By James Sundquist
The “Rise of China” is one of the great stories of this century. But how is this story told? Is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) about South-South cooperation or debt-trap diplomacy? How much attention should be paid to China’s economic miracle and how much to its human rights violations?
My new working paper from the Boston University Global Development Policy Center sheds light on two ways the Chinese government encourages media in developing countries to “tell Chinese stories well.”
First, I find that Belt and Road infrastructure projects generate extensive coverage about Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature global initiative and may even dissuade reporting on human rights issues in China. Second, I investigate how reporting at the major South African daily the Cape Times changed after Chinese state actors acquired a 20% ownership stake in the paper. Compared to both its peer publications and its own history, the Cape Times’ reporting on the BRI took off, while human-rights-related coverage of China declined.
These findings matter because habitual media consumption shapes political attitudes. Since many foreign policy goals require goodwill to be achieved, governments strive to shape their image abroad, just as domestic politicians battle to control media narratives at home. To the extent that China’s efforts are successful in influencing foreign journalism, it is both shaping how it is remembered in “the first rough draft of history,” as well as improving its prospects for the future.
Belt and Road Projects Grab Attention
Although the BRI has many motivations, one is undoubtedly to burnish China’s image as a partner of developing nations. By tracing how reporting on the BRI changes in response to new infrastructure financing, the study reveals that news of these projects is distributed broadly to citizens in host nations. Whether measured by new funds or new projects, an expansion of the BRI is associated with a strong journalistic response. Many, but not all, of these articles are positive.
Intriguingly, a country’s borrowing from China might also lead some domestic newspapers to reduce their reporting on Chinese-related human rights issues, perhaps out of unwillingness to criticize a strategic partner. However, this relationship is weaker and might vary by country. Among countries in the sample, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Kenya borrowed the most from China; Pakistani and Sri Lankan newspapers are particularly reluctant to criticize China on human rights issues, but the Kenyan Daily Nation exhibits no such effect.
Chinese Ownership can Transform Reporting
The second half of the working paper examines the political economy of media ownership. In 2013, two Chinese state-owned actors took a combined 20 percent stake in the South African daily the Cape Times, as part of its sale from Irish owners to a South African conglomerate. Despite only holding a minority share, this sale proved to have dramatic consequences for the paper’s reporting on China: attention to the BRI jumped while reporting on China’s human rights issues slumped.
The pressure to avoid criticizing China was particularly apparent in a case study of an incident that occurred in March 2020 in Guangzhou, where a reported outbreak of COVID-19 among African residents of the southern Chinese city prompted mistreatment of visibly African individuals. News organizations across the continent, including South African sources, stridently condemned the incident, while the Cape Times ignored the issue for three days before finally publishing an article that chose to emphasize the Chinese government’s responsiveness to the issue.
By “telling Chinese stories well,” these media strategies build valuable goodwill. Normatively, however, these findings raise questions with no clear answers. What kinds of foreign information campaigns should countries tolerate? Such campaigns are hardly limited to China –the United States has long sought to manage its image in Muslim countries as part of a counterterrorism strategy. Bans on foreign ownership of media companies might sound appealing until one considers the Polish government’s effort to shut down a US-owned TV station critical of the country’s democratic backsliding.
Ultimately, Chinese efforts to shape foreign media are part of a larger debate about the merits and risks of the free flow of information, which every society continually negotiates.
James Sundquist is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University’s Jackson School of Global Affairs and a former Global China Pre-doctoral Research Fellow with the Boston University Global Development Policy Center.