BEIJING – Senegalese reporter Amadou Sarra Ba is one of hundreds of African journalists to have enjoyed all-expenses-paid trips to China courtesy of the Communist Party, as Beijing seeks to win hearts and minds among the continent’s opinion-formers.
His itinerary on what was officially called a “training seminar” last year — after an earlier visit in 2012 — took in both the Great Wall and less standard attractions such as the headquarters of state outlet China Radio International (CRI).
He was given plenty of books and audiovisual materials touting “the autonomy of certain provinces” and the “multiparty democracy” of the one-party state, he said.
Communist officials “left nothing to chance to present us with China’s best and brightest face,” he said.
Such trips — and equipment for African media organizations — are new items in Beijing’s soft-power toolkit to combat what Cai Fuchao, the head of the country’s media regulator and censorship authority, has called “the Western media that dominate the world.”
China will host and train 3,000 African media professionals over the next three years, President Xi Jinping told the China-Africa Summit in Johannesburg in December.
But Beijing’s view of the role of the media was made clear when Xi visited three state media outlets last week, urging them to protect the ruling party’s authority and guide public opinion on the correct path, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Journalists should be “disseminators of the party’s policies and propositions,” he said.
Visits by African reporters are intended to impact depictions of China on the continent — where critics say it is interested primarily in natural resources — and boost Beijing’s diplomatic and political weight, said Hong Kong Baptist University professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan.
China has an image as “a predatory actor which operates as a new great power in Africa,” he said. “Beijing’s goal is to influence the discourse about China, about its actions in Africa and China-Africa relations.”
Beijing says it offers an alternative to Western media narratives.
“The theories used in Western countries are not valid in China and Africa,” Ba said the head of CRI told his group, instead encouraging them to “find their own route in the field of communication that corresponds to their culture and country.”
The rhetoric can strike a chord in Africa, and elsewhere — at a meeting of media from the BRICS grouping of emerging nations in Beijing in December, Xinhua quoted an executive from Brazilian government broadcaster and news agency EBC calling for the “breaking of the hegemony of Western media.”
Assane Diagne, editor-in-chief of the website Africa Check, a site supported by the AFP Foundation, who interned in China in 2011, said: “Today, when we are in Senegal and we want to learn about South Africa, the fight against Boko Haram or the situation in northern Mali, we have to fall back on the media outlets of former colonizers.
“This trend must be reversed.
“China can install satellites, help African media organizations acquire equipment to operate at the same levels as the Western media, or train technicians,” he added.
Beijing is spending a fortune on the effort. One beneficiary of a weeklong press trip estimated it cost $6,000-$7,000 per person.
China has significantly boosted the African presence of major state media such as broadcaster CCTV in recent years, and Cabestan said it offers Xinhua’s products to outlets on the continent at discount prices.
Whether the drive will fulfill Beijing’s goals remains open to question.
Zine Cherfaoui, head of the international department of El Watan, Algeria’s main French-language newspaper, who traveled to Beijing and the northern region of Ningxia last summer, was adamant: “We must simply ensure that Chinese aid does not affect the editorial choices of the assisted media outlets, and that it doesn’t become a way to exert pressure.”
Cabestan added: “Journalists who travel to China do not want to give their readers the impression that they have been bought and brainwashed. They usually keep their distance from China after having taken full advantage of Beijing’s largesse.”
But support cannot come without strings attached, said Clea Kahn-Sriber, head of the Africa desk of NGO Reporters Without Borders, which ranks China 176th out of 180 countries for press freedom.
“Nothing comes free and I do not believe that (funding) can happen without any influence on the editorial line,” she said, “especially given China’s policy inside its own borders towards free information.”