Quality media coverage a goal for Africa-China relations

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Roundtable 2015: Reporting FOCAC6 – A Turning Point for Africa-China Engagement

On 12 November 2015 two members of the University of Cape Town’s South African Media and the New Geopolitics of Communication research project, Herman Wasserman and Willemien Calitz, attended the Roundtable 2015: Reporting FOCAC6 conference at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Head of Wits Journalism Prof Anton Harber explained in his opening remarks that the conference formed part of the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project.This project works with journalists with the broad aim of getting “more and better coverage of the relationship between China and Africa.” Harber said that it aims to “challenge poor reporting, stereotyping, and facile reporting and encourage more depth.”

As the first speaker, Prof Garth Shelton, Associate Professor of International Relations at Wits described the China-Africa relationship as “quite successful”. “If we are objective about it, this process has been positive,” Shelton said. According to him, FOCAC (Forum on China Africa Cooperation) benefits Africa in terms of infrastructure, food security (agricultural assistance), energy security, green technologies, healthcare and peacekeeping. However, he added that there must be a way of increasing this win-win relationship of Africa and China.

Shelton believes that China definitely benefits, but maybe Africa can do better. “How can we leverage our relationship with China?” he asked. Accordingly, he calls for FOCAC to link more directly with the African Union’s agenda. He encourages African countries to be more creative, and believes they haven’t given enough input into the FOCAC process. For journalists, he advises to investigate the implementation of the FOCAC action plan across the continent, as there is not enough information available on this issue.

From an environmental perspective, World Wildlife Fund’s Louise Scholtz commented that Africa has choices, and these are critical. “We are steering towards an ecosystem deficit. Are we going to choose coal fire plants or renewable energy? Are we choosing clean policies or will we be a dumping ground for China? Are we allowing China to export their carbon footprint to us, or will we steer this well?” She added that the “choices that Africa will make now about China’s involvement will be critical for the future of our ecosystems.”
She argues that FOCAC is important because increased investment by China in Africa could kickstart Africa’s sustainable development, or lead to environmental degradation. Scholtz added that FOCAC needed stronger alignment to Africa’s position at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris.

The media: theoretical and practical approaches to FOCAC

Dr Ross Anthony from the Centre for Chinese Studies in Stellenbosch addressed the audience with a rather theoretical approach. He used Benedict Anderson’s text on nationalism, Imagined Communities, to talk about geopolitical changes across the globe. He refers to the rise in new ways of imagining the world as “geopolitical imaginaries.” For example “BRICS is an interesting way of viewing the world,” particularly the geopolitical formation of this group because of their similarities as developing countries with oppressive histories.
Anthony quotes Michel Foucault: “We are living as though in the birth of a discourse.” He refers to China-Africa as a discourse and FOCAC as one of the rituals of such a discourse. “FOCAC is a highly choreographed, stage-managed performance. China does political choreography very well,” he said. He adds that FOCAC idealises the relationship between China and Africa, but that this is simply one of many representations. About African citizens’ suspicions about China Anthony says that there are a lot of rumblings and complaints – some valid and some exaggerated. “That is the challenge of journalists,” he said.

Dr Bob Wekesa from Wits also believes that FOCAC is not much more than a rhetorical event, perhaps aimed at wielding China’s soft power on the African continent. “Usually issues would have been negotiated beforehand,” Wekesa said. “Thus, this is nothing more than a PR exercise.” He criticized the way FOCAC is generally seen as a bilateral process between two countries, instead of multilateral – between China and Africa’s 54 countries.
He also addressed media in general as an agenda at FOCAC, stating that the most elaborate action plan in terms of media was in 2012, after appearing on the agenda in 2006. Referring to the relaunch of Xinhua and the launch of People’s Daily on the African continent, Wekesa asked “Why has there been a rise of Chinese media in Africa?” He responded that Chinese media is out to challenge false media reports about China-Africa cooperation.

Prof Herman Wasserman from the UCT’s South African Media and the New Geopolitics of Communication was tasked with providing the attending journalists with practical advice regarding the coverage of FOCAC. “Good journalism is still good journalism,” Wasserman said. He added that the fundamental things apply to covering FOCAC: Accuracy (being well-informed, precise), truth (facts in context), trustworthy (balance, independence, accountable), originality (new perspectives), relevant (connecting issues), and ethics. He suggested topics such as the effect of China’s economic downturn on Africa, African attitudes towards China, addressing the broader BRICS context such as a comparison between China and India relations with Africa and environmental angles such as sustainability should be considered.

He highlighted the fact that when FOCAC is framed as an economic story – the coverage is cautiously optimistic and focuses on investment and growth. When framed as a political or social story, the coverage becomes more critical. There is thus a need for different angles and critical thinking in the coverage of China-Africa relations. He cautioned journalists against simply “regurgitating canned food,” referring to press releases and official statements. “Try to penetrate the fog of public diplomacy and ritual,” Wasserman said.

Wasserman encouraged journalists to draw on the academic research being done on China-Africa and the media to improve their coverage of the topic – a notion echoed later on by John Bailey, a journalist who has covered the topic of China for several news outlets including SABC and eNCA. This includes thinking about the political-economic influence of journalists’ own publications on their coverage – who owns what? What is their relationship with China?
Apart from challenging stereotypes and focusing on the human side of economic and political relations, Wasserman also said that it was imperative for the media to probe issues such as Orientalism and xenophobia, particularly by being self-reflexive.

A tool for improved reporting on China-Africa

Eric Olander from the China Africa Project, provided the attendees with a tool to assist journalists with their coverage of FOCAC and China-Africa relations in general. According to Olander this tool is useful in challenging myths such as China being Africa’s number one investor, China only employing Chinese labour on the African continent, and China exporting prison labour to work in Africa, among others.
The site includes a master list of China-Africa relevant individuals on Twitter, 12 useful China-Africa websites, China-Africa long reads and must-see China-Africa documentaries. According to Olander China is “horrible at communications and PR, it doesn’t directly challenge rumours around neo-colonialism.” He added that “what you have to be concerned about is not just that China may take over but that they may leave, that is just as concerning.”

China House’s Hongxiang Huang challenged journalists not to think of Chinese in Africa as a homogeneous group. He addressed the misperceptions on China including government affiliation of all Chinese enterprises, the language challenge and the uniqueness of “Chinese” people vs African citizens. He explained Chinese in Africa’s fear of being misrepresented in the media and their historical distrust of foreigners, particularly “the west”. “The more Chinese people get misrepresented, the less willing they are to talk to you, and then they get even more misrepresented,” Hong said.
He encouraged journalists not to rely on Chinese embassies for comments, but rather to reach out to Chinese scholars in China or Chinese NGOs and companies for interviews. He also added that a “constructive approach” would work better with interviewing Chinese: “There is no need to avoid the issues, but show that you are watching the problem as if you want it to be solved.”

The conference was concluded by Sanusha Naidu of Fahamu, who claimed that “Africa likes summits. Summits are becoming the engagements between one country and another.” Speaking about the role of civil society in FOCAC, Naidu explained that summits create “the assumption that there is high-level politics and then low-level politics – this situates civil society.” Her advice to journalists was to contribute to the transparency and accountability of FOCAC by investigating the implementation of action plans. FOCAC6 will be held in Johannesburg, South Africa on 4-5 December under the theme: “Africa-China Progressing Together: Win-Win Cooperation for Common Development.”