China may be playing a more integral role in Africa these days but the China-Africa relationship did not develop overnight.
“China has had a hand in Africa’s media since the 1960s. This was largely support for African liberation movements, assistance to set up guerrilla radio stations,” Brigitte Read, project coordinator at Wits University’s China in Africa Project.
“It would have been motivated by the pursuit of ideological support in the context of the Cold War.”
In the 1970s and 1980s Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua opened 12 bureaus across Africa, marking a new level of interaction with Africa. CCTV Africa, which was launched in Kenya in 2012, was another major move in Africa’s media space.
Today, China and a number of African countries are on the quest to make the transition from analogue to digital television by the 2015 International Telecommunication Union deadline.
“The big difference now is the scale of the resources China is able to deploy on the continent, it is able to invest and operate in spaces where others simply do not have the resources to act,” said Read.
According to a report by the South African Institute of International Affairs, China had been providing technical support to countries such as Guinea, Zambia, Lesotho and the Comoros between 2001 and 2003.
While the technical support included million dollar agreements, they were crucial to the establishment of broadcasting stations, transmitters and backbone infrastructure that is still in use today.
Africa today is regarded as the next frontier market, with rapid growth in telecommunications and the use of mobile internet and social media.
“I think in many ways Africa is considered a media frontier, certainly a place where Chinese media perhaps feels it can experiment, make mistakes,” Read explained.
“In the case of CCTV Africa, which was launched in Kenya last year, it has not turned into the exercise in propaganda people might have expected, with ideologically loaded content. It is now being acknowledged for the original contribution it is making to reporting on Africa.”
While China’s involvement in Africa’s media space has been seen as a soft power strategy, but the Asian country’s interaction with Africa has greatly benefitted the continent’s media space.
“It’s worth pointing out that these are early days and Chinese media, like other businesses have the advantage of holding out for the long haul,” added Read.
“They have deep pockets – and they are experimenting along the way – so we can’t tell for now how things will pan out in the next couple of years.”