China Plays Mediator in the Horn of Africa, Leverages Local Media to Reinforce Narrative of Benevolence

The Chinese government has been courting the Global South to advance its image as a responsible guarantor of international security and development. Last week, China took the initiative by hosting the first China-Horn of Africa conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, followed by the 14th BRICS summit in Beijing. The resulting joint-statements praised Xi Jinping’s new Global Security Initiative (GSI) and sought to rally states around non-Western approaches to international affairs, despite producing little substantive action. However, in a bid to reinforce public traction for Beijing’s leadership, Chinese state media content has made its way into local media coverage of these conferences, demonstrating that media continues to be an important vessel for China’s global ambitions

Describing the “international political signalling” emerging from the Horn of Africa conference, Lukas Fiala, a project coordinator at the London School of Economics IDEAS think tank, argued that the conference “provides us with another glimpse into the role of security arrangements in China’s future as a global power,” given China’s recent security agreement with the Solomon Islands and ongoing support of Russia’s war against Ukraine. As Garrett O’Brien reported in The Wire China, these arrangements take the form of “peace with Chinese characteristics”:

Billed as being derived from “diplomatic tradition and wisdom with unique Chinese characteristics,” the [Global Security Initiative] is a six-point plan that reflects Beijing’s long-standing emphasis on national sovereignty, including individual countries’ right to choose their own development paths, as well as its desire to resolve conflicts through “dialogue and consultation.”

[…] Yet this week’s conference has also demonstrated some of the potential inconsistencies in Xi’s blueprint for Chinese diplomacy, in particular its emphasis on non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Its latest foray into African politics is, in fact, a “formalization and acceleration of China’s active diplomacy or, in this instance, ‘soft interference’ in the domestic politics of others,” says [Seifudein Adem, professor of global studies at Doshisha University in Japan].

[…] “The fact that China was able to host this conference to begin with is already its biggest achievement,” says the Stimson Center’s Yun Sun. “This [was] not a typical peace or conflict mediation conference as we normally would envision. This [was] more of a conference where China gathered the countries of the region to come together and talk about China’s vision.” [Source]

Guled Ahmed, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said that the conference “serves as an alternative Chinese peace model (addressing only lack of development) to replace Western countries’ conflict resolution approach (focused more on strong intuition and democratisation), which serves well in authoritarian and less democratic countries with bad human rights records.” According to Ovigwe Eguegu, a policy analyst at Development Reimagined, African countries are a prime audience, particularly those that adhere to the principle of “non-interference.” He added that the GSI could provide these nations with an opportunity to hold greater sway in global economics and geopolitics. Redwan Hussein, a national security advisor to the Ethiopian prime minister, framed China’s mission as mere facilitation: “This initiative is owned, directed, managed, and steered by countries of the Horn of Africa, and China has only a supporting role.” 

But an examination of African local media coverage suggests that China intends to play a much greater role, particularly in terms of shaping public opinion about Chinese engagement in Africa. A CDT analysis, described in more detail below, reveals that in the lead-up to the Horn of Africa conference, numerous media outlets from at least two of its African participants, Uganda and Kenya, published a number of attributed and unattributed articles from Chinese state media praising China’s engagement in the region. This tallies with a recent report by the German Marshall Fund titled “China and the Digital Information Stack in the Global South,” which examines how China carries out digital information operations to advance its strategic goals and render the world more hospitable for autocracy. In one case study on Uganda, the authors analyze the rise of content-sharing agreements between Chinese and Ugandan media groups:

Among the most prominent of these has been that between PML Daily, a major Kampala-based news website, and Xinhua News. Such agreements can be mutually beneficial: PML Daily gets unlimited license to republish and distribute Xinhua’s stories, providing more content to readers while reducing the burden on its staff, while China dramatically expands its media penetration in Uganda, allowing it to promote narratives favorable to Chinese interests.

[…] Some information manipulation is much more malevolent, and a major focus of Chinese information manipulation efforts over the past two years has been the global COVID pandemic. Chinese media outlets have pushed back strongly against any suggestion of Chinese responsibility for the pandemic, going as far as to push conspiracy theories blaming American military laboratories. State-backed news agencies, like the China Daily, play up cooperation between China and Uganda on COVID vaccination, using China’s “vaccine diplomacy” to frame China as a responsible world leader, and a partner for Uganda’s government.

Outside the realm of COVID, Chinese news agencies with readership or viewership in Uganda also push support for the regime since it has been a convenient partner for the CCP. This includes stories by CGTN Africa framing [Ugandan President Yoweri] Museveni as a regional leader on economic and political integration. Even more problematically, Chinese news agencies have worked to legitimize Museveni and Uganda’s authoritarian political system through stories that validate his election victory and ignore or downplay allegations of fraud and intimidation. Through content sharing agreements, these stories are seen by many Ugandans on Ugandan news websites with few clear indications they come from Chinese media firms. [Source]

Shortly after the conference, on June 23, Uganda’s Daily Express republished a Xinhua article describing the resolve of Xue Bing, the Chinese Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, to continue supporting countries in the region. (It had also republished two more Xinhua articles the week prior.) On June 22, Ugandan media outlet Red Pepper used a local byline to publish an article that, apart from some light edits, echoed the wording and structure of a previous Xinhua article about the conference. The text of the slightly reworked Red Pepper article reads, “The countries of the region commend China for initiating” the conference, “commit to actively participate in implementing the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative,” and “[express their] gratitude to China for providing COVID-19 vaccines.” And last month, the magazine section of The Monitor’s Uganda edition published a longform article by the Chinese ambassador to Uganda offering fulsome praise for the GSI

Other local Ugandan outlets have recently carried Chinese state-media content unrelated to the conference. Among the last 25 China-related articles published since January 1 by Uganda’s The Independent, all but three were republished from Xinhua, and feature headlines such as: “China’s Digital Silk Road solution to corruption in Africa: AU experts,” “How China’s zero-COVID policy works without compromising economic, social development,” and “Xiconomics: Why China’s vision for development can help promote global prosperity.” Last month, Uganda-based East African Businessweek ran an op-ed, written by the director of an economics think tank sponsored by China’s Ministry of Education, that justified China’s zero-COVID policy.

Similar content has appeared in local Kenyan outlets. Five of the last six China-related articles published this month by state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) were from Chinese state media (the sixth describes a survey about pro-China sentiment in Africa). Just before the Horn of Africa conference, KBC published two articles from CGTN and Xinhua praising China’s Global Development Initiative. One of these articles appeared under the headline “China vows to work with Kenya to defend interests of developing countries.” Another local outlet, Capital News, ran the exact same article. Three of the last nine China-related articles published by Capital News were sourced from CGTN. The Star carried one Xinhua article on the GSI in late April. During the BRICS conference late last week, the homepage of The Nation hosted a Xinhua-sponsored article promoting BRICS efforts to combat climate change. 

Chinese state-media outlets Xinhua and CGTN both maintain regional offices in Kenya, and some local journalists from Kenya and Uganda have attended sponsored training and other exchange programs in China. According to a senior editorial director in Kenya, Xinhua has made inroads in Kenya by developing close links with local journalists and media personnel. DoubleThink Lab’s China Index has also documented other forms of Chinese influence in the Kenyan media landscape, such as local outlets running free content provided by Chinese state media, being partially owned by Chinese entities, or being part of state-media-sponsored networks. While Chinese diplomacy in the Horn of Africa may not succeed in solving the region’s conflicts, China’s state-media influence may help to persuade the public to embrace the Chinese government’s narrative that it is “a force for good” in the region. 

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