NAIROBI, Kenya >> China’s investment prowess and construction know-how is widely on display in this long-congested African capital. A $200 million ring road is being built and financed by Beijing. The international airport is undergoing a $208 million expansion supported by the Chinese, whose loans also paid for a working-class housing complex that local residents have nicknamed the Great Wall apartments.
But Beijing’s efforts to win Kenyan affections involve much more than bricks and concrete.
The country’s most popular English-language newspapers are flecked with articles by the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua. Television viewers can get their international news from either CCTV, the Chinese broadcasting behemoth, or CNC World, Xinhua’s English-language startup. On the radio, just a few notches over from Voice of America and the BBC, China Radio International offers Mandarin instruction along with upbeat accounts of Chinese-African cooperation and the global perambulations of Chinese leaders.
“You would have to be blind not to notice the Chinese media’s arrival in Kenya,” said Eric Shimoli, a top editor at Kenya’s most widely read newspaper, The Daily Nation, which entered into a partnership with Xinhua last year. “It’s a full-on charm offensive.”
At a time when most Western broadcasting and newspaper companies are retrenching, China’s state-run news media giants are rapidly expanding in Africa and across the developing world. They are hoping to bolster China’s image and influence around the globe, particularly in regions rich in the natural resources needed to fuel China’s powerhouse industries and help feed its immense population.
The $7 billion campaign, part of a Chinese Communist Party bid to expand the country’s soft power, is based in part on the notion that biased Western news media have painted a distorted portrait of China.
“Hostile international powers are strengthening their efforts to Westernize and divide us,” President Hu Jintao wrote this year in a party journal. “We must be aware of the seriousness and complexity of the struggles and take powerful measures to prevent and deal with them.”
Beijing’s bid to provide a counterpoint to Western influence, however, is raising alarms among human rights activists, news media advocates and U.S. officials, who cite a record of censorship that has earned China a reputation as one of the world’s most restrictive countries for journalism.
“We are engaged in an information war, and we are losing that war,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned a congressional committee last year, citing the growing influence of state-backed outlets like Russia Today and CCTV.
Many fear that the impact of China’s news media juggernaut will be especially pronounced in countries where freedoms are fragile. In Venezuela, China is building and financing communications satellites for a government that has exercised increasing control over the news media. Similarly, the Ethiopian government received $1.5 billion in Chinese loans for training and technology to block objectionable websites, television and radio transmissions, according to exile groups.
“The Chinese are not interested in bringing freedom of information and expression to Africa,” said Abebe Gellaw, a producer for Ethiopia Satellite Television, an exile-run network whose broadcasts are frequently jammed by Chinese equipment. “If they don’t provide these freedoms to their own citizens, why should they behave differently elsewhere?”
Chinese news media officials say such fears are overblown.
“Xinhua is filing hundreds of stories every day for our English service, and these reports are not propaganda,” Zhou Xisheng, the agency’s vice president, said in an interview. “What really matters is which perspective you are coming from.”
The Chinese government has allowed some independent and investigative journalism in recent years. But Xinhua and CCTV — both of which answer to the Communist Party’s propaganda ministry — retain a monopoly on all international news. And domestically, when it comes to politically delicate subjects like Tibet, jailed dissidents or the maneuvering for power among the party’s top leaders, Xinhua and CCTV have glaring blind spots.
CCTV America provided only very limited coverage of the Bo Xilai scandal or the drama surrounding Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and later made his way to the United States.
“The fundamental difference is that Western-style media views itself as a watchdog and a protector of public interests, while the Chinese model seeks to defend the state from jeopardy or questions about its authority,” said Doug Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.
At home, Chinese officials make little effort to conceal their view of journalism as a servant of the Communist Party. “The first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly and being a good mouthpiece,” Hu Zhanfan, the president of CCTV, said in a speech. “Journalists who think of themselves as professionals, instead of as propaganda workers, are making a fundamental mistake about identity.”
China’s lavishly financed news media expansion is also aimed at making inroads in the West. Last year, Xinhua christened its new North American headquarters in a Manhattan skyscraper and emblazoned its logo on a sign in Times Square. In February, CCTV opened a production center in Washington with 80 journalists. The anchors are mostly non-Chinese, as are the correspondents, who report from cities across North and South America.CCTV News, which claims 200 million viewers outside China, is now available in six languages; its latest venture is a 24-hour Arabic news channel. To increase its reach — and compete with Western news organizations — Xinhua often gives away dispatches to financially struggling news media outlets in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.At the same time, governments in Europe and the U.S. are scaling back support for independent journalism in the developing world, even as most private broadcasters and newspapers have closed foreign bureaus.
The overseas newscasts of CCTV have shed the shrill ideological bombast of the Maoist years, adopting the professionalism and slick production values of their Western counterparts. But ideology often still trumps impartiality. During the protests that wracked the Arab world, for example, China’s coverage strenuously avoided the word “democracy” and emphasized the chaos that accompanied the demise of authoritarian governments, news media analysts say.
In a widely circulated blog post during the early days of the uprising in Libya, Ezzat Shahrour, the Beijing bureau chief for Al-Jazeera Arabic, complained that Chinese coverage was faithfully relaying the propagandistic outbursts of Moammar Gadhafi. “Every time I see Chinese media reports on the Arab revolution I feel like my blood pressure is starting to rise,” he wrote.
CCTV and Xinhua coverage of the unrest has since become more evenhanded. But they still find plenty of occasions to echo Beijing’s view of the advantages of single-party rule.
When pitching their services in Africa, Chinese officials stress what they see as Western bias.
“Although they are geographically far apart, China and Africa have long learned about each other through Western media,” Li Changchun, the propaganda minister, said during a seminar with African news media executives. “However, Western reports did not always reflect the truth.”
Chinese news media officials chose to set up shop in Nairobi because of its role as a news hub for the English-speaking countries in East Africa. So far, the Chinese have made only limited headway against Kenya’s domestic newspapers and radio and television stations.
Vivien Marles, managing director of InterMedia Africa, a research firm here, said that Kenyans remained devoted to a vibrant news media menu of local politics, scandal and pop culture. Those interested in international affairs, she said, generally turn to CNN, the BBC or Al-Jazeera. But China Radio International is “gaining some momentum,” she said.
But in their eagerness to see their articles and photographs in circulation, the Chinese sometimes come across as overbearing. Since signing the news-sharing agreement with Xinhua, editors at The Daily Nation say they have been peppered with phone calls, emails and even visits to the newsroom from Xinhua officials pressing them to print articles and photographs.
“To be honest, how many photographs of Chinese children doing martial arts or soldiers rescuing flood victims can I run?” asked Joan Pereruan, a photo editor.
Still, she and other editors agreed that Xinhua had improved substantially, hiring scores of local journalists for its 23 bureaus in Africa.
Across town at the Standard Group, which owns two newspapers as well as a TV and radio station, Woka Nyagwoka, a managing editor, praised the Chinese construction projects but said many editors were reluctant to rely on the Chinese news media for foreign news, particularly from places like Sudan, where Beijing supports the brutal government of Omar al-Bashir.“Kenyans are skeptical of a free lunch,” Nyagwoka said. “Especially when it’s made in China.”