China is tweaking its media campaigns for African audiences

While much has been written on China’s media campaigns in the United States, Europe, and Asia, until recently Beijing’s Africa-focused propaganda has received comparably little attention. But it represents a model Beijing is building on to target the global south more broadly. Africa’s 1.48 billion people, set to hit 2.48 billion by 2050, are a critical part of the global community, and China is keen to win them over. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda emphasizes positive changes in African societies that are attributed, whenever possible, to cooperation with, or learning from, China.

Beijing seeks to build an international coalition of like-minded partners to help further its “core national interests.” While there are various interpretations of this term, all assume three basic overlapping objectives: ensure the CCP will continue to rule China; maintain and defend China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as defined by the CCP; and promote a stable international environment conducive to enhancing China’s comprehensive national strength. Beijing is working to develop compelling messaging and strengthen its capacity to reach African audiences, with so far mixed results.

On one hand, Africans generally view China’s presence on the continent favorably. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, has 37 bureaus in Africa, more than any other media agency; and China’s Africa-focused propaganda programs have successfully cultivated dozens of influential African interlocutors who help promote the country’s image and interests. Yet despite spending untold millions of dollars each year on its Africa-focused propaganda work, by some measures China’s favorability still lags behind that of the United States. Moreover, Beijing’s official media outlets have low levels of African viewership, and there is little overlap between the most common themes in their coverage and those in mainstream African media outlets.

Since the CCP’s founding in 1921, it has used propaganda to “educate the masses” and “mobilize friends to strike at enemies.” For non-Chinese—in this case Africans—China’s external propaganda work advances four mutually reinforcing messages: promote a positive view of the CCP and China; promote party policies and Chinese culture; counter hostile foreign forces; and assert and normalize China’s territorial claims over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, the South China Sea, and other contested areas.

While China has long focused on vanity projects such as stadiums and presidential palaces to court African countries, today Beijing also aims to create what Yang Jiechi, the director of China’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, called “favorable public opinion for the friendship and cooperation between China and Africa.”

Since taking power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has spoken repeatedly about the need to increase China’s “soft power” by creating a compelling Chinese narrative and strengthening the party’s capacity to convey its political messages overseas. At the 2013 National Conference on Propaganda and Ideological Work, Xi emphasized the “use of innovative outreach methods to tell a good Chinese story and promote China’s views internationally.” In 2014, he introduced a new foreign media–management strategy intended to create “a new type of mainstream media” that would be “powerful, influential, and credible.” Chinese officials understood their marching orders, and worked to enhance the country’s capacity and breadth of propaganda.

Most recently, during his report to the CCP’s 20th National Congress in October 2022, Xi instructed the CCP Central Propaganda Department to “accelerate the development of Chinese discourse and narrative systems, effectively communicate the voice of China, and portray a credible, lovable, and respectable image of China.”

Although official figures are not available for China’s external propaganda expenditures, in 2017 David Shambaugh of George Washington University valued them at about $10 billion per year. Between 2017 and 2020, Freedom House’s Sarah Cook identified “a dramatic expansion in [China’s] efforts to shape media content and narratives around the world, affecting every region and multiple languages.” In 2020, she estimated that China spends “hundreds of millions of dollars a year” on external media propaganda. In 2022, Freedom House estimated Beijing was devoting “billions of dollars a year to its foreign propaganda and censorship efforts.” It’s unclear just what percentage of this is targeted at Africa—but China’s efforts there are extensive.

China’s party-controlled media outlets, sometimes referred to as the Big Four—Xinhua, China Daily, China Radio International (CRI), and the China Global Television Network (CGTN; CCTV International until 2017)—target African audiences in various countries, regions, and linguistic groups. All four receive an unknown amount of vast state resources that allow them to cover a wealth of stories using various types of media (i.e., print, television, radio, and online) in all six U.N. languages—Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese—four of which are official languages in at least one African country. They do not identify themselves as CCP-controlled outlets, and each has numerous multilingual, outward-facing social media accounts with millions of followers on platforms that are blocked in China, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

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