Beyond the tired stereotypes of China

Colum in China Daily 22 February

In recent years, China has dramatically increased its economic involvement in Africa. The growth of this economic engagement has become so significant that China is now the continent’s largest trade partner. In 2010, trade with China made up 10.4 percent of Africa’s total trade, a ten-fold increase over the previous decade.

This steep rise in Sino-African relations has not been without controversy. Critics have asked whether China’s interest in Africa should be seen as a benign boost for the continent’s economies, or as a threat to its industries. Questions also extend into the political realm – how will China’s economic involvement impact on policymaking and democratic culture in African countries?

These are complex questions, not least because Africa is a diverse continent with a diverse range of political cultures, social histories and economic policies. Unfortunately these complexities are often lost in popular discourses that portray Sino-African relations in panicked tones and in simplistic oppositions (China as “friend or foe”, “partner or predator”) rather than careful nuance. What is becoming clear, however, is that the engagement between China and South Africa will increasingly be a mediated one.

Some observers have noted that China’s increased investment in Africa may be seen as a way to influence opinion on the continent and present a positive image of China to counteract negative stereotyping and fear-mongering in the African media.

Examples of China’s media presence on the continent include the 2010 launch of the state broadcaster, China Central Television in Nairobi, Kenya. This presence makes it possible for CCTV news reports to be broadcast across the continent. There is also a China Daily bureau in Nairobi, which has extended the newspaper’s reach to English-language readers in major African centers, as well as online.

The state news agency Xinhua has been present on the continent since the 1980s, but in 2011 it launched a mobile application that makes its news service available to the continent’s millions of mobile phone users. Xinhua’s English channel CNC World is now also being broadcast to subscribers via the digital satellite television platform DStv, after the South Africa-based company MIH agreed to carry it on its African networks.

Exchange programs for media groups and journalists to visit China and vice versa are also seen as a way to further extend its cultural influence. The South African media company Naspers is also benefiting greatly from its investment in the media platform Tencent in China. Media outlets are therefore part and parcel of the flow and counterflow of capital between Africa and China.

The response to China’s efforts to create a positive image on the African continent will also differ across countries and regions. In countries with a healthy, democratic culture of debate and a free press, it can be expected that China’s engagement with Africa will continue to be debated. For instance, recent studies have shown that China’s presence in Africa is high on the news agenda in South Africa. China receives the most coverage of all the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries in the South African media. Over the past few years, the South African media’s coverage of China has also been shown as not being overly negative, but on the whole quite balanced – a stance that can be described as cautious optimism.

Of course, critical media debates are not the same as xenophobic stereotyping. Although studies suggest that the South African media on the whole seem to strive to find a balanced view of China’s involvement on the continent, stereotyping and fear-mongering are not completely absent. But what is interesting is that these stereotypical representations are also being challenged by South African journalists.

A recent report in the investigative magazine Noseweek titled “Howzit China” engaged in rather crude stereotyping and generalizations of Chinese shopkeepers in South Africa. It argued that Chinese shops have “popped up” in every town in the country and amount to a “largely unlawful enterprise that threatens to destroy local commerce and cost the taxman billions”. The xenophobia is familiar: foreigners are here to steal our jobs, Chinese are dishonest and are smuggling their way into the country and defrauding our government of its tax revenue.

Soon after the Noseweek article appeared, journalists Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak wrote a response in the online news site Daily Maverick, pointing out the generalizations, factual errors and xenophobic stereotyping with which the Noseweek article is riddled. Calling the Noseweek article a “new low for South African journalism”, Bloom and Poplak draw on their own investigative fieldwork to counter its claims. They also point out the dangers of such xenophobic reporting and remind readers of attacks on migrants in South Africa in recent years.

The exchange between these journalists makes for fascinating reading because they emphasize the need for a nuanced, factually accurate and well-informed debate about the implications of China’s presence in Africa. Broad generalizations and stereotypes are just not good enough in a context where the media should be relied upon to explain the complexities of Sino-African engagement in a changing global landscape.

This does not mean that journalists should be uncritical of this engagement – but that such criticism should be informed and measured. There is a great need for journalists to spend time on the ground, in communities, to see for themselves how China’s presence in Africa is shaping social, cultural, political and economic dynamics.

What is becoming clear is that the media will increasingly be a central space where battles for representation, struggles for perception and jostling for influence over audiences will take place.

Image: http://www.world-affairs.org/china-in-africa/

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