China’s Influence in Africa Includes a Quasi-Media Takeover

One reporter’s account of being censored by a South African newspaper for being critical of Chinese policy towards a Muslim minority offers a concerning glimpse into the all-encompassing way Chinese authorities seek to exert influence in nations that they have chosen to bankroll.

Azad Essa penned a column for a South African paper last week entitled ‘China thinks Islam is a disease, and Muslim leaders don’t care’. The main thrust of the piece was to criticize the ‘large-scale and systematic campaign’ against China’s minority Muslim Uighur population.

‘People showing any adherence to Islam in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region - praying, fasting, abstaining from alcohol or pork, growing a long beard, or wearing Islamic clothing - have been detained by authorities and treated as though they suffer from a mental illness.

Taken from their homes to re-education camps, the detainees have been forced to comply with Communist Party propaganda, which includes singing party anthems and slogans and attending daily brainwashing sessions. If they fail to submit, detainees are subjected to torture, including sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and physical violence.’ (Middle East Eye)

Maltreatment of Uighurs in China is well-known, as the Chinese government considers the Uighurs both inferior and harboring the potential for radicalization. Essa’s column would not have been considered particularly incendiary in most nations, but instead as mere honest observation. And, since he was set to publish the article in a South African newspaper, not a Chinese one, he should have had no problem having his article published.

But that’s not how it played out.

Essa was told that his article would not be uploaded to the digital version of Independent Media, South Africa’s second-largest publication and the one for which Essa was commissioned to pen the column. But that wasn’t all. Essa was told that the column he had been writing for the past year or so would be immediately canceled.

Though South Africa is not, in fact, China, this sort of hostility towards journalists who would dare speak ill or critically of the Chinese government is precisely the sort of tactic that Chinese journalists face as a matter of daily life, severely curtailing their ability to speak freely or report honestly. The exportation of these tactics to the African nations in which China has invested significant capital seems to be a condition of the funds continuing to roll in.

The case of Azad Essa shows what Chinese investment in African media companies comes to mean: a swift, uncompromising policy against criticism of the Chinese government.

‘Given the ownership structure of Independent Media, with Chinese state-linked firms holding a 20 percent stake, I understood when I wrote the column that it might rattle the higher-ups. I didn’t expect the exorcism to be so immediate and so obvious. I had, it would appear, veered into a nonnegotiable arena that struck at the very heart of China’s propaganda efforts in Africa.’ (Foreign Policy)

Essa sees the cancellation of his column as a facet of a larger influence campaign in the African media landscape which had the primary aim of providing unabashedly positive perceptions of the Chinese regime. It is undoubtedly ironic that a journalist such as Essa is being censored as part of a campaign by the Chinese government to improve its image, but this is the way of the authoritarian Chinese regime.

Whether the Chinese media campaigns in Africa are effective is difficult to determine. That the Chinese government is taking an all-out, multi-pronged approach to generating pro-Chinese sentiment through the African media is undeniable.

‘This meant investing heavily in China’s own state media presence, including expanding bureaus; supporting privately owned Chinese media that set up offices on the continent; purchasing stakes in private African media; and conjuring up partnerships or organizing sponsored trips to China for cash-strapped African newsrooms.

As the soft diplomacy of China’s agenda has been propelled by the state-owned Xinhua press agency, China Global Television Network, the African edition of China Daily, and the monthly magazine ChinAfrica, based in Johannesburg, it is yet unclear whether African audiences have been accepting Chinese versions of their own reality.’ (FP)

The unfortunate part of all of this is that Chinese media takeovers do not simply mean countering any negative press that may emerge, as a Fox News-CNN dynamic tends to. As Essa’s silencing illustrates, the typical Chinese approach to media is to suppress all negative attention so that there remains only a one-way, strictly positive and in many cases disingenuous bent to the news. And, the result is that the news ceases to be news, at least as we idealize it to be in the Western world.

‘In South Africa, Independent Media—partly owned by the China International Television Corporation and China-Africa Development Fund—is replete with sycophantic praise for Chinese investment, lacks critical engagement with the much-ballyhooed BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) project, and fails to ask basic questions on Chinese motives in Africa. Instead of holding power to account, it has become its most ardent cheerleader.’ (FP)

This is not good for Africa, though it’s fair to consider that the net effect of Chinese investment in the region may be positive. But, if Africa can somehow find a way to take advantage of the investment without adopting the Chinese approach to media and press freedom, they’d be wise to do so.

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