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China wants state media to peddle its “soft power” in Africa, but tech platforms are a better bet

China’s increasing state-backed media presence in Africa has stoked fears among Western observers. But current evidence shows the plan to increase Chinese soft power through official outlets who portray the Asian giant in a positive light has had limited impact. Instead, it is Africa’s rapidly evolving landscape of digital technology that offers Chinese media influence the most room for growth.

Since coming to power in 2012, president Xi Jinping has repeatedly instructed Chinese state media organizations to tell “compelling Chinese narratives,” and “better communicate China’s message to the world.” The African continent—a major destination for China’s Belt and Road projects, international trade, and private businesses—is at the forefront of this effort.

The Chinese state news agency Xinhua had 28 bureaus across Africa as of February 2018. Though inside sources say that number has dropped to around 20 due to a lack of assignment, it is still a regular contributor of stories to local newspapers and news websites across Africa.

“Honestly, the only real change I see right now is that there was no Chinese media before, but there are some now.”

China Global Television Network (CGTN), formerly known as CCTV Africa, opened its continental headquarters in Nairobi in 2012 and can now be accessed in six UN languages across the continent. Also in 2012, China Daily, another state mouthpiece, began printing a weekly Africa edition. State-backed Chinese investors have bought stakes in African media companies, such as South Africa’s Independent Media. The Chinese are not alone of course. Well-established multinational Western media outlets have been ramping up efforts to engage with Africa’s booming young generation and business professionals. In 2016, CNN launched its multimedia platform in Lagos to increase its digital presence in Nigeria and Bloomberg unveiled its Africa edition in the same year targeting the continent’s growing innovators and influencers. BBC has expanded significantly in Africa in the last few years introducing new language services online in a nearly $400 million investment two years ago.

Th3 four state media—Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio International, and China Daily have around one hundred people in Kenya. But BBC alone has 300.  In fact, Kenya is BBC’s largest bureau outside of the UK, and across the entire continent, BBC has around 600 journalists. This far outnumbers the Chinese: CGTN Africa has approximately 150 staffers in total, according to a source with the majority being local staffers. Xinhua’s headquarters in Nairobi has some 40 Chinese, including family members. China Daily‘s Kenya Bureau currently has four staffers with two Chinese.


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