How world sees SA: Revealed – What China really thinks of its big African trading partner

President Jacob Zuma and his ruling clique seem impervious to what the world thinks of their governance style, which has been characterised by financial irregularity, corruption scandals and general incompetence. Zuma has shrugged off concerns about controversies like #Nenegate – a short-term switching of finance ministers, allegedly to suit the ends of associates outside the political sphere. And those most powerful in the ANC have ignored allegations that the immigrant Indian Gupta family is pulling Zuma’s strings. Zuma doesn’t seem to care much, either, about the view from international investors in Europe and the UK, who have expressed concern that the country is teetering on the edge of a ratings downgrade. Will he care, though, if his BRIC friends – Brazil, Russia, India, China – desert him? For now, his relationship with Russia is on safe ground, with Eskom moving to get a nuclear build programme designed only to suit the contractors – likely to be Russian – out of the starting tracks. Relations with China, meanwhile, look less certain. This fascinating analysis by a leading China expert, Xiaoling Zhang of the University of Nottingham, indicates that the Chinese government could soon grow weary of Africa. The leaders of the world’s second-largest economy are no fools: as Africa’s star wanes in the Chinese media, and the Chinese people question why their leaders want to work with African incompetents, China could increasingly disentangle from its Africa relationship – including South Africa. Already there are signs that China’s relationship with Zimbabwe is souring. – Jackie Cameron

By Xiaoling Zhang*

Since the Chinese government started introducing economic reforms in the early 1980s the Chinese media has experienced widespread decentralisation and commercialisation. It has become huge, dynamic and at times contradictory.

Although all media outlets are under the control of the Communist Party-led state, the market economy has given rise to an unprecedented proliferation of media outlets. This has, to some extent, undermined the party media system. While some papers such as the People’s Daily still operate purely as state mouthpieces, commercial media outlets are guided by commercial imperatives as well as political duties.

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Many Chinese journalists also now understand and practice their work differently. They accept the western idea of professional journalism. They believe that they have a responsibility to serve the public, in addition to the Party or economic elites.

It’s against this backdrop that I undertook a comparative study of the coverage of Africa in the People’s Daily and the more commercialised Southern Weekly. This revealed very different portrayals of the continent.

The extensive and largely positive coverage in the People’s Daily suggests that China’s leadership would like to construct a positive image of Africa and African countries for readers in China. Southern Weekly, meanwhile, presents a more narrow and negative image of the continent.

These differences have implications for the way that African countries and people are represented to Chinese news audiences. These representations shape public attitudes towards the continent.

A tale of two agendas

The People’s Daily was first published in Pingshan, Hebei on June 15, 1948 with such a logo. It has entered the public domain since 1998.

People’s Daily is a national, state media outlet distributed across the country. It serves as the most direct window into the opinions of China’s national leadership. Most of the paper’s subscribers are government organisations and it has an annual distribution of more than three million, according to its website.

The Southern Weekly is based in the highly commercialised Guangdong province, next to Hong Kong. It was established in 1984 and is known for its hard-hitting investigative journalism and its commercialised operation. It enjoys a readership of 1.7 million, which has been rising by 15% each year since its launch.

Unlike People’s Daily which is mainly read by officials or civil servants, Southern Weekly is mostly sold over the counter. It has 19 distribution bureaus across the country and a brand name worth RMB8,389 billion, according to its website.

The frequency with which these two papers cover stories about Africa is significantly different. In 2014, for example, People’s Daily reported on Africa and Sino-Africa relations 634 times. Southern Weekly, in contrast, had only five reports over the year.

There are also differences in terms of content and focus between the two publications, as the two graphs below show.

These graphs show the thematic focus of the coverage of Africa in the People’s Daily (left) and Southern Weekly (right) between 2003 and 2014.

One significant difference is that between 2003 and 2014 People’s Daily consistently reported on Sino-African politics and diplomacy (62%), with a focus on meetings between leaders. For Southern Weekly, however, coverage of this kind took up only 34% of its total Africa coverage.

People’s Daily’s coverage of Africa was more comprehensive and balanced. It was more likely to leave a positive impression on readers.

Southern Weekly focused more on what was making international headlines at the time. It appealed to its readers by telling engaging but sensational stories, which were likely to leave a negative impression.

The coverage of the Ebola outbreak demonstrates this well. Following the outbreak in 2014 both papers increased their reports on disease. The Southern Weekly’s reports increased to 40% of its total coverage of Africa. On the other hand People’s Daily’s coverage only took up 14% of its total African coverage.

Fluctuations in People’s Daily’s coverage demonstrate how its message is closely related to Sino-African cooperation dynamics.

For example, peaks in its coverage of Africa in 2006 and then again in 2010 and 2011 coincided with major foreign policy initiatives. In 2006, the Chinese government released China’s first white paper on Sino-African relations. The second peak followed the Fourth Ministerial Meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation at the end of 2009. This meeting led to agreement on an action plan to further strengthen China-Africa cultural cooperation between 2010 and 2012.

In contrast, there was not much difference in Southern Weekly’s coverage over those years. The range of reports on Africa was also much narrower, with a focus on war and conflicts. 2011 was unique for its high frequency due to the outbreak of civil war in Libya.

This shows that the commercial paper is more likely to cover big news stories than to follow the government’s priorities. And the commercial paper does not follow the political paper’s practice of prioritising positive news.

Public perceptions matter

The Chinese government has invested heavily in the Sino-African relationship, including the construction of a positive image of Africa, but commercial newspapers have their own agenda and priorities. These often clash with the government’s.

These contradictory representations help to form a picture of the Chinese public’s view of Africa.

They point to the possibility that the Chinese government may face challenges from a public that may not agree with its activities in Africa. Even for an unelected government, popular legitimacy is still a major concern.

With the rise of limited and largely negative coverage of the continent, Chinese citizens may come to disagree with the government’s aid activities in Africa. The government may also find less enthusiastic participation in its cultural exchanges with Africa.

For the increasing number of African migrants to China, the risk is that they may also find themselves less welcome.

Author’s note: This article is based on research which will shorty be published as ‘Media Construction of African Image(s) for the Chinese Media Public’ in K. Batchelor and X. Zhang (eds). China-Africa Relations: Building Images through Cultural Cooperation, Media Representation, and Communication (Routledge)The Conversation

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