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Emma Mawdsley at SOAS

News of China’s involvement was thin on the ground today, the only major story being the loss of A Nigerian satellite, launched at huge expense to the federal government. The project promised to generate billions of Naira per year and propel Nigeria forward technologically opening up the entire country to broadband internet and telephone capabilities. The cause of the failure is not known but the Nigerian press displayed an obvious mistrust of the Chinese technology on board which they considered to be second rate. The Chinese contractor had won the contract against 21 competing international firms and questions will be raised over the choice of the China Great Wall Industry Corporation.

This mistrust of Chinese workmanship is a feature of African media understanding, and was again visible in a rather frivolous story about a Chinese investor in Kenya, illegally keeping a tortoise as a pet. Serving as a microcosm of the wider relationship as a whole the investor’s lawyer asked that her contribution be taken into account, with a lenient verdict.

At SOAS yesterday evening Emma Mawdsley delivered a summary of her paper on perceptions in the British media of China’s role in Africa. She highlighted that the British broadsheets that she studied recounted British and Western negative involvement in Africa in a past light, while showing China as ruthless and greedy in its search for resources. Mawdsley showed that China’s role was used as a laundering tool for Western involvement, where often criticism for past Western mistakes would be tempered by the ‘reality’ of China’s violent and corrupt indiscretions.

The question was raised as to whether this negative reporting on China in Africa could be a symptom of a lack of contact between British media and Chinese action on the ground. As Chinese officials are often unwilling to open up to journalistic inquiry the stories are rarely the ones, which China might like to publicize. In response it was suggested that Chinese officials had recently improved their media management skills which will lead to more positive coverage.

However the thrust of the paper was certainly that British newspapers approached the story of China’s involvement in Africa with a systematized misunderstanding of the issue. On the whole Africans are portrayed as either victims or villains, never with any agency in positive developments. The continent is understood as the rightful backyard of Europe, and Chinese attempts to deal with its nations are considered surreptitious and dishonest. The West is still viewed through a lens of cosy paternalism that obscures Structural Adjustment’s failures, and the often-immoral pricing policies of big Pharma. China is portrayed as a ruthless extractor of resources, contrasting starkly with the established moral authority of the West.

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