British media paints distorted picture of China, Africa and the West

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Fu Manchu versus Dr Livingstone in the Dark Continent?
How British broadsheet newspapers represent China, Africa and the West Emma Mawdsley

Emma Mawdsley

Emma Mawdsley examines the coverage of China's growing influence in Africa by the British print media

The words and images we use do not describe ‘reality’, they create it. Language (terms, metaphors, and analogies) and images (such as films, news photos, maps and cartoons) are caught up in struggles over interpretation – which means that the language and images of the powerful are important tools in creating and maintaining particular points of view amongst politicians, policy-makers and the public. This paper explores the way in which six British broadsheet newspapers have covered China’s growing role in Africa over the past seven years. China’s impacts in Africa are complex and varied by country, sector and context, and most of the newspaper articles reflect that. Whether more critical or approving in tone, the articles invariably point to both benefits and problems associated with China’s rise. Even those which focus on specific issues or countries, tend to open or conclude with at least a sentence or two outlining a broader assessment of the prospects and problems associated with the growing relationship. Even so, a detailed analysis led us to identify five narrative tropes that recurred consistently and frequently, which tended to systematically endorse images of African weakness, Western trusteeship and Chinese ruthlessness:

1) a tendency to refer to ‘the Chinese’ or ‘China’, as if the various Chinese actors all shared the same interests;
2) a tendency to focus excessively on China’s interests in oil over other commodities;
3) a decided preference for focussing on China’s negative impacts on the continent, and within that, on issues and places of violence, disorder and corruption (e.g. Zimbabwe, Sudan, Angola) over other negative issues (e.g. trade imbalances, undermining domestic manufacturing sectors);
4) a tendency to portray Africans as victims or villains; and
5) a frequently complacent account of the role and interest of different western actors in Africa. Representations of Africa, China and the West First, most press reports tend to refer simply to “the Chinese”, often overlooking the fact that Chinese communities and actors in Africa are diverse in origins, roles and interests. The Chinese in Africa include longer standing and more recent diasporic communities, often engaged in small and medium usiness, but with a range of histories and relations with China and with their adopted African homes. Media accounts tend to focus much more strongly on Chinese state firms and agencies, as well as the more recent wave of large private enterprises (although the istinction can be blurred). But interests differ – longer term Chinese diasporic populations, the managers of Chinese companies, Chinese labourers employed by those companies, and different elements of the Chinese Government may have very different views on, for example, political stability, corporate transparency or democratic accountability. Different Chinese firms may have competing interests over what constitute desirable conditions for import/export trade or commodity extraction/manufactures. The following quote indicates competing interests that are otherwise rarely reflected in the media accounts that were analysed: “Venturing into Africa is a superficially attractive option for Chinese enterprises with limited global experience, as they can avoid the kind of competition and rules they face in markets such as the US or the European Union. But Chinese companies are also under great pressure to invest in Africa to fulfil political commitments made by China’s leaders, who provide financial incentives, including cheap loans, for them to go overseas. “First we must listen to what the country says, but we have our own company considerations” says Mr Wang of Chico, an enterprise controlled by the provincial government of Henan …[Mr Wang says] they “get criticism” from officials back home if they miss business targets, which often involve expanding overseas investment” (Financial Times, 20 June 2006: “China ventures on rocky roads to trade with Africa”).

Allied to this is a tendency to isolate Chinese firms as nationally discrete entities. In fact, joint enterprises with both African and western firms are becoming more common.

The second theme identified is the focus on oil and, to a lesser extent, natural gas and ores, over other commodities. This reflects a wider focus on the geopolitics of oil, a subject that the Iraq war and massive oil price rises have brought to the fore of western public attention. Although oil is undeniably an important issue, and a major component of Sino-Africa trade and economic growth, this is concentrated in Angola, Sudan, Nigeria, Gabon and Guinea. For many African countries, exports of fish, timber and grain, or imports of relatively cheap manufactured goods are just as important. The focus on oil lends itself to a discourse of resource competition rather than the recognition that China and the West have a range of interests and relations in Africa, including potentially complementary ones. Third is a very uneven focus on China's interests and impacts in different African nations. More positive elements tend to get less attention (debt cancellation, investment, lower commodity prices for consumers, support for a greater international voice etc), with a preferred focus on problem issues. Moreover, we find that there is a preferred focus on zones and subjects of violent conflict, corruption, genocide and authoritarian leadership, rather than, say, the less gripping images of China’s impacts on trade imbalances or under-cutting of African manufacturing sectors. The overwhelming balance of articles is on Sudan, Zimbabwe and Angola, with far less attention paid to, for example, Lesotho, which is experiencing immense hardship competing with China in textile production; or Kenya which is struggling to compete with China in the manufactured goods sector.

Fourth, within these accounts, Africans, tend to be reduced to villains (Mugabe, the Sudanese government) and victims (African populations, Darfur, the poor), an observation that fits with the findings of many other critical evaluations of the media. African agency, as leaders or ordinary citizens, workers and consumers, is rarely emphasised. Allusions to adolescence or childhood are common. Thus, discussing China’s effects on Chad:

“Chad was supposed to establish a model of good practice. But, as a western observer in the country puts it: “The risk is [following China’s oil deals] it will become an example for the worst [African] pupils” [emphasis added]. (Financial Times, 23 January 2006:  “The ‘resource curse’ anew”.)

The paternalistic line that the West needs to save Africa from China’ depredations is something reflected elsewhere in the media. An extended Channel Four news report which was widely circulated and repeated, started: “To Tony Blair, Africa is somewhere which needs healing or saving and Sierra Leone gets a lot of British aid. But the Chinese are looking at the continent through different eyes. They see it as a source of raw materials, especially oil, which they need for their own development. And somewhere like Sierra Leone, fresh out of war – they think it’s ripe for trade and investment” (Lindsey Hillsum, Channel Four, 4 July 2005)

Finally, Western actors – businesses, governments, national and international development NGOs – are typically portrayed as benign within the majority of these articles and accounts. Many articles imply or state that while the West did in the past support authoritarian leaders, or were party to corrupt business practices, it has learnt its lesson and reformed. While colonialism was economically exploitative and morally wrong, according to many of the articles exploring China’s ‘new African safari’ or ‘new scramble for Africa’, western colonialism is claimed to at least have had a paternalistic/developmental dimension and well-intentioned elements - an attitude that has translated into an ethical concern for Africa in the postcolonial period.

Thus, in the contemporary setting, Western companies supposedly operate under a different ethical regime because of their own high convictions; labour laws; voluntary agreements as part of wider government and third sector pressure to improve business with Africa; consumer demands for more ethical production and trading; and/or shareholder pressure. None of these are said to apply to state-run or private Chinese companies. Above all, the dominant (although by no means universal, narrative) that runs through many of the articles is that the mistakes of the past have been addressed, and the West is now the architect and energiser of a new drive towards good governance and development, with aid now accompanied by ethical conditionalities, while reformed commercial practices promise investment, extraction and trade that will enhance development rather than line the pockets of kleptocratic elites. These faltering steps forward, which will be of mutual benefit to western companies and ordinary African people, are under threat from the unscrupulous Chinese. A few quotes give a flavour of these arguments: “But while the meeting [2006 FOCAC] is intended to fuel China’s global drive for resources, raw materials and markets, concerns are growing that the boosters of Beijing do not have Africa’s best interests at heart and that western countries will be cut out of future business”. (The Guardian, 1 November 2006: “Beijing’s Race for Africa”)

“There are concerns too about soft loans leading to unsustainable debt and generous aid programmes that  undermine efforts to improve governance, transparency and accountability. If the World Bank and IMF say no or attach conditions, Beijing always says yes…. The [2006] Beijing Summit is a big deal for China, a deliberately showy monument to its value-free strategy. It would be absurd to claim that western greed and interest did not do enormous damage in an earlier scramble for Africa. But the age of colonialism is over. It should be accepted today that global power brings global responsibilities. Tyranny, inequality and corruption offend universal values. In the countries where it now has the ability to make a difference, China should think twice about offering its help with no strings attached”. (The Guardian, 4 November 2006: “Scrambling to Beijing: China and Africa”)

“That virtuous circle of increased assistance and better governance has been the hall mark of the approach taken, with varying degrees of success, by the West and Japan since the end of the Cold War. China now threatens to blow apart that consensus”. (The Telegraph, 26 April 2006: “The dragon in Africa”)

“Soft Chinese loans to vulnerable and corrupt African regimes, arranged outside the painstakingly agreed Equator Principles for responsible lending, risk reversing progress towards extricating such regimes from debt. … And misconceived or badly executed civil engineering projects risk irreversible environmental damage … Such a critique is valid. Coming from the West it also has a hint of the hypocritical. China’s current scramble for African energy and resources is modest compared with Europe’s scramble for African territory a century and a half ago. And China’s sometimes reckless spending only mirrors gambles by Western banks and governments in the postwar era. But now Beijing risks repeating the West’s mistakes … when it allowed massive increases in overseas aid and investment with no commensurate adjustments to its foreign policy”. (The Times, 2 November 2006: “China and Africa”)

There are undeniably elements of truth in some of this – some western companies are indeed bound by their charters, public pressure and voluntary agreements to abide by standards that can reduce their competitiveness with companies not thus circumscribed. Bilateral and multilateral initiatives on debt, trade and aid have made some advances towards greater equity and reparation of injustices. These efforts and advances should not be belittled. However, there are three main sets of problems with the imagery of a benign west being undermined by a ruthless and unscrupulous China. The first is that, despite advances, many western companies remain mired in corrupt and exploitative business practices. Without losing sight of the importance and achievements of incremental improvements in western accountability and transparency, they remain inadequate. The second problem is that of scope and scale – the West’s impact on Africa cannot be reduced to the efforts of NGOs, aid agencies or  companies. We must look beyond these limited horizons to debt, unjust trade regulations, uneven power in the institutions of global governance, the ‘war on terror’, and increasingly, perhaps, climate change, to develop a better understanding of the West’s impacts on Africa. Third, ‘development’ is almost invariably coded as apolitical and positive in these articles – although interestingly such partiality and complacency tended to be situational, apparent when framed within the specific China-Africa story. Newspapers and even individual journalists who in other reports may be very critical of, for example, the halting, late and inadequate provision of medical supplies, or debt, or trade inequalities, appear to become less critical when the West is framed in the same article as China. Thus, while the Australian, French and South African companies may also be condemned for working in Zimbabwe, in none of the articles analysed were these framed in the same space as a critique of China’s business interests.

Running throughout, we can identify recurring words and phrases which are indicative of the images outlined above: China is ‘guzzling’, ‘aggressive’, an ‘economic juggernaut’, ‘insatiably’ ‘thirsty’ for oils and minerals, and ‘voraciously’ capitalist. “China is prowling the globe in search of energy sources” (Declan Walsh, 9 Nov. 2005, The Guardian, emphasis

“As a voracious China scours the world for minerals, no regime is off limits” (Financial Times, 12 Jan 2006: “Insatiable Beijing scours the world for profit and power”)

“[China] is ravenous for raw materials”. (The Telegraph, 26 April 2006: “The dragon in Africa”)

In an article headlined “China’s goldmine: Tony Blair and Bono see Africa as a moral cause; China sees it as a business opportunity. But is Beijing’s interest based on economic partnership – or ruthless exploitation?”, we find:

“The resurrection of Chambishi [a major Zambian copper mine] is just one small example of China’s explosion into Africa. From the barest foothold a decade ago an army of diplomats, technicians and entrepreneurs has kicked the continent’s door wide open, making Beijing a heavyweight investor and political player” (The Guardian, 28 March 2006: “China’s goldmine”, emphasis added)

This position and language stands in contrast to accounts of western FDI, which is only presented as an unambiguously positive flow. Unlike the West, the Chinese have ‘insinuated’ their way into the continent. For example:

“Quietly, while the attention of the world has been elsewhere, China has become a major player in Africa”. (The Independent, 7 September 2006: “The benefits and dangers of those gifts from the east”)

“China, which now foresees annual trade with the world’s poorest continent totalling $100 billion (£50 billion) by 2010, began stepping up its presence stealthily in Africa in the early 1990s” (The Times, 25 April 2007: “From favoured patron to target of dissenters”, emphasis added)

Dan Large, at SOAS, argues that these images are indicative of western defensiveness about ‘it’s backyard’, and can be seen as part of a wider reaction to an emerging power. The language of red dragons in the continent takes us back to the geopolitical discourses that characterised the Cold War.

Conclusions To retiterate, amongst the database of articles reviewed there were alternative perspectives and stories, critical accounts of western roles and histories, and a recognition of the complex but also positive possibilities of greater Sino-African relations. However, the themes identified above emerged as strong and pervasive scripts in British reporting on the contemporary relationships between Africa, China and the West. Africa is one place in which China and western nations, notably the US, are likely to find themselves in a position of competition, and these images and languages, both popular and policy, are significant. In a recent analysis, Andrew Still (2005) urges the importance of maintaining moderate, pragmatic and respectful language and diplomatic ‘signals’ on both sides, if we are to avoid hardening ideological dividing lines between China and the US in particular – Still talks in terms of a potential degeneration of relations that could usher in the next Cold War. He suggests that:

“ … some of the most difficult issues [between China and the US/West] lie in the realm of ideas and identity rather than the narrow economic and political interests, making them far less tractable. Not least of these will be the way in which the debate over ‘the rise of China’ is conducted in the public sphere. The limited repertoire of historical analogies on which it currently draws … creates a distorting prism through which the issue is viewed and provides a thin basis for more thoughtful analysis of how to ensure a peaceful power transition” (Still, 2005, p.3-4)

In the context of what is certain to be growing economic and political competition between China and the US (with the UK and other nations playing bit parts), including over Africa, media images and representations will play an important role in shaping public understandings, debates and political pressures. These in turn will have consequences – however negotiated or contested – for different countries, actors and interests in Africa.

* Dr. Emma Mawdsley is a lecturer in geography and Cambridge University. This article is a short version of a paper to be published in Political Geography in 2008.

Publié dans geostrategy

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