable appetite”.
This is how the media usually choose to portray China’s involvement in Africa.
Judging from presentations delivered at a recent conference at the University of Westminster in London, media coverage of China’s presence on the continent amounts to all but a wholesale rejection of China’s attempts to gain a foothold in Africa. While media criticism of China can be understood considering the role of geopolitics – especially regarding China’s controversial human rights record – the media also came under fire for lacking nuance and fairness in the way it portrays China.
The broad themes in media coverage were summarised neatly by Dr Emma Mawdsley of the University of Cambridge, who characterised media coverage of the relationship between China and Africa as displaying four broad themes:
• There is a tendency to homogenise the nature of Chinese involvement in Africa and separate it from other actors in Africa (for instance, the interaction between China and British firms working in Africa is ignored);
• Media reports show a preference for the negative outcomes of Chinese engagement – its support for Zimbabwe and Sudan, for instance;
• There is a tendency to portray Africans as either victims or villains, childlike and without agency to make up their own minds about China’s influence; and
• Media reports give an “extremely complacent” account of Western actors in Africa.
These points supported those made by Firoze Manji, executive director of the social justice organisation, Fahamu. He said: “China is described as a dragon eating up Africa. There is a view that an Asian tsunami is going to destroy African trade and industry.”
Manji reported on his study of media reports which led him to conclude that in comparison with the largely negative portrayal of China in Africa, Western influences (be these big capital or NGOs) were usually described in “anodyne terms” like “job creation” or “development”.
He argued that it was in fact the West’s policies towards Africa – most notably the Washington consensus – and international financial institutions that created the opportunities for China to extend its influence on the continent: “Structural adjustment led to huge job losses and destruction of African industry. There is still strong conditionality attached to Western investment in Africa. These conditions allowed China to move in. It is to China’s advantage that it has no history of colonialism, nor did they sponsor wars or assassinations of African leaders”.
Manji referred to the role of South Africa as “one of the biggest players in Africa”, saying that the democratic elections of 1994 liberated South African capital to invest in other African countries and reap the benefits.
He further highlighted the fact that for China, Africa is not the highest priority among developing countries in which it invests. The bulk of China’s foreign direct investment in the developing world is in Asia and Latin America – Africa only represents 3 percent of investments made in the developing world. Furthermore, Manji says, China is “way down on the list” of countries making foreign direct investments in Africa.
But while China’s involvement on the continent “pales in comparison” with that of the UK or the US, or even India’s greenfield projects in Africa, there is not the same “media panic” over the these countries’ interests in Africa, Manji says. Although China has to be seen as an imperial power on the continent, the same goes for Western players, and the media should apply the same criteria to China as to other players, he argued.
Professor Fackson Banda from Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies also pleaded for a more nuanced media portrayal of China’s role in Africa. He reminded delegates that China has been engaged in Africa since the days of the liberation struggle, and that its current involvement should therefore be seen as a continuation of earlier activities rather than a sudden move.
The technical assistance China has recently extended to national government media in, for instance, Zimbabwe should be seen in this light. Banda says that, although the ideological implications of China’s involvement with African media (for example in Zimbabwe) as a form of “soft power” should not be ignored, this engagement also offers possibilities for new perspectives to emerge in African media.
Banda’s point about the historical role that China has played in Africa was echoed by Ma Guiha of the Xin Hua News Agency, a journalist currently based in London but previously the agency’s correspondent in Nairobi. Guiha referred to China’s presence that started in the 1960s onwards with support provided for a parliament building in Congo, the Tanzania-Zambia railway (mainly to transport Zambian copper along a route bypassing minority white-controlled Rhodesia and South Africa), power grids, and medical teams. Chinese support for such African initiatives has been distinctive because it had “no strings attached”.
Guiha referred to China’s controversial support for Sudan: “There is much criticism of China’s involvement in Sudan, but China was the first country outside Africa to send peacekeeping engineers, and provided 80-million yen in humanitarian aid alone”.
China’s negative media image extends beyond written copy, as Dr Winston Mano of Westminster University showed with a selection of cartoons in South African, Zimbabwean and Kenyan newspapers. The South African cartoonist Zapiro’s work reflected criticism of China’s human rights record – for instance, its role in Tibet.
Why so negative?
Why then all this negative reporting about China? Where does the impetus come from to see everything China does in Africa as harmful?
Richard Dowden of the Royal African Society explained it as a turf game:
“Behind the representations of China as rapacious and aggressive, there is a Western attempt to protect their own playing ground”. By infantilising Africa as a passive victim of Chinese aggression, Dowden says, media play into the image of Africa as the “hopeless continent” (as the Economist infamously described Africa on its cover a few years ago).
While the West is belatedly waking up to China’s presence in Africa, they are hamstrung by this image of Africa as helpless and childlike, which prevents the West from adopting a more commercial attitude to the continent that could help them compete with China, Dowden opines.
The picture that emerged from the conference is hardly a flattering one for the media. While a critical, courageous voice is the hallmark of good journalism, one becomes suspicious when such criticism is repeatedly accompanied by the same tune.
When media coverage becomes predictable – as it clearly has in the case of reporting on China in Africa – it is usually a sign of a lack of independent thought and the parroting of a dominant agenda.
Critical reporting should still be fair, nuanced and intelligent. The important role that China is bound to play in Africa demands no less from the media.
Herman Wasserman teaches journalism studies at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (December 2008).