Influencing Media Perception

Last week the Economist magazine contained two articles on the China Africa relationship venturing that China needs to protect itself against a growing displeasure among ordinary Africans. While there have been many examples of poor working practices and even violence, Chinese actors tend not to protect themselves against criticism in the way that a western company would.

The content was not particularly original, but it adds to a growing interest in media perception in recent months. There seems to be increasing realisation, that the Western media has been at least partially responsible for creating a generally negative western view of the China Africa relationship.

This week’s news throws up two examples of poor practice which demonstrate the difficulty in making judgements on China’s role. The first is cited in Deborah Brautigam’s blog describing the collapse of a section of the Lusaka-Chirundu road in Zambia. While initial reports tell a story of substandard Chinese workmanship, Brautigam and her commenters point out that collapses also regularly occur on Western built roads, but that the attractive narrative of the slipshod Chinese interloper tempts publication. Without doing comparative studies of various road building projects the story draws a unfair generalisation.

The second story is that of Lee Sarro in Tanzania. Lee, a 65 year old Chinese manager has been arrested for beating a security guard to death who he suspected of theft. While the previous story is perhaps unfair criticism, this kind of worker mistreatment seems to appear every year, and is unique to Chinese companies.

Chinese companies tend to lack the experience or the contacts to influence both Western and African media. However this does seem to be changing. Last week the a China Africa Media cooperation event was held in Nairobi. The speakers posited that western dominance of the international media had led to a skewed perception of both China and Africa in the world.

A particularly interesting outcome of the meeting was the announcement of a new Xinhua Mobile Newspaper, the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. The joint venture with a local telecom company will enable about 17 million Kenyan mobile subscribers to receive news from China’s Xinhua News Agency via Multimedia Messaging Service.

This week the Kenyan Daily Nation newspaper has taken up the cause. They disagreed with the ubiquitous criticism of Chinese neocolonialism, instead calling for a decolonisation of African media. They call for further efforts to create an independent and international African media which can speak for itself, rather than being spoken for by a biased international media prone to focus on African poverty and conflict.

Further disclosure of China’s foreign aid figures is another example of an increasing openness. These are likely the first steps in a strategy of engagement with key stakeholders, making sure that the Chinese point of view is put across.

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