Building Images Conference: The Role of Representation in the China-Africa Relationship

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On 14-16 January 2016 I attended the Building Images conference at the University of Nottingham. The conference was organized to explore 21st century Sino-African dynamics through cultural exchange, media representation and translation. As a first-time visitor to the UK, leaving a 40°C environment for a 0° C one was quite an adjustment. Another situation I had to adapt to was presenting my own research for the first time at an international academic conference. Needless to say, my nerves were shattered and I had high hopes for a kick of adrenalin to save me. Once I arrived at the University of Nottingham Jubilee Campus however, I immediately felt at home, hearing scholars talk about their thoughts and experiences around the China-Africa research topic. Researchers had come from as far as Australia, Hong Kong, China, South Africa, Sweden, United States of America and Ghana to present, discuss and be inspired about the media’s role in the China-Africa relationship.

The conference was opened by the University of Nottingham’s Arts Faculty Director of Research, Professor Maiken Umbach. She was then followed by the first key note speaker, the renowned Professor Ian Taylor from St Andrews University, who spoke about popular perceptions and myths about the Chinese role in Africa. “There is a lot of negative noise in the way China’s role in Africa is presented. This comes from particularly Western media, but also some African media,” Taylor said. He discussed China’s argument that it is approaching the African continent in a different way from the West, trying not to replicate colonialism. To ad nauseum we’ve heard the Chinese rhetoric of “mutually complementary partners” and “win-win cooperation.” On the other hand the USA implies that the Chinese are running away with Africa and somehow the West is left behind. Africans are generally represented as passive beings in this relationship.

Taylor then addressed seven key myths about China-Africa that he categorized as follows:

  1. China as monolith. According to Taylor we have to be careful if we talk about China in Africa – we have to address which actors are involved, and what are their motives. “Chinese companies in Africa are mostly SOEs – 90% of them are trying to make money like any other business.” He adds that “within China there are very different ideas about which objectives and ideals international trade policy should pursue.” The three schools of thought that Taylor identifies as dominating is China as a developing or poor country (China has to represent the developing world), China as pragmatic realists (China should do business with people that benefits China) and China as globalists (multilateralism and leadership will solve China’s problems). “The idea of China not being monolithic surprises people because China is still allegedly communist country,” Taylor said.
  2. That Beijing is in charge. “Competition exists between and amongst state agencies. Do not overestimate the degree to which Beijing controls and directs the evolution of its international economic relations,” Taylor said.
  3. The Chinese are leading a land grab in Africa. According to Taylor a myth has been circulating that the Chinese have acquired large areas of land in Africa to grow food to export to China. However little evidence has been found that any large-scale farmland deals have been implemented. World Bank did research study: 56 million hectares of large-scale farmland deals were announced but never implemented. Taylor refers to a study done by Deborah Brautigam in her book Will African Feed China?, that found that media reports of land grabs were proved only 2 out of 25 with any merit, and only 4 were direct investments.
  4. Chinese companies bring in all their own workers. According to Taylor this is true in a small number of countries where local labour is expensive, such as Algeria, Libya, Angola and Sudan. “In most other parts of Africa, Chinese managers direct teams of local employees – similar to western companies in Africa,” Taylor said. He adds that Chinese company bosses would like to hire more Africans at senior levels, but issues of language barriers and skills arise. The main complaint from Africans is not that they aren’t finding work with Chinese companies, but that wages and working conditions are often lower than that offered by other foreign firm. “It is true that Chinese companies use practices that many may oppose,” Taylor said. Trade unions for instance complain about conditions and a lack of engagement by Chinese employers. Taylor states however that these practices have previously been celebrated in the West as the “China model” that provided the West with cheaper labour and products.
  5. The Chinese companies are only interested in African resources. According to Taylor China also does trade with countries like South Africa where there is no oil. “Natural resources does dominate China-Africa trade, but that’s no different from western companies/countries.” He argues that yet China claims to be different from the West.
  6. The Chinese are in bed with African dictators – unlike the West who promote democracy and good governance. Approximately 30% of US imports from Sub-Saharan Africa are from Nigeria and 22% from Angola. But the top US import suppliers are Nigeria, South Africa, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville and Angola.
  7. China is taking over Africa and replacing the West. To this Taylor responded that “Sweden’s aid to Africa is larger than China’s yet the media doesn’t say Sweden is taking over Africa.”

Taylor ended his talk by asking whether the audience thought Chinese trade with Africa has peaked. “We have seen a 40% decline in trade with Africa. There is all this hysteria about the China-Africa relationship – where are they going now? Will the relationship with Africa normalize?”

Among the variety of speakers at the conference was Dr Bob Wekesa from the University of Witwatersrand who presented on Chinese media and diplomacy in Africa. He maintained that the Africa-China field, in particular regarding media and communications, was under-researched but growing rapidly. In his study Wekesa looked specifically at African responses to Chinese media and diplomacy in Africa, by using Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa as case studies. His study addressed the dichotomies in which China is presented on the African continent – either exploitative and a hegemon, or as a development partner and rolemodel. Interestingly Wekesa’s study aims to challenge the much-debated binaries of categorizing a news article as negative or positive, by introducing three new categories: optimism, pessimism and pragmatism. These categorizations remained a topic of debate throughout the conference, contributing to the age old discussion of qualitative vs quantitative research within the media and communications field.

Dani-Madrid Morales from Hong Kong University, an associate of our research project called South African Media and the New Geopolitics of Communication, presented on China’s online public diplomacy in Africa, or what he refers to as China’s Public Diplomacy 2.0. According to Morales China’s diplomacy has evolved and it is using the African continent as a public diplomacy sandbox, or playground for Chinese media. “China feels like it can experiment in Africa in terms of media,” Morales said. He identifies four actors to be involved in China’s online public diplomacy (through the use of websites, social media etc): state agencies, embassies, central media, and other media. “China has a long history of state-sponsored engagement with foreign audiences. China has fully adopted the concept of soft power, which it has been struggling to harness,” Morales said.

My own presentation, co-authored with my supervisor Herman Wasserman, also aimed to contribute to the concept of soft power. My dissertation, which forms part of South African Media and the New Geopolitics of Communication research project, funded through the National Research Foundation, looks at China’s efforts to improve its image on the African continent, and how those efforts are possibly hampered by local media coverage. For the Building Images conference I specifically focused on my first research question for my overall doctorate: “How is China’s human rights and sustainable development record represented in South African media?” As the result of a qualitative framing analysis, I found the following frames regarding China’s sustainable development representation in SA: China as key perpetrator in poaching, China as superpower alongside or opposed to the United States of America, China’s contribution to and curbing of climate change, China as source of green technologies, renewable energy and green investment and China as a polluted country itself. As frames in the coverage of China’s human rights reputation I found: Cheap Chinese products replacing job opportunities in Africa, China’s general poor record of human rights, and the cheap Chinese labour source exported to other countries. The next part of my dissertation will include interviews with both South African and Chinese journalists to determine their attitudes towards China’s sustainability and human rights reputation.

Professor Xiaoling Zhang from the University of Nottingham presented us with the other side of the coin: How the formation of the African image in China has been influenced. “What is the general public’s impression of Africa in China? How is the impression formed and why?” Zhang asked.
Zhang used several methods for her study, including looking at the dominant images constructed by Chinese media, planned activities of “Culture in Focus”, the presence of African literature in Chinese bookstores, an interview with a private entrepreneur about his view of Sino-Africa cultural cooperation, and an interview with an enterprise collaboration manager to determine his view of the appeal of African culture in China. One of Zhang’s results showed that African books have little presence in Chinese bookstores – partly because of these stores’ pressure for income. American and European products occupy a big presence because of the commercial interests of cultural enterprises. “As a result, a gap exists between the kind of image the government would like to construct of Africa and the image constructed by commercial newspapers,” Zhang said.

Overall the conference was insightful, and created a platform for new ideas, discussion and debate. Apart from the debates around framing categorization (positive/negative), the telecoms companies Huawei and ZTE’s operations in Africa were also an important discussion point, as well as the concept of “constructive journalism” which gathered a variety of input from researchers towards the end of the conference. To echo Dr Wekesa, the field of communications and media in the China-Africa relationship is growing rapidly and starting to situate itself as a range of quality researchers are increasingly contributing to knowledge around these issues.