[DISCLAIMER: This special bonus episode was recorded live from a classroom on the campus of Wits University in Johannesburg. Unfortunately, the audio quality isn’t great — it’s OK, not great — but we hope that you’ll give the show a chance and listen to what was a very lively and informative discussion]
China’s relationship with Africa is undergoing profound change in the post-pandemic era. Chinese engagement on the continent has fallen precipitously with a massive drop in people-to-people exchanges, development finance lending, and academic engagement.
In this special live episode of the show broadcast from the African Investigative Journalism Conference on the campus of Wits University in Johannesburg, Eric & Cobus explore the emerging trends and new myths in China-Africa relations with a distinguished panel of journalists and analysts:
- Sanusha Naidu, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue
- Geraud Neema, Francophone Editor at The China-Global South Project
- Bongiwe Tutu, Project Coordinator at The Africa-China Reporting Project
- Isak Lam, China-based researcher and journalist
- Sisi Mi, China-based researcher and data journalist
Eric: I’m Eric Olander. And as always, I’m joined by China Global South’s Managing Editor, Cobus van Staden. Good morning, Cobus. How cool is it that we’re actually here together at AIJC?
Cobus: Good morning. It’s amazing. We haven’t been together in the same room for several years.
Eric: For several… It’s funny, people don’t realize that it took us almost eight years of doing the show before we met for the first time in person. And now here we are actually doing the show in person. I think this is only the second or third time we’ve actually done the show together in person. Today we have a very special show lined up with an amazing panel of guests. We’re going to discuss how China is covered in the news media, both here in Africa and elsewhere in the global south. And then we’re going to flip the script and look at how Africa and Afrikaans are also covered in the Chinese press as well. So, we’re going to look at it from both sides. Cobus, you and I have spoken at length over the years about how so many of the perceptions of the Chinese in Africa haven’t actually evolved that much over the past 20 years.
Many of the same narratives about the Chinese in Africa that shape the early phase of this relationship are still around today. There’s still a lot of talk in the media and on social media about imported Chinese labor working on construction projects. We hear a lot, of course, about debt traps. There’s still a lot of stories about millions and millions and millions of Chinese immigrants coming into Africa. None of those are true, of course. And at the same time, we hear in the Chinese media where everything is perfect and rosy. There are no problems in the China-Africa relationship. It’s all win-win. You won’t hear about Chinese labor and environmental abuses in any of the Chinese media’s coverage on the continent. And really, at the end of the day, Cobus, it’s that so much of the African international and Chinese news coverage about what the Chinese are doing here is still very basic and really doesn’t have a lot of nuance.
I mean, this is an issue you’ve covered and spent a lot of time thinking about over the years. Why do you think it is that these narratives on all sides have remained so deeply entrenched?
Cobus: I think it’s two factors. One is that China capacity and Asia capacity in Africa is relatively low. African universities don’t have Asian studies departments. There frequently isn’t necessary a lot of interchange particularly over the last two years during COVID. It’s been hard to challenge these narratives with counternarratives. In the second place, I think it’s also that some of the… Even though these are kind of myths and disinformation, the underlying anxieties or the underlying problems remain the same. So, issues around labor, issues around financing, issues around transparency in the dealings between Chinese and African governments, those have not gone away. Those are real problems. The fact that they get packaged into fake stories is a problem, but it doesn’t take away the fact that these problems keep, keep continuing.
Eric: Well, let’s now take a look at some of those myths and some of those realities. We have an amazing panel lined up today, a lot more guests than we normally have on the show each week, but this is what’s going to make it exciting. And longtime listeners of the show are no doubt going to recognize some of the folks who are here with us today. First, let’s introduce you to Sanusha Naidu, who is a senior research associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue here in South Africa. Great to see you, Sanusha.
Sanusha: Oh, Eric and Corbus, it’s always nice to be on the show, but face to face, fantastic.
Eric: So cool. And we’re also joined by Bongiwe Tutu, who’s the project coordinator for the Africa-China Reporting Project here at Wits University. Bongiwe, so wonderful to see you in person on the show.
Bongiwe: Thank you so much, Eric, and thank you for following my demands to have this session, take this format. Really happy to have you guys here.
Eric: It’s a lot of fun. I’m glad we got… She’s tough. She pressured us into this and browbeat us into do it this way. And then we’re going to again, on the Chinese side, We’re thrilled to have two journalists who are actually based in China joining us today to help provide some insights, again, on the perceptions of Africa and Afrikaans in Chinese media. First, we have Isak Lam, who has done extensive research on racism and xenophobia as a global phenomena, and specifically focusing on the China-Africa context. Isak, thanks so much for joining us.
Isak: Yeah, glad to be here and share with you.
Eric: Fantastic. And then last, but certainly not least, we have Sisi Mi, who is a data journalist and has done really some fantastic analysis over the years on the discussions about Africa and Africans on Chinese social media. Sisi, welcome back.
Sisi: It’s an honor to be here.
Eric: Okay, let’s get this started now. And here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to open up our questions here very quickly, but again, I want to invite our audience to think about questions that they can ask this panel. We want the session to be interactive. So, for the audience in the room, when you start to have questions, start putting them up. Let’s make this as dynamic and interactive as possible. We’ll have somebody bring the microphone to you. We don’t have a lot of time, so I’d like to warn both our panelists and the audience that we’re super tight on time. So, any comments or questions if you could keep them really brief. Sanusha, I’m going to start with you. Before the show today, you and I were reflecting on the past 15 or 20 years of China-Africa relations. And you’ve been in this space for that long, and we’ve been there as well.
You said something very interesting about how in many South African newsrooms, and I’m sure it’s similar in other African newsrooms, the use of AP, and Reuters, and CNN, and Bloomberg, and Western narratives remain very, very powerful and dominant. And this is probably, again, true elsewhere on the continent. How do you think those western media narratives have influenced African media’s framing of the Chinese and Africa?
Sanusha: Yeah, I mean, it’s a syndication of stories. We’ve seen in South Africa that we haven’t really invested in foreign policy correspondence. I mean, if we are to actually look at, say the UN, we have one correspondent out in New York that’s with the public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation. But when you come to print media, and even in terms of electronic media, I think what you’re beginning to realize and find is that the narrative that comes out in a particular way in which China is framed, very much the optics around China is an actor that we should basically take with a pinch of salt caution, branding in terms of a threat. It comes out in our media. I mean, one of the things that was interesting recently were questions around whether South Africa is not necessarily living up to its own foreign policy aspirations and principles because it’s in the bricks, and so therefore it has to align itself to its bricks partners, not necessarily India and Brazil, but Russia and China.
I think this narrative that comes out, essentially what it does is that it creates this dichotomy between how you want to interpret China in the media space. For example, if China’s, if it’s about xenophobia, if it’s about challenges around fake goods that are coming into the market displacing labor, displacing production, etc., it gets a lot of traction in the media. But it gets the traction and the attention, not necessarily arguing that the way in which the global economy has emerged, the way in which South Africa’s economic policy-making needs to be reflected upon, but rather it’s because China is coming in with its cheap fake goods and displacing the market.
Then, of course, there are questions around whether the narrative on China is really around the fact that we, in South Africa, and as Cobus rightly point out, have the kinds of necessary resources and tools, whether it’s university, the capacity, etc., and understanding China and the evolving nature of China. At the end of the day, a lot of the optics is based on what the interpretation is globally and how that interpretation gets syndicated, and that becomes the narrative for us. Whereas there’s a different narrative that comes out of the government as well trying to defend its relationship with China.
Cobus: Sisi, Sanusha talked about the framing of China in Africa, but you’ve been looking a lot at the framing of Africa on Chinese social media. So, I was wondering, what are some of the dominant ideas about Africa that you’ve found so far?
Sisi: I think it’s a lot similar to where the state media was saying, like there is a lot of things about sponsorship, sometimes on social media in a patronizing way, but that’s almost like just helping, giving out salaries, giving out money to the local people, and also framing it in a friend way. There is also deep connections between the Chinese and African. So, it’s not just helping them. It’s also they’re appreciating it a lot. Sometimes they cry a lot in those social media videos, we see. So, it’s really emotional sometimes just showing that relationship, but also, in a little bit like patronizing way. On the Chinese media side, I feel there’s more, except from the state media, there’s a lot of Chinese who are living in Africa, reporting on Africa. Those things, they do more republication of what’s already in the African media, and there’s most real stuff there compared to usually the state media.
Eric: One of the trends that you talked about that we’ve seen a lot in recent years is the rise of the social media influencer in Africa. This has caused quite a bit of problems in recent years. In one hand, you have a group of these social media influencers who are really trying to tell a more nuanced story, a more accurate story, a more friendly story that does challenge a lot of the stereotypes and perceptions. But you’ve done research also, and we’ve tracked this as well, and the BBC highlighted this in the Racism for Sale documentary that blew up earlier this year about highly exploited videos of Chinese giving out money, as you pointed out. Isak, I’d like you to talk about the social media narratives in China that, in many ways, are more powerful than the state media narratives because they reach much larger audiences.
Isak: I would like to say that it’s important to situate the dominant ideas and the representations of Africa on Chinese social media in the context of historical transformation of China after 1980s. As you can see, except for diplomats or higher officials who visit African countries, there’s a lot of Chinese who visits African countries. They are from rural areas or they’re simply trying to make money and get a job in African countries. So, they really don’t have much preparation or they don’t have much knowledge about Africa before they fly to Africa.
Eric: Isak and Sisi have talked about Chinese framing of Africans. The Chinese are also trying to frame the narratives here in Africa as well. And there’s obviously, we’ve heard about CGTN that is based in Nairobi. There is, here in South Africa, Independent Online is 20% owned by the China Africa Development Fund. China Daily’s available here. The Chinese are spending money, and they’ve spent money committed resources to try to shape the narrative here. I’m not entirely sure how successful they’ve been through the state channels. We hear a lot of inquiries from outsiders about whether or not the Chinese are engaging in the same kind of influence operations that they are alleged to be doing in other parts of the world. Do you see evidence of that here in Africa that the Chinese are engaging in narrative shaping and influence operations that are maybe below the surface that we don’t see?
Cobus: It’s a complicated situation. As you say, the Chinese state media is powerfully present in Africa. And at the same time, there’s also kind of influence operations, I think, happening, or influence building happening among Chinese diaspora communities within Africa as well, which is a separate but related issue. In relation to the messaging to Africans particularly, I think one of the problems is that increasingly, as we’ve seen the establishment of the Xining regime over his two terms, now going into the third term, one of the effects that we’ve seen has been a kind of a pulling together of Chinese society and with the party at the center. But one of the manifestations of that has been a setting out of a whole set of vocabularies and particular coded terms, forms of coded language.
Eric: Give us some examples.
Cobus: These phrases like shared prosperity, for example, or events unseen in a century. Or these set phrases that people who follow China closely learn to decode over time. But I think for a lot of just in general audiences, this kind of language, which I think many people in the Chinese state media also under a lot of pressure to use, they end up being very alienating, and frequently also, frankly, very boring. I don’t know who’s here that’s recently watched CGTN, it’s maybe not the funnest experience. I think that is a real barrier, I think, and I think many Chinese actors are under significant constraints to maintain that kind of discourse.
Eric: Yeah. One of the things you’ll see, for example, is many African leaders, on their Twitter pages, will use hashtag common destiny shared prosperity, and they will repeat some of the Chinese language that Cobus was talking about. Okay. You’ve heard from the panelists. Now we want to open up the floor to our guests. The microphone is right there. Please, by putting your hand up. We’ll keep talking if there’s no questions, but we would love for you to ask your questions to the panelists.
Cobus: While you’re thinking, it’d be maybe good for us to also just point out that this kind of framing of discourse, of framing of language, and coding of language isn’t only happening from the Chinese side. We’re seeing very similar kind of effects actually coming from the U.S. side. For example, the use of the idea of malign Chinese influence. For example, that set phrase is one of several ones that we’re seeing. So, it’s not only a one-sided situation. It’s different sides of this geopolitical fight landing in language ways in Africa.
Deon Wiggett: Good dialoguing. My name is Deon Wiggett. I have a podcast called My Only Story. I thank you for your comments. Before coming here, I did some research to check if this is being funded by the Chinese government, and it doesn’t seem like it.
Eric: It’s definitely not. I can assure you it’s definitely not.
Deon Wiggett: But that is the kind of thing you wonder about whenever there’s a Chinese opportunity like this. I think part of the problem is that we, as Africans and as Chinese people, we see each other very one dimensionally because it can feel like we have very few values in common. I mean, I’m a citizen of a democracy that we fought hard for, whereas you just coronated your leader, and it’s not like you could decide on that. I guess, how can we understand China better by trusting China more to get more layered and more nuanced understanding of the dynamic?
Isak: I think, first, I would like to emphasize that whenever you try to think about it, you better think there are pluralistic positions inside of China. You can actually see there are many different tendencies and positions regarding on Africa. And you can get official position and you can also have very liberal learning people thinking about Africa. And you can even get many Chinese people who think like Trump supporters, just simply the Chinese version of them. So, I think, in the Chinese media landscape, these different voices are actually even fighting with each other regarding the China and Africa relations. Actually, many Chinese people think in very similar way as their Western counterparts regarding to Africa. It’s not that drastically different.
Eric: And we’ve seen those narratives, those same western caricatures that have been around for decades, if not centuries. Those offensive images that we’ve seen out of Hollywood now start to appear in Chinese blockbuster movies. We have Wolf Warrior, we have the new Coming Home. We’ve had operation Red Sea, where Africa and Afrikaans have been marginalized to, again, background and not central. There’s no humanity in it. Again, they are copying, in many respects, the art that was perfected by Hollywood for a long time in that respect. Let’s bring in a different perspective now. We’ve talked a lot about what’s going on here in South Africa, but again, this is an issue that’s affecting the entire continent.
Geraud Neema, who is our francophone editor at the China Global South Project is joining us on the line from Mauritius. He covers everything going on in French-speaking Africa. Geraud, you’ve been listening to the conversation. This is an issue that you’ve been also reporting on quite a bit about the framing. Do you see any differences in how China is described, both on social media and in the traditional media, in Anglophone Africa versus in Francophone Africa?
Geraud: In terms of media coverage of China, both in Francophone Africa, in Anglophone Africa, we don’t see that much of a difference. There’s a perspective that we see it’s quite similar. Those stereotype have quite strengthened by, unfortunately, by the situation on the ground, especially when you see how the interaction between Chinese companies and Chinese businessmen with local people. Those kind of incidents tends to strengthen different stereotype, different approach of the way Africans perceive Chinese, how they see Chinese, and how they relate to them. It’s also the same thing in terms of framing, media framing when you watch like [inaudible 0:20:47] when they talk about China in Francophone Africa.
We always have that kind of geopolitical background. And the way the topic are engaged on, we also see the same narrative coming up often, so that in the end you have that echo chamber effect that local media are now spreading around, and you have that reinforced among the people, the way they perceive China, the way China is perceived. And that just, at the end, puts a very different and difficult way of communicating and interacting between Africans and Chinese, both in Anglophone Africa and Francophone Africa. In Francophone Africa. It’s even much stronger when you have those big media [inaudible 0:21:30] that somehow that’s also political agenda behind them.
Cobus: We’re speaking at a journalism conference and I think it’s a real opportunity to really focus on the journalism aspect of all of these narratives. I’d like to ask Bongiwe, you work with a lot of both Chinese and African journalists in doing deep and original reporting on Africa-China issues. When you start developing these stories or start working with people and they pitch stories to you for grants, what are some of the misperceptions or narratives that you have to weed out in order to produce good reporting?
Bongiwe: Thank you for that question, Cobus, it’s a very good question. We do confront that with a lot of the applications that the project receives from journalists in China and in Africa, where we have to go back to the proposed topic and request them to try take a perspective that is representing a more balanced approach to the issues. We find often that journalists will already have a position of the issue that they’re trying to raise. And that’s problematic because if you’re going into an investigation with a certain standpoint, then you’ve put yourself into it and you are undermining the whole purpose of fieldwork and investigations.
Often, the journalists from African countries will provide proposals that are framing China as an exploiter of African communities, and they’ll position Africa as this victim that is just receiving handouts from China and having no standpoint in terms of what is really required by the locals, and how is this investment, or what whatever they’re investigating in terms of like infrastructure development projects, how are they impacting the people on the ground?
We often find that we need to assist the journalist to be able to try and take a standpoint where you will position yourself to present a balanced view of what… Try to incorporate China’s views as well as African’s perspectives in new investigation. And in that way, we have a nuanced reporting on that relationship.
Faith Sudi: Thank you so much. My name is Faith Sudi. I’m from Kenya. I happen to be in a position to cover a project by the China on a infrastructure project in Turkana. It’s in the northern Kenya, and it’s part of the marginalized Kenya. So, apparently, at first I wanted to cover it on the fact that this is a development that is coming into this region for the first time after so many years. But then again, when I wanted to get a perspective from the Chinese contractors, I hit a dead end. I was asked to go, I think the whole process, they referred me back to government. It had to go through Nairobi. Then again, this happened, and it was just a tiresome process. And you’ll keep going back and forth, back and forth. I reach a point, and I was like, “This is not going to work.”
After some years, again, we received some complaints about exportation. We went, it was an exploitation, and also there was something to do with the donkey skin.
Faith Sudi: Yeah, exportation of donkey skin and hooves. I wanted also to explore that story. Also, on that story, I hit a dead end because I couldn’t get access to the Chinese contractors who are being claimed by the communities to be the perpetrators of the senior’s act, and I couldn’t get to government. So, you see, as a journalist, you are not able, even if you want to frame it differently to give the both perspective, you’re not given the chance to. So, how do you break this ice? Thank you.
Eric: Okay, do me a favor, hand the microphone to the gentleman sitting right next to you. For those of you at home listening to this, we’re thrilled to have, actually in the audience today, Liam Lee, who is a reporter for Ta Kung Pao Newspaper in Hong Kong and China. He’s covered Africa for a very long time. He knows obviously the Chinese media quite well, and the Chinese state media. And Ta Kung Pao Newspaper, just for you know, is a pro-Communist Party newspaper based out of Hong Kong that is very popular in China and in Hong Kong as well. So, Liam, to the question here, the Chinese have a terrible reputation, both Chinese companies and the Chinese embassy for not being available to local media. Forget about CNN, Reuters, AP, and the Western, and the white people coming in to knock on their door.
This is, we’re talking about local media here. Why is it, in your experience, and you’ve been in Africa for a long time, that journalists like Faith, who are doing legitimate stories, will go and ask for a comment from a Chinese stakeholder and all they get is stonewalled? Why is that?
Liam Lee: I wonder. It’s not long time, but actually [inaudible 0:26:54] ways because all my Africa, China stories career begin from here. eight years ago, I granted from Wits, and I covered the Kenya Railways at very early stage. So, I think your answer is to find a journalist like me in China, you cooperation to writing stories.
Eric: But if I could just go back to the question, which is, why is it that Chinese companies and Chinese embassies are so reluctant to work with local media to tell their story? And this is the is what annoys me a little bit here is that then the Chinese will turn around and complain bitterly that they’re poorly covered in the local and international media, when in fact, someone like Faith who’s trying to do a legitimate story will just get stonewalled. Why is that?
Liam Lee: I suppose because the media control or management system is quite different from China and here. we have a price card, we have, at least you have affiliation with some newsrooms, but in Africa, like the conference, there were so many freelancers. You contribute for different media outlet. So, I think that is one reason. And another one, I wonder, you are very hard to approach to the center, I’m very clear of that. Because in some cases, you approach to the camp of China’s site here, and you cannot go inside, but you find some worker, local workers work them, and you chat with them, but maybe those workers are not satisfied with the working conditions, or just affair by the Chinese boss. I think that day after day, those things make those Chinese investment, even the people from the embassy thinking that, oh, those peoples are troublemaker. They just want to interview us or approaching us, but writing a negative angle story. I think that is the question. But I gave you an advice, you should find some Chinese partner or counterpart to co-work about these things.
Eric: That’s not easy to do though. That’s not easy to do. Sanusha, these have real-world consequences, this lack of coverage in the media, the misperceptions that continue to happen on all sides. You deal directly with policy-makers in Southern Africa who often-time carry those misperceptions into their policymaking process. Talk to us about the jump from media to policy making in your experience.
Sanusha: Yeah, I mean, I think to circle back to some of the discussions we’ve been having, it just depends how the hierarchy is characterized. So, if you’re talking to policy-makers, they’ve already developed preconceived perceptions about their engagement with China. Some of it is based on the idea that we don’t want to rock the boat here, this is China. We want to bring in the investment. We don’t want to be seen as unsettling the relationship between our two countries. But I think that narrative or that perception has shifted over the last couple of years, and again, the case in point is Kenya, based on projects where the Chinese have also realized that this is not coming to the kind of symbolic investments that makes us this better partner when it comes to trade and investments. I mean the, the Standard Gauge Railway is a good example of the brand, the optics, and the reputational risks that were involved there.
I think at one point when former President Kenyatta was in China to ask for more money for the Standard Gauge Railway, there was hesitancy. And, of course, we’re seeing China also shift in terms of its maturity or how it’s perceiving the continent. And I think what policy-makers in Africa tend to not recognize or fail to recognize is that they have a level of capability, capacity, and agency to negotiate this relationship with China. China’s not a monolithic country that you can’t negotiate a better deal for yourself. But what happens is that there’s a set of, and to be quite honest and open, there’s almost a sense of paranoia that our relationship with China needs to be protected. And that sense of paranoia becomes the similar experience in terms of when you ask about a particular project, or if you take, for example, the Belt and Road Initiative, and you ask some of the policy-makers, whether in South Africa or outside of South Africa in the Southern African region, “What is your strategy?”
The immediate response is, “Why do you want to know about the BRI?” Not understanding that the idea of public diplomacy requires you from your end to open up that space for your policy-makers, for your researchers, for your media. That only has to come from the Chinese side. And let me just say that one of the things that we found in a BRI perception study that we are currently doing is the question of who actually talks about the BRI strategy. Is it China that comes in and does the whole kind of marketing around BRI or is it the recipient government? Is it the South African government? Is it the governments in southern Africa? And there was confusion from these policy makers because the elites on one side of the spectrum have a particular idea of what they want from China.
Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But of course, the media then, when they portray the relationship that the countries have with China, also feeds into parochial perceptions. When you look at the locals in society and how they perceive China, China is the country that comes in and sells all the cheap goods, or it must be Chinese fake goods that are in our market. Why do we need the Chinese to come here? All of these things that tend to fuel. So, I think the problem is policy makers become almost intermediates in the relationship where they’re not actually willing to also explore and engage with researchers, media, etc., about how they are navigating, harnessing, and developing that relationship with China.
Eric: Okay. We’ve covered an enormous amount of ground. There’s a lot that’s out there for you guys to think about. What I’d like to do now at the last few minutes of the show is to kind of get the panel now to reflect on, where are we, and look forward a little bit. And Sisi, I’d like to start with you. Give everybody, kind of, are things going to get better or worse given the fact that social media now is playing such a prominent role in China, in the framing of China-Africa relations? Give us a final reflection on the discussion today.
Sisi: Actually. So, just while we were doing the research, we found they’ve started to have some censorship on these social media platforms. For example, we couldn’t search for the word Africa on the search bar, on the Chinese TikTok. There would be no results. And a lot of these vloggers who just publish focusing on Africa, their traffic has been restricted, and they couldn’t do live streaming, which is how they make money. So, I think it’s, yeah, the state is going to step in in these areas because it’s creating, because of the racism for some incident, it’s creating some of the diplomatic implications. I sense there is going to be like stronger control on this area, but again, maybe after a while, this kind of restriction will be gone after it’s sensitive. That’s also possible.
Eric: Okay. So, more state intervention on the Chinese side to monitor and censor the content. Very interesting. Geraud, let’s come to you. What are your reflections on this discussion today?
Geraud: My reflections will be much more a call for hope, to hope that African media will develop much more a China knowledge because we see there is a deep lack of China knowledge from African journalists. And if we really want to move forward to improve that relationship, there is an urgent need for African media to start develop an in-house China knowledge to fill the gap. Otherwise, it’s going to be left to outside media and a lot of NGOs, because the NGOs also plays a tremendous role into shaping the China-Africa narrative right now.
Eric: That’s very interesting. Isak, your final thoughts.
Isak: From my point of view, the most important thing for Chinese media to represent Africa is to actually get more African voices in their representations in the news or reports. And not just from Chinese interests or Chinese point of view, or Chinese cultural values, but we can really have some understanding in-depth about African cultures and what’s actually happened in African context, local context.
Eric: Sanusha, what’s your final reflection based on the past hour of discussion?
Sanusha: I think what we really need is a much more holistic engagement. I mean, media has to understand what is the relationship globally, how global affairs are changing rapidly. We’re entering very, very unprecedented, unpredictable dynamics in the global economy. China is basically being touted as the second-largest economy, possibly overtaking the U.S. But I think what we suffer on both sides of the divide is a much more integrated set of knowledge hubs about each other. I think a lot of perception fuels these dynamics. In the case of South Africa, I think we need to understand the changing norm, the changing identity of the Chinese state, the Chinese Congress Party, where it’s going, and so forth, the Chinese Communist Party rather.
But I think also, from the side of the African context, I think we don’t do enough deep diving, as Geraud said. We do a lot of cosmetic reporting. And I think that cosmetic reporting is based on the fact that, is China important? It’s very important, the fact that we had the 20th Party Congress and the fact that you had all major international media houses covering it, it took me a while to see who was covering it in South Africa. So, if our relationship with China is important, you’ve got to understand what China means when you’re going forward. And similarly, I think China needs to understand that Africa is not a homogenous environment.
Eric: Bongiwe, you and the work that you’re doing at the Africa-China Reporting Project is part of the solution to these problems that have been addressed at the panel. Let’s get some insights from you on going forward, what would you like to see as part of the solution to some of these problems?
Bongiwe: Thank you, Eric. And yeah, just to echo what’s already been said by the panelists that there is an existing gap within the reporting of Africa-China relations. And just a bit of background that the Africa-China Reporting Project was established in 2009, and that was coincidentally the same year that China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. Within that, and that investment coming into Africa, we saw that there was this gap that was existing in the media. And the media is very important because it plays a crucial role in the framing of the dynamics and these issues and the relationship between Africa and China. I think what we can draw with the solutions that we need to implement, firstly, we see still today that the media is much dominated by the Western narratives.
But also, within African institutions, there’s a poor journalism education that you find within many universities in Africa. And that filters down to the media houses in Africa where there’s a lack of capacity among journalists to be able to investigate and understand clearly these dynamics. And so, I think one of the solutions that we need to implement is to capacitate the journalism education in Africa and expand networks among institutions, higher education institutions in Africa. Because where there’s collaboration then there’s capacity that is shared amongst higher education. And so, related to that is also the solution of training. That also is something that we found in the project to be very useful. When you engage with journalists and allow them, and you enable opportunities of training workshops and the such, then you’re able to bridge that gap that exists within the media and the framing of African-China relations.
And so, I think those two, and then lastly, upholding African perspectives and African voices in that relationship is very important. And many journalists feel that they lack the position to be able to report on these issues. There’s this feeling of inferiority that, who am I to be able to report on this? And who am I to be able to be received in my understanding of this relationship? I think if we can emphasize and support more African journalists, so I think within those three notes, that way we can sort of have a much more better advancing of media journalism on Africa-China relations seeing that the current challenges and advancing for the future.
Eric: Cobus, that is a great note for us to end our discussion on. I just want to reflect a little bit on what’s happened with our show over the past couple of weeks, and it plays into some of the difficulties that we’ve talked about today. We’ve tried to get Chinese stakeholders to come on the show, it’s impossible now. They won’t answer the calls. They won’t come. They used to. We had a lot of high-ranking officials that used to come, but we’ve given up now, I’ll be honest with you. We don’t even try that much anymore. Then what we started to do is we wanted to reach out to Africans who are very sympathetic and very pro-China and very enthusiastic about the Chinese project here in Africa. And we didn’t have a show last week because we had a guest scheduled to come on the show on Tuesday night.
We confirmed back and forth multiple times, and he’s very, very… He works with Chinese companies. Again, we want to provide a well-rounded discussion. We thought it’d be great to have this person come on. Never showed up. I put trackers on my emails to do the read-me receipts. He saw my emails, he never showed up. My guess is he was brushed aside by the embassy. The embassy told him, “You know what? Better not to go on this show and talk to them.” And that leaves me with a very depressing feeling here, because if we can’t have these basic exchanges in a non-politicized way, and we try not to be politicized about this, but China is a polarizing topic today, where do we go? I mean, what happens now?
Cobus: On my side, I look at it, I completely agree, but I also look at it from an African perspective as an African, and one of the problems that I find is that both on the Chinese side of those relationship, and frequently on the African side, and very, very frequently on the western side, of all of these Western different stakeholders that you speak to, you frequently find the one thing that overlaps between all of them is all of them find China a lot more interesting than they find Africa. And that, I think, is a massive problem. You frequently find, you speak with European or American’s interlocutors who are like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever, just tell us what China’s doing.”
I find that this is actually a problem on the African journalism side because what I frequently find really difficult, as a consumer of African news, is that I don’t find that African journalists explain African societies, African politics sufficiently. So frequently journalists tend to assume that people already know what they’re talking about or they’re only talking to a very narrow national audience. In that sense, it’s really important to keep in mind that China didn’t step into a vacuum. There are very important, very powerful power politics and power structures in African societies that the Chinese are interacting with. And so, in order to understand what the Chinese are doing, we need more proactive African journalists who are not only focusing on the China side, important as that is, but in focusing on the dynamics within these African societies that the Chinese are dealing with and exploiting, and sometimes falling victim to. Better explanations of how Africa works is a really important key to unlocking how the China-Africa relationship works, I think.
Eric: That is a great place for us to end our conversation. I want to thank our panel for all their insights. I want to thank our audience, the amazing team at Voice of Wits Radio, who put this all together, and Bongiwe, for arranging this at the Africa-China Reporting Project. If these are the kinds of topics that you’re interested in following, this is the kind of work that the Africa China Reporting Project is doing, and also the China Global South Project is doing. We’re genuinely trying to fill this void to bring nuance to the discussion. We have a team now of eight, soon to be nine journalists from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, who are doing this work every single day. Go to chinaglobalsouth.com and you’ll be able to find all of the information. And if you’d like to subscribe, go to chinaglobalsouth.com/subscribe to support the work that Geraud is doing and that all of us are doing.
So, thank you very much for joining us today for this special episode. We’ll be back again next week with another episode of the China in Africa Podcast. Thanks so much for listening.
Bongiwe: Thank you.
Outro: The discussion continues online. Tag us on Twitter @ChinaGSProject, and visit us at chinaglobalsouth.com. If you speak French, check out our full coverage at projetafriquechine.com and AfrikChine on Twitter. That’s Afrik with a K. And you’ll also find links to our sites and social media channels in Arabic.