Revised method to track Chinese aid to Africa

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The above graphic from a story in the Daily Nation in Kenya shows how much financial assistance China has pumped into Africa in recent years. It’s based on data from the research initiative AidData collected through an open-source method of tracking flows of financing from China into the continent.

Last year a report from AidData on Chinese spending on aid and development in Africa came out that announced the massive amounts that China has contributed to projects on the continent. As discussed previously, that report was was widely reported on in the mainstream media. The $75 billion that China spent in Africa was framed as a sign of China’s attempts to cement partnerships and allies among African countries. The British newspaper The Guardian said of the report’s findings that it pointed to “Beijing’s escalating soft power ‘charm offensive’ to secure political and economic clout on the continent”. Especially interesting was the report’s conclusion that China had contributed to fewer mining projects than to projects in the areas of health, education and social infrastructure. Examples of these were listed as a malaria prevention center; school for visual arts and an opera house, as well as doctor and teacher exchanges. The Guardian took these examples as evidence of an increasingly strong geopolitical agenda on the part of China.

However, the report was also strongly criticized by experts on China’s role in Africa. Deborah Brautigam, professor and director of the International Development Program at Johns Hopkins University, said the figures in the AidData report were misleading because the methodology relied largely on media reports of Chinese project financing, which are not reliable.

In a recent new development, AidData has released new updates from its Tracking Chinese Development Finance in Africa dataset. Acknowledging that last year’s  pilot project, which relied largely on media reports, was ‘inherently imperfect’, the new methodology cross-checks media reports with data from official sources, NGO reports, and scholarly articles.  AidData believes that there are certain conditions that make the refined methodology an effective research tool. The open source nature of the data makes it possible for users to identify errors. The overreliance on media reports for which the previous report was criticized, is now complemented by other methods such as in-country fieldwork and outreach to personnel involved with specific projects. Information from media reports is cross-checked and supplemented by data from official sources, NGO reports, and scholarly articles.

This refinement in methodology means that more sources are now being used to establish the extent of Chinese financing in Africa. To better reflect the shift to a variety of  ources used, AidData has now changed the name of its methodology from Media Based Data Collection to Tracking Under-Reported Financial Flows (TUFF).

The introduction to the new codebook clarifies that the original name for the methodology, Media Based Data Collection, may have been misleading to critics who didn’t review the whole codebook. Although the initial report relied heavily on media reports, according to Charles Perla, an AidData Project Manager, these reports were not their only source: “In fact, media reports are used only as a departure point, and are supplemented with case studies undertaken by scholars and non-governmental organizations, project inventories supplied through Chinese embassy websites, and grants and loan data published by recipient governments.” To make this clear, AidData has now renamed their methodology. “In the interest of providing greater clarity, we now refer to our methodology for systematically gathering open source development finance information as the Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) methodology”. The codebook and an explanation of the methodology can be downloaded from the internet.

 Working with researchers at the College of William & Mary and Brigham Young University in the USA, AidData set themselves the objective of documenting all known Chinese development finance projects in Africa over more than a decade, from 2000 to 2012.  The new release includes more than 100 new projects, and more than 130 updates to existing project records. AidData seems confident that the refined methodology will withstand scrutiny. The pilot project was subjected to a test referred to as a ‘ground-truthing approach’ where researchers visited project sites in South Africa and Uganda to corroborate the data compiled by AidData. This testing involved interviews with local recipients of financing and other stakeholders. The pilot, conducted by researchers at AidData, the University of Cape Town, Zhejiang University, the College of William & Mary, and Brigham Young University in collaboration with local enumerators, did find some new information that was used to amend and correct the TUFF data. By and large, however, these researchers say that the interviews and site visits they conducted supported the open source data gathered by AidData.

The writers acknowledge that there is as yet ‘no consensus’ on how the flows of development finance from China to Africa can be tracked. They claim that this inability to follow the money in a new geopolitical environment marked by rapid shifts, flows and contraflows is a weakness of traditional academic research that cannot keep up with the ‘rapidly changing global development finance architecture’. It is however important to find a way of keeping track of these flows, so that African communities can better understand, interact and engage with the influx of funding from China so as to make best use of the opportunities it offers.

Although these researchers acknowledge that the TUFF methodology isn’t flawless, they see it as a ‘fairly robust method of independent data collection’. Where information gathered on the ground in South Africa and Uganda differed from the information gathered through AidData’s methodology, these differences were fairly minor. The places where two sets of data diverged,  involved issues like dates, contact information and similar details, while the larger, more significant items of scale, scope and sector of financial assistance remained largely the same.

 The revisions of  AidData’s approach remind us that scientific methodologies are never perfect, nor are they complete. And while the media is playing an important role in bringing to attention the flows and contraflows between China and Africa – especially by stimulating debate and interpreting these developments – media reports alone cannot serve as reliable empirical evidence. For this reason, the new multi-source approach by AidData seems like a step in the right direction. By revising their methodology, AidData has also displayed a willingness to open their work up to questioning and scrutiny. It may be expected that in a new, rapidly changing and in many ways controversial area such as Chinese involvement in Africa, research methodologies will be looked at especially closely.  AidData should be commended for undertaking this scrutiny themselves, and for displaying a willingness to engage, revise, and rework their findings. Ultimately such a collaborative effort such as their open source project – as well as the contributions of subsequent critics of this work – can contribute to a better understanding of what has become one of the most important shifts in the global political economy of development and aid in Africa.

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The ‘intellectual frontier’ between Africa and China

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The growing relationship between China and Africa have been the topic of much discussion and debate in recent years. Media coverage of these Sino-African relationships tended to focus on what Chris Alden and Yoon Jung Park have called in a recent book chapter the ‘upstairs’ dimensions: Chinese investments in Africa, developmental assistance and the impact of these relationships for the shifting global geopolitics. The establishment of the BRICS group of emerging states is probably the clearest indication of these shifts, and has also attracted a great deal of debate. Media coverage of BRICS, as with China-Africa relations more generally, has largely been dominated by economic and political issues.

But the growing interest in China in Africa is not limited to businesspeople, entrepreneurs and politicians. Increasingly, China-Africa relations are also becoming the topic of scholarly attention by academics and researchers at institutes and think tanks.  Perhaps the most official example of these think tanks is the China-Africa Think Tank Forum (CATTF) that is incorporated by the Chinese Foreign Ministry into the framework of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) as a regular mechanism for civil dialogues between China and Africa . The first meeting of this think tank forum was already held in 2011, in Hangzhou and Jinhua, where representatives of Chinese and African think tanks, the African Union  and organizations representing economic and political organizations came together to discuss how an ongoing dialogue between Chinese and African thinkers could be established. The forum provided a space for high-level academic debates and exchanges.

The 2nd Meeting of the CATTF was held in 2012 in Ethiopia, co-hosted by the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) of Addis Ababa University (AAU) and the Institute of African Studies (IAS) of Zhejiang Normal University. According to the proceedings of this meeting (published in book form and edited by Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe and Liu Hongwu ), the event was attended by more than 100 officials and scholars from 15 countries the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Chinese and African think tanks, and other regional organizations.

At the most recent meeting of CATTF, held in 2013 in Beijing, discussions about research collaboration continued. The news service All Africa reported that the discussion centred around the theme of ‘Upgrading Sino-African Relations and Constructing Chinese and African Soft Power’. The issue of Chinese ‘soft power’ in Africa, as it is being expanded via cultural exchanges such as the Confucius Institutes as well as its increasing media footprint on the continent, remains a hot topic for debate in scholarly circles.  For instance, a recent conference held at the University of Westminster in London, compared the ‘soft power’ initiatives of China with that of India. The conference debated the concept of ‘soft power’ developed by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, and how the notion of ‘soft power’ can be used to describe the way China and India use the media to communicate their growing influence in geopolitics. In Nye’s conception, ‘soft power’ is the means through which countries exert influence in the global arena through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion or force. (see a more detailed conference report here)

The African organisations represented at the 2013 CATTF meeting in Beijing included, according to All Africa.com,  the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, CODESRIA from Senegal, AERC from Kenya, the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at the University of Addis Ababa, the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, Université Mohammed V in Morocco  and the International Relations Institute in Cameroon. In a statement issued at the meeting, it was stated that Chinese and African think tanks and scholars stand on the ‘intellectual frontier’ of the developing relations between China and Africa, and that they can help to improve relations between these two regions.

This ‘intellectual frontier’ is being explored at several universities in South Africa. For instance, the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch presents itself as the “most prominent and high quality point of reference for the study of China and East Asia on the African continent”, and engages in “policy-relevant analysis” for government, business, academia and NGO communities.

On the terrain of media studies, Chinese investment in South African media companies like Independent Newspapers and the pay television platform StarSat, as well as the increased presence of Chinese media organisations like CCTV and Xinhua, is being followed closely. The University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism department runs a China-Africa reporting project that aims to ‘improve the quality of reporting around China-Africa issues’. At Rhodes University, a research unit for Media in the Global South (RUMIGS) has been set up , where work around the representation of China in South African media is being conducted alongside comparative projects on media systems in the BRICS countries.  A forthcoming issue (November 2013) of the journal Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies will focus on ‘reporting China in Africa’ and features contributions from various scholars working in this area – an illustration of how vibrant this topic is becoming in academic circles.

But especially interesting is also how discussion of China-Africa issues are taking place in the virtual realm of the internet. A good example is the http://www.chinaafricaproject.com/about-us/, a blog that also hosts podcasts and updates on Facebook.  The email listserv Chinese-in-Africa/Africans-in-China, run by dr Yoon Jung Park, has grown into a vibrant community of scholars working on China-Africa relations. The Internet is after all perhaps the biggest think tank of them all – although, as a recent article shows, the strategies pursued by the Chinese government to control online activies can also influencing and legitimizing the development of a less open model of the Internet in Africa. If this influence goes unchecked, it could reverse the gains made in the online African public sphere.

Media Development and the rise of the BRICS countries

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I am at the FOME symposium in Berlin this week, where the attention is focused on the rise of the BRICS countries and what that means for media development activities in Africa, amongst others. In my presentation  I will talk about the responses in South African media to the country’s membership of the BRICS group, and how South African journalists think about China’s increasing involvement in the African mediascape.

 

The media as a vehicle for China’s soft power

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The developing world will shape the future, led by China – but this will still take some time and will be a complicated process.  This is the opinion of Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. He spoke at the international conference “Communicating Soft Power: Contrasting Perspectives from India and China” held at Westminster University in London on 9 and 10 September.  The conference debated the concept of ‘soft power’ developed by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, and how the notion of ‘soft power’ can be used to describe the way China and India use the media to communicate their growing influence in geopolitics. In Nye’s conception, ‘soft power’ is the means through which countries exert influence in the global arena through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion or force.

Jacques questioned the usefulness of the concept of ‘soft power’, as it doesn’t explain how soft power is related to hard power like economic clout or military might. He however pointed out that the fact that China has taken 600 million people out of poverty is already a strong message to the rest of the world and raises prospects for other continents like Africa to emulate. However, China remains on the whole a poor country and is also largely unfamiliar to a world that has been shaped by British and American culture for the last 200 years. Because of the history of colonization and global hegemony exercised from the West – for instance through Hollywood film – the world is more familiar with Western culture, and knowledge of China is still ‘extraordinarily slim’ Jacques said. ‘The way we try and understand China is always through a Western prism, but we cannot make sense of China in that way. China comes through a different history of civilization. It has a civilizational history, not a nation-state background like most Western states.’

Dawood Azami from the BBC World Service in  London agreed that world power is shifting from one set of actors to another set of actors. In this shift, we will see a ‘battle of narratives’ being played out, as different stories are being told of the shifts in geopolitical power. The media’s role will be instrumental in these power contests. Azami pointed out that globally, access to new media technologies has increased in recent decades. This means that audiences can access information more easily, and big powers are already engaged in an information war. Azami cited Hilary Clinton, USA Secretary of State, who referred to the television channels Russia Today and CCTV when warning that the US should guard against ‘losing the information war’. The rise of Chinese media (including newspapers) is taking place at a time when Western media is shrinking. The challenge however for Chinese media is to establish credibility internationally and reach its intended audiences.  The BBC’s global credibility, according to Azami, is based on the fact that the channel can ‘bite the hand that feeds it’ – in other words, the BBC can freely criticize the government that funds it. This is not the case with CCTV, and therefore the channel lacks the same credibility among global audiences and the ability to use the media for ‘soft power’.

Agnes Chung-yan Tse from the  University of Hong Kong also pointed to challenges that China still has to face in order to make its ‘Charm Offensive’ appealing to global audiences. According to her, China has thus far not been successful in downplaying its ‘China Threat’ image, despite its efforts to exert influence globally via its media like China Daily, CCTV, Xinhua and other channels. To improve its global image, China should combat corruption in the homeland, ensure food safety and build safe housing structures,  so that can they get receive more positive reporting in West that would lead to greater ‘soft power’ for China. According to Tse, China should also respect socio-economic rights in developing countries and maintain a policy of non-interference if it wants its soft power initiatives to succeed.

The editor of the website Chinadialogue, Isabel Hilton gave a historical perspective on how China used propaganda films in the past to spread its message, but said that these films were unappealing and only appealed to audience who were already committed to the cause. When former Chinese president Hu Jintao put the issue of soft power on the agenda in 2006, China needed acceptance in the world for economic reasons. The 2008 Olympics were a ‘gift to soft power that went horribly wrong’, Hilton said.  Tibet revolted, there were food contamination scandal, algae blooms in the sailing venue and air pollution that made the headlines in Western media for negative reasons. The Chinese government then concluded that they needed to set up its own global media network and expanding print publications like China Daily to counter the perceived negative bias about the country in Western media. According to Hilton, China has had a limited return on its investment thus far – soft power does not work through top-down schemes that are likely to be interpreted by foreigners as propaganda. She says that the involvement of Chinese civil society  in public diplomacy efforts is too limited. The Internet also contributed to the Chinese government losing control of the media agenda at home. Chinese have via social media become creators of content rather than passive receivers of content. Unlike the diversity of perspectives from India, which makes its soft power successful, the Chinese political system prevents this diversity to emerge in online discussions, Hilton said. Instead a ‘rectification campaign’ to counter rumor mongering on internet has been launched. According to Hilton, calls for the Chinese government to form an ‘internet army’ to counter false or unfavourable content online, are appealing to an old-fashioned terminology and outdated methodology that won’t be successful in excercising soft power. global audiences associate names like the artist Ai Weiwei or the Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo with Chinese creativity – however these associations reflect badly on Chinese state. In order for China to successfully exert soft power through media globally,  it therefore needs to open up and display greater transparency in order for global audiences to buy into its exercise of soft power through the media.

 

 

 

 

 

New theories for a new global media landscape

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The global communication order is changing, and new theories of communication are needed to understand the changing global media landscape.  This was a point made time and again by researchers from all over the world presenting academic papers at the annual conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), held in Dublin, Ireland recently.

Several papers and panels dealt with the rise of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the impact of this development on the global media landscape. The use of media for ‘soft diplomacy’ by China was one of the topics that attracted the attention of scholars. In a special session, Professor Zhengrong Hu of the Communication University of China reflected on the conference theme of “Crises, ‘Creative Destruction’ and the Global Power and Communication Orders”. He asked whether this  financial crisis is actually a Western crisis rather than a global one, given the recent growth of economies outside the Western centres. He nevertheless warned that the crisis that originated in the West is also already having an effect on countries such as China, where the stock market recently reached record lows.  The question, however, is whether China can translate the ‘hard’ power it still commands in the areas of its economic investments globally, its clout in international trade, its sophisticated technologies and military force to the ‘soft power’ of global influence over news agendas and global public opinion?  Professor Zhengrong pointed out that China already has a large domestic market for traditional media, and a growing market for new media:  almost half the country’s population has access to the Internet, and 80% of those users are accessing the Internet through mobile devices such as mobile phones and tablet computers. But there is also an intellectual property trade deficit – the country is importing more media products than it is producing locally, and a lot of Chinese TV production is copied from the international market, like reality television formats. Despite the country’s  big cultural industry market, professor Zhengrong is therefore of the opinion that China’s media content production is not yet strong enough to use in the service of “soft power” strategies. State-owned media have played a big part in China’s ‘going out’ strategy:  the Chinese state-owned media like CCTV (50 international bureaux), Xinhua (140 overseas bureaux), and newspapers like People’s Daily and China Daily have been used to promote the country’s image to international audiences.  But according to professor Zhengrong, the country will be unable to contribute to restructuring the global communication order until it has managed to address the “value crisis” it is experiencing internally. He sees this domestic “value crisis” as a result of the rise of the market society which has led to “money fetishism, utilitarianism and consumerism”.  The state-owned media are also not as powerful anymore to set the agenda for public opinion as it used to be in the 1980s, said prof Zhengrong. A survey in 2012 showed that 75% of the public opinion agenda was set by non-official media, like social networks. This survey brought to light that more than half of the respondents showed a lack of faith in the government. In order for China to spread soft power globally, it first would need to address these challenges at home, prof Zhengrong said. New social media have become like a ‘pressure cooker’ said Ching-wen Chen from  Shangai Jiao Tong University. Although citizens are using new media to campaign for social justice, they now also spend  more times indoors and have become more individualized.

 

China’s soft power is exercised in a global communication landscape that is feeling the impact of the shift of global geopolitical power to the BRICS countries. The impact of the rise of these countries was discussed in a panel by members of a global project on media systems in the BRICS countries (of which the author of this column is also a member  – see the project website at http://www.uta.fi/cmt/tutkimus/BRICS.html ). Professor Jyrki Käkönen of the University of Tampere in Finland said that the rise of the BRICS countries is a symptom of the end of globalization-as-Westernization. The process of globalization is changing, flowing now from the “Rest” to the West, and the West will have to adapt. But it is not yet clear about what kind of international order the BRICS states want to construct.  There is big diversity in the BRICS group of countries, with no common denominator other than being against the dominance of the United States. This anti-US attitude is however not enough to provide cohesion among the group. According to professor Käkönen, the absence of an Islamic country in the BRICS group prevents it from representing the whole of the Global South as a new international order and not merely an economic formation alone.

It would also be a mistake to view the BRICS countries as internally homogenous nation-states each with one stable media system. Within the BRICS countries themselves there are big differences and sometimes tensions between various media models and practices.

In Brazil, for example, professional journalists are experiencing an identity crisis as the rise of new media are demanding new functions from them. Professors Raquel Paiva de Araujo Soares and Muniz Sodré Cabral from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro also reported about a generation gap between journalists in in that country, where young journalists are not as interested in being champions of civil liberties like the older generation was.

India is another BRICS country whose media system displays internal differences. Professor Sanjay Barthur of the Central University of Tamil Nadu’s presentation showed how the media and entertainment sector in India is growing exponentially. That growth should however not necessarily be seen as an indicator of greater diversity in the media. Professor Daya Thussu and Savyasaachi Jain of the University of Westminster also stressed the size and diversity of India’s media audiences and the vibrant media sector serving them. Unlike in the West, where media are struggling economically, media in India are booming. In Russia, the post-Soviet society also demonstrated great complexity, but political and media elites orient themselves towards Western media, according to professors Elena Vartanova and Anastasia Grusha from Moscow State University.  In South Africa one could also argue that the commercial media orients itself largely towards an elite, and in this country as well there are ongoing debates about what the ideal role for media is in the post-apartheid society.

All this diversity across and within the BRICS countries demand new theories to internationalize media studies.  Professor Daya Thussu is of the opinion that we need to rethink and reformulate ‘the global’. Not only has the work environment of media practioners changed, but the relationship between media and society as formulated in the West does not easily translate to other contexts. Western communication theories are limited in their scope, and need to move beyond Eurocentrism to recognize multiple modernities.

Prof Zhengrong Hu summed up this need for the internationalization of media theories by saying that to understand global media today, scholars need to think beyond just the relationship between media and politics as is often the case in Western theories. We need a multi-dimensional picture that accounts for culture, different civil society and economic formations in a shifting, diverse global society.

The controversy around China’s aid to Africa

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International aid to Africa, and the way it is being reported in the media, remains a controversial topic. When the UK government announced recently  that it would cut off aid to South Africa in 2015, choosing instead to base its future relationship with the country on trade rather than aid, it was met by a furious reaction from the South African government. This step was interpreted by some as related to South Africa’s inclusion in the BRICS group of emerging economies and closer ties to China. The British foreign secretary William Hague said that the country would not ‘continue to give aid to countries that are raising their incomes, that have growing economies’ – which is why Britain had also stopped its aid to India and China before. This announcement reminds one of the debate a few years ago following the publication of the Zambian-born, Oxford-trained economist Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa. In her book, Moyo argued that the billions of dollars in international aid  sent from rich countries to African countries are not making a difference to the economic prosperity of the continent. Moyo’s conservative views that favoured global markets – investement and trade –  above aid, have been critized as ‘dead wrong’, naïve  and misinformed. Her positive view of China’s engagement in Africa was also based on the notion that China brings an ‘elixir’ of job opportunities, investment and trade that would transform African countries.

The distinction between trade and aid, and how China’s involvement in Africa should be analysed and understood, was again the topic of heated debate recently following  the release of  a report by the organisation AidData on Chinese aid in Africa. This report, which was quickly picked up by global mainstream media like the quality British newspaper The Guardian (who published an impressive interactive story about the report), stated that China had committed $75 billion on aid and development projects in Africa over the last decade. It was heralded as one of the ‘most ambitious attempts’  to see through the veil of secrecy that surrounds the Chinese  government’s financing of development projects. The Guardian saw this as a sign of “Beijing’s escalating soft power ‘charm offensive’ to secure political and economic clout on the continent”. It was also seen as a challenge to what had up until the release of the report been seen as China’s main reason for involvement in Africa, namely the search for natural resources. However, the report indicates that there are much fewer mining projects than health, education and social infrastructure projects. These projects include initiatives like a malaria prevention centre in Monrovia, Liberia; a National School for Visual Arts in Maputo and an opera house in Algiers. The report also shows that Chinese government support further includes sending doctors and teachers to African countries, Chinese language classes abroad and sport stadiums and concert halls. The Guardian concluded that Beijing’s support for these social and cultural projects, and the relatively small proportion of what would qualify as ‘official development assistance’, have provided evidence to commentators that see China’s involvement in Africa as being underpinned by a stronger geopolitical agenda than the ‘dominant narrative’ had suggested up until now.

The AidData report was however immediately criticized as creating a misleading impression about Chinese development assistance to Africa. Deborah Brautigam, Professor and Director of the  International Development Program at Johns Hopkins University and one of the foremost international scholars on China-Africa relations, slammed the figures in the report. The figures contained in the AidData report were ‘way off’, she said on her blog. The main problem with the AidData figures, according to Brautigam, was the methodology followed to arrive at the conclusion about China’s ‘soft power’ efforts. The AidData report relied largely on media reports of Chinese project financing. Brautigam admits that the data might provide a good start for research into Chinese development aid, but even while valuable as an exploratory attempt, the report cannot yet hope to provide any conclusions. “The main problem is that the teams that have been collecting the data and their supervisors simply don’t know enough about China in Africa, or how to check media reports, track down the realities of a project, and dig into the story to find out what really happened. You can start with media reports, but it is highly problematic to stop there,” Brautigam writes.

In subsequent debates around the report – which created quite a stir online, as may be seen in the summary provided by the China-Africa project – it was also pointed out that the AidData report and  the surrounding media discourses do little to shine a light on the non-state engagements between China and Africa that are bound to become much more influential in future. In a recent book chapter in the South African Human Rights Commission’s State of the Nation publication, Yoon Jung Park and Chris Alden distinguish between what they refer to as the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ dimensions of China in South Africa. While the ‘upstairs’ dimension – official ties between South Africa and China, especially within the BRICS formation – is of increasing importance, the ‘downstairs’ dimension of Chinese migrants in the country is bound to intensify whatever official relations exist.  The media usually concentrates on the ‘upstairs’ engagement between states, on the level of political and economic ties, but it is the ‘downstairs’ relations that will shape the way that people experience and view the China-Africa dynamic in years to come. As pointed out by Howard French in a podcast following the AidData controversy, the interpersonal contact between Chinese migrants and Africans are likely to become increasingly important in how the relationship between Africa and China will play out in years to come. The creation of new communities of Chinese migrants in Africa, the everyday interactions between Chinese and Africans in Guangzhou and Johannesburg, and how these will change the social landscape of Africa (and also China, as could be seen in a recent documentary on the Dutch broadcaster VPRO), is an area that is worthy of much more media attention.

This column was also published in China Daily, 31 May 2013

China and South Africa: Partners in cautious optimism

(Copy of article published in China Daily, 16 January 2013)

The formal invitation extended to South Africa by China late in 2010 to join the BRIC formation of emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is a confirmation of the growing economic ties between China and South Africa.

The expanded trade between these two countries is seen by many as an opportunity for South Africa to meet its development needs. For China, the interest in South Africa as an emerging market forms part of its growing interest in Africa for resources, markets and diplomatic support. But this involvement has not been unequivocally welcomed.

While, for some, China’s growing concern in Africa is seen as an opportunity for the continent to grow its economies and become a stronger presence in international markets, others are concerned that the economic boost China brings to the African continent comes with too high a price tag.

Some of these critics go as far as to say that China’s involvement in Africa constitutes a new type of imperialism and a “scramble for Africa”.

The relationship between China and Africa goes back a long time. When examining current Sino-African relationships within a new global world order, it would therefore be useful to avoid simplistic oppositions and caricatures, and opt for a historically informed view of the ongoing complex dynamics marking the relationship between these two regions.

The first instance of “Sino-African contact” can be traced back to 1415, when Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) visited more than 30 countries in Africa. Official relations between Africa and China in contemporary times can be seen to start in 1955 with the first Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, aimed at promoting economic and cultural cooperation.

The development of China-Africa relations in the 21st century gained impetus when China started looking for new sources of energy and natural resources to sustain its rapid economic growth. In 2010, China became the continent’s largest trade partner, making up 10.4 percent of Africa’s total trade, representing a tenfold increase over the previous decade.

This growing involvement led to questions as to how China’s renewed interest in Africa should be viewed – as a benign partner or as a threat for local economic interests and political values? It has become commonplace to hear oppositions like “partner or predator”, “friend or foe”, “partner or colonizer” used when the implications of China’s involvement in Africa are discussed.

South Africa’s relationship with China can be understood both as part of South Africa’s global repositioning in the post-apartheid era and the country’s emergence as a regional power, and as part of a broader geopolitical realignment that involves the “Rise of the Rest” in Fareed Zakaria’s terms.

The formal diplomatic relationship between South Africa and China was initiated shortly after South Africa’s formal transition to democracy, restoring ties that were broken during the apartheid years. This paved the way for an evolving relationship between the two countries.

The bilateral understanding between China and South Africa has now been extended to the new BRICS alignment of emerging countries.

But the usefulness of this grouping to describe the changing international relations has been debated. Some pundits have called for a broadening of the group to include Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey. Others have pointed out that the political and economic systems of the various BRICS countries differ vastly.

Several commentators have remarked on the relative smallness of South Africa’s economy in relation to its partners in the group, and yet others have emphasized that the economic basis of the categorization does not necessarily provide a basis for analysis of the ways in which social and cultural dynamics are being shaped by these new global shifts.

It has also been remarked that the neat acronym of BRICS suggests a collaboration of emerging economies that might still turn into fierce competition for resources.

However, regardless of how one views the similarities and coherence between these countries, the emergence of this grouping constitutes a challenge to the existing world order and signals the desire of the global South to reshape international relations on their terms.

China’s role in post-apartheid South Africa is marked by historical legacies, and contemporary political and economic power relations. Whether viewed as a positive engagement or a negative impact, the size and impact of this engagement cannot be ignored. It can therefore be assumed that the relationship between these two countries would enjoy significant media coverage. The question is how this relationship would be portrayed.

Western reportage about China’s involvement in Africa has often been characterized by fearmongering or a paternalism that emphasizes the threat China poses to African countries. It is not difficult to find examples of Orientalist stereotypes in many Western media discourses.

While media coverage of the China relationship in South African media also sometimes displays a lack of nuance or simplistic stereotyping, systematic content analyses over the past three years carried out by research company Media Tenor have found that contrary to what may be expected, the South African media have not been overly negative in their reporting.

Media coverage has started out by displaying a carefully optimistic attitude toward China’s involvement, and in the past two years coverage has become more favorable.

China is considered a newsworthy story both in general and business news, and the majority of reports focus on economic aspects, such as the market position of China, mergers and economic cooperation, general economic issues, companies and economic policy, China’s situation in the global economy, economic regulations, executives and management. Little attention is paid to the social dimensions of the closer interaction between China and South Africa.

The analysis suggests that coverage of China in South Africa is more balanced than one might have expected. Instead of portraying China either as a savior or close partner for African states, or as an exploitative neo-colonial predator, coverage seemed fairly balanced. What is more, China consistently receives considerably more coverage in total than the other BRICS countries.

When coverage of South Africa by the Chinese media is considered, the picture is however more negative, with concerns being expressed about crime and the economic situation.

These analyses suggest that overall a more balanced view of China is emerging in the South African media. Individual reports may still display stereotypes or superficial attitudes, but when considered on the whole and across a range of media platforms, China is not represented in either a starkly positive or starkly negative light.

It would seem that a cautiously optimistic attitude characterizes South African media coverage. What is clear from the volume of coverage of China is that the relationship between South Africa and China, strengthened by their membership of BRICS, will increasingly become media-driven.

The impact and importance of the media in how the future of this relationship unfolds is likely to increase with the presence of Chinese media on the continent, namely Xinhua News Agency, CCTV and this newspaper, China Daily. These will add to the diversity of perspectives on China-Africa and in all likelihood further intensify the media discourses around the new geopolitics of which this relationship forms part.