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  Home > Academic Exchanges > Voice of Academics
Neither devil nor angel: The role of the media in Sino-African relations


Author:Li Anshan

There is an increasing voice of Chinese in international media, especially in Africa. Some may suggest that this indicates that the Chinese government wants to balance the international media coverage of Chinese image. Others may argue that this is a natural phenomenon of any country that starts to emerge as a big power. We want to ask a more specific question, what’s the role of the media in Sino-African relations?


There is some worry that China’s engagement in media may influence African media thus creates “Africa’s Free Press Problem.' It is a common knowledge that the overwhelming news coverage comes from the west news agency. Therefore, additional Chinese voice only provides some alternative for Africans, and it won’t become a big problem. Africans can make their own judgment by watching or listening. What’s more, history tells us that the increase of media freedom goes hand in hand with economic development. Take China for example, with the rapid development of economy, it becomes a big problem for the Chinese government to control its own press since there are more than 2200 newspapers in the country (as of 2006), and about 10.000 now, and more than 580 (as of 2009) publishing companies, more than 500 television stations as well. One popular actress named Yao Chen has 15 million fans, more than the readers of People’s Daily, an official newspaper. There are an increasing number of published journals year by year. There are various human rights problems in China as in other countries, yet we can hear different voices in many fields, and I can criticize the policies of the government in my class. I am not saying that there is no press control in China (as in other countries), but press freedom has been greatly improved since the opening up of the country. This fact is acknowledged by many international scholars, including John Thornton. How could it be possible for the Chinese government to exert influence on Africa’s press freedom, in addition to controlling the press in China?

Obviously, the Chinese government is eager to change the image created by the coverage of the West media, and therefore spends a lot of effort on the construction of a positive image. But I don’t think the efforts of the Chinese government in media will play a fundamental role in Sino-African relations. China has the strongest economic ties with South Africa, how is the press freedom there? The Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei have invested a great deal in Africa, and have been working hard to build information networks in African countries. Would this contribute to communication and press freedom or lead to a blockade of expression of ideas? Again, on African side, there are more than fifty African countries and accordingly the situation differs across countries. Besides the normally published newspapers, magazines and journals, quite a few networks are established, such as allAfria network, Pambazuka, etc. I presume that more media is present, more voices are heard. There won’t be any problem to get news, yet it has becomes a real problem to get the right and objective news, or distinguish between the fact and rumor, or twisted news.

I would like to analyse the difference between popular misunderstanding and rumour. The first is by accident because of lack of aknowledge, while the second is intentional and spread through media or by mouth. In 2008, we paid a visit to Kenya to attend the 'China-African Civil Society Dialogue' organised by Boell Foundation. During the conference, I gave a public speech on China-Africa relations. Chinese Ambassador Zhang Ming also made a speech. [2] During the question-and-answer of my speech, somebody raised the question, 'Are all the Chinese labourers in Kenya prison laborers?' We were quite surprised. My answer was of course definitely no, since it is almost unthinkable for the Chinese government or companies to use prison labor outside the country. Yet there are news reports about this fabrication. After the study of the pattern of the Chinese labor in African countries, I realised the reason of the misunderstanding of the local African people.

The first reason is their appearance. Chinese labourers are mostly peasants who go abroad the first time to make money. They are dressed in their working clothes, and their expressions are usually less figurative. The second concerns segregation. The peasants know very little about the country where they are working, care less about the surroundings, and show no interest in the outside world. What is more, few of them know the local language. Therefore, they have neither the will nor the interest to communicate with the local people. To add to this, the factory is usually in a compound surrounded by fences or other obstacles and the workers seldom go out. The third concerns the workload. Usually the contracted Chinese company works to a very tight schedule since the contract takes much longer time to issue than expected, and the time period for work is not enough. [3] Therefore, the Chinese labourers have to work by three shifts, e.g. every shift works eight hours a day. Yet outside the worksite, the local people only hear the machines running and see the Chinese labourers working. This increases their speculation: those Chinese really are not the same as the other whites, and their look and behaviour are quite unique judging from the standard of the whites they have met. Who are they? They work hard, are dressed in shabby way and are locked in a compound; they must be prisoners. That is the local people’s speculation and misunderstanding, and it is natural and understandable.

Yet there is another way of explanation - vicious rumour and groundless accusation as early as 1991, spread through American media by a former American official. A letter to the Editor of the New York Times appeared on May 11, 1991, which started the rumour. “The Chinese not only export goods made by prison labor, but they export prison workers too. While living in West Africa a few years ago, I learned of the case of a Chinese construction company building a road in Benin using prison labour. 70 to 75 percent of the construction workers were known to be prisoners. They were laboring on the Dassa-Parakou road in central Benin under a broiling sun and exposed to malaria and other tropical diseases. The company was the Jiangsu Construction Company, which also built a sports stadium in Cotonou, Benin's capital, and won a $3.5 million contract to build a hospital and mosque in Porto Novo. The company was able to underbid all its competitors by a wide margin because its labor costs were so cheap.” [4] Who is the author? The author was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the Carter Administration. Where did she get the information? Does she have any evidence? If yes, she would definitely indicate as much. If not, is this a rumor with vicious intention?

It is interesting that BBC, TV5 of France, and CNN have existed for a long time in Africa, usually occupying prime-time slots . Then the convenient newspaper stands spread in almost all African cities with French and English newspapers, magazines and journals such as Guardian, Time, Jeune Afrique, etc., transported from European metropolitan countries. Moreover, there are African newspapers which copy news or opinions about China from European counterparts, either for the shortage of money, or channels or sources of news. This is a natural phenomenon with the historical heritage of colonial linkage, as well as in the period of globalisation.

There is no doubt that the Chinese government is eager to balance the international media in the coverage of Chinese image, as correctly pointed out by some international scholars, which, and this approach is becoming more and more urgent for Beijing’s strategy of engagement in Africa. Yet is the issue that important? In an early article, I once pointed out that the most important is to do the right thing. If you are doing the right thing and take responsible action, you do not have to worry about what others talk about you. [7] Yet the strategy of public diplomacy becomes an important tool in the creation of a positive image of China abroad, 'soft power,' a concept coined by Joseph Nye, started to spread. Later, it is introduced into the government document and many articles are published on the issue. [8] Yet I am opposed to the usage of the expression by the Chinese government.

First, the word 'power' itself used in the context of international relations is usually linked with the meaning of coercion, threat, and militarycontrol. This does not quite fit China’s traditional philosophy of peace under the heaven or peaceful co-existence. Secondly, Joseph Nye developed this concept at a time when the U.S. military power, that is the hard power, is declining. It is an imperative for the U.S., a superpower, to find another kind of power to exert its influence, thus to develop the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce and rather than using force or money as a means of persuasion. It is natural for a big power which is used to controlling the world with force. Yet China is pursuing a policy of peaceful rise and calls for the building of a harmonious world. To use the concept of 'soft power' would be contradictory to its principle. What is more, to encourage or seek 'soft power' may scare away the old friends of developing countries, especially those small and weak nations.

Therefore, the conclusion is that the press is neither the devil nor angel. Although we cannot neglect its role, we should not care too much for its coverage. If we do things according to our own determination and strategy without too much caring for what others say, we can achieve our goal. As an Arabic proverb goes, 'Dogs are barking, yet the camels are heading forward.'

* Li Anshan is Director of the Center for African Studies, Peking University


[i] Mohamed Keita, “Africa’s Free Press Problem”, Op-Ed contributor, New York Times, April 15, 2012 , http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/16/opinion/africas-free-press-problem.html?_r=1

[ii] “Speech by Ambassador Zhang Ming in the Public Lecture on China-Africa Relations”, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjb/zwjg/zwbd/t429480.htm 2012/3/12.

[iii] Interview in a meeting with Chinese State-owned companies, Nairobi, Kenya, May 23, 2009.

[iv] Roberta Cohen, “China Has Used Prison Labor in Africa”, New York Times, May 11,1991. I got this source from Yan Hairong and Barry Sautman. I would like to thank them both for sending me their unpublished article which will appear in the forthcoming issue of China Quarterly.

[v] “The Hopeless Continent”, The Economist, 13 May, 2000.

[vi] “The Hopeful Continent: Africa rising”, The Economist, 3 December, 2011, p.13.

[vii] Li Anshan, “In Defense of China: China’s African Strategy and State Image”, World Economy and Politcs, No.4, 2008, pp.6-15.

[viii] I searched “ruan shi li”, the Chinese translation of “soft power”, in the Chinese search-engine Baidu, the number of the expression reaches 19,000,000 entries.


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