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Divergent portraits on Chinese aid to Africa

Zhao Jun | 2014-06-03 | Hits:
(Social Sciences in China)
Feng Ai, one of the first group of Chinese volunteers to Ethiopia. Helping local students with education is a major part of her mission.
Because of diverging interests, values and media structures, Western, African and Chinese media portray China’s relations with Africa differently. A typical example is how these media, through different angles, report on China’s assistance for the construction of the African Union Conference Center and Office Complex (AUCC, African Union’s headquarters) which was completed in 2012. Even the statistics and facts reported reflect their different concerns about the relations.
Western reporting tends to harp on how China aids Africa and question the intentions behind this aid. They assume that it is unconditional Chinese aid that harms African democracy and human rights. They also point out that, Chinese aid projects rarely create employment opportunities for local Africans. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has reported that China’s primary motive is to secure access to Africa’s natural resources, so it has invested significantly in African infrastructure in return. Reuters described the AUCC as “a symbol of the Asian giant’s push to stay ahead in Africa and gain greater access to the continent’s resources.” In an article about the headquarters, the American magazine Foreign Affairs questioned why China was willing to shell out $200 million for the project. Generally speaking, Western media assumes China’s involvement in the project was because of its interest in Africa’s resources.
African media also frequently questions the AUCC’s information security. Chika Ezeanya first raised concerns about the building’s security in a critical opinion in January 2012. Later, similar commentaries in Nigeria’s Daily Trust also likened China’s aid for the AUCC to a Trojan horse.
Western media: ‘China as a rival’ and Western-centrism
Western media reporting on the AUCC, though gravitating toward the rapid development of China-Africa relations, routinely foregrounds the negative factors involved. Some stories highlight Chinese firms neglect their social responsibility in Africa and the competition to the local African manufacturing industry. At the same time, one can detect a tone of envy in Western coverage on the soaring speed at which the AUCC was designed and constructed, as well as a complicated attitude toward its own relationship with and role in Africa, especially when put side by side with China. “Rival”, this is how Western countries define China in regards to its presence in Africa.
The Western media’s portrayal of China-Africa relations reflects its Western-centrism and the West’s hegemony in international discourse. This is evident in its overemphasis on and exaggeration of China and Africa’s cooperation in extracting natural resources, but lack of self-reflection. Western countries have tried to peddle their own political systems in developing countries that are still in the process of modernization.
African media: ‘African dignity’ and self-reflection
Big changes in African public opinion on China are evident in African media coverage of China’s sponsoring of the AUCC. African reporting highlights two issues: reflecting on Africa’s development path, and concern about the implications for African dignity. Africa’s acceptance of China’s assistance is taken as a sign of its impotence in accomplishing its own development agenda and China’s ability to use aid in exchange for resources.
However, some sources point out that Africa’s own problems are far more severe than the problems that come from accepting aid. Still, many see the construction of a building which symbolizes the continent’s solidarity and political and economic progress by someone other than Africans themselves as a negation of African people’s capability and aspirations. Other sources express humiliation that African leaders accepted China’s donation. Despite overreaction, cynicism and presentation of false information from some commentators, concern over “Africa’s dignity” and reexamination of its development path is understandable. From another angle, this shows African media’s dissatisfaction with the current state of development in African countries, and its hopes for the future.
Chinese media: ‘monologue’ on friendship
Chinese media portrays the AUCC as a “milestone marking a new stage of China-Africa friendship and cooperation”. Though Chinese media reports also quote commentaries from Western and African media, voices of criticism are seldom mentioned. Chinese media need to respond more to criticisms and have clearer awareness of their own position.
Based on this case study, China should take the following points into consideration in conducting its public diplomacy toward Africa:
First, Western media reports actually reflect the West’s sense of loss because of China’s presence in Africa. We need to bear in mind, however, that media across different Western countries is not uniform in its views. For example, North American and European media differ in their reporting on China-Africa relations. Moreover, we cannot ignore the influence of Western media in Africa, where it has a language advantage and is often directly quoted in many online African media sources. It can wield substantial influence on the public opinion in African countries, which further affects African governments’ policy-making.
Second, African media is more concerned with Africa’s own development path. Having endured long periods of colonization, African people are adamant about protecting their dignity, even if it means going against the views of rational African scholars. In addition, some African media do not understand the background information and consequently misjudge the news. For example, some sources reported that China’s help in building the AUCC was a gift. The dissemination of the rumors may distort people’s understanding of the facts. What is worse is that error and rumor do not get rectified quickly, so even if the problems are redressed, the consequences are already irreversible.
Third, Chinese government and Chinese media should expand their cooperation with African media, working to overcome obstacles in communication and establish mechanisms for information exchange. Chinese media should avoid a doctrinal style when covering China-Africa relations. Instead, it should use a multi-dimensional narrative style to present “China’s real story in Africa”. In conclusion, in becoming familiar with the features and orientations of Western and African media, we can see that certain negative stances in reporting on China-Africa relations might become standard. To straighten out misconceptions and rectify areas where not all parties understand the background, the Chinese government and Chinese media can release pertinent, non-confidential information so as to prevent groundless conjecture, misunderstanding and distortion of facts.
Zhao Jun is from the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Digest, No. 124, April, 2014
Translated by Bai Le
Revised by Charles Horne