How Do South African Media Report the Belt and Road Initiative?

This story was written collectively by China House Fellows Cao Yuning 曹雨凝, Dai Zhongxun戴中珣, Li Xiang李响, Ning Yingnan宁英男, and Shu Yuyan 舒钰嫣.

In 2018, a seminar on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was held at Witwatersrand University in South Africa. Although Ambassador Lin Songtian made great efforts to dispel concerns regarding the BRI during the seminar, in 2019, South African media still report with skepticism over China’s ambitious plan to improve international trade connections, infrastructure, and development.

As one of China’s significant strategic partners and a dominant voice in the African media industry, South African media strongly uphold the freedom of the press. On the contrary, there is still a profound space for improvement in the communication between China and South Africa.

Independent Media, Avusa, Naspers, New African, and Caxton are the five major media groups in South African print media. Ting Zhou, a Chinese scholar, introduced the first three state-owned major newspapers and websites, which are widely distributed. As a result, the groups and the media above constitute the mainstream public opinion.

Trade or Trap?

Ting’s research reveals the existence of “preference camps” – reports from different newspapers under the same ownership have specific trends in reporting the Belt and Road Initiative. This research has also found that the reports from July 2018 to June 2019 show specific characteristics reflecting each media group. The reports from the Independent Media, Avusa, Naspers about China and the BRI epitomize South African media’s attitude toward the topic.

Lei’s criterion of “neutral” entails the inclusion of the views of all parties. Views are balanced, factual, without bias or topic restriction. Van Dijk’s discourse analysis shows that topics of the report and specific high-frequent usage of certain vocabulary can be used to analyze media attitudes.

According to these two methods, discussions on the BRI are classified into three types: positive, negative, or neutral. As suggested, neutral topics contain more than one topic as positive and negative when drawing pie charts. “Positive” topics include Chinese standpoint, cooperations in trade and technology, globalization, human livelihoods, financial aid, sustainable development, win-win relationship, while the “negative” topics entail debt crisis, unequal cooperation, political motives, environmental implications, poor quality of the goods, investment risks, and neo-colonialism. In terms of content, Table 1 illustrates how words with attitude inclinations are used in the reports.

This research reflects that twenty-two of the sixty relevant reports throughout the year have negative topics. Graph 1 indicates the differences between three media groups in the same type of topics.

The reports reflect that the three media groups have different reporting on attitudes. Independent Media have published the most reports in the past year on the BRI. Neutral and positive reports take up the largest portion. Naspers includes fewer reports about “China and the BRI”—only five reports in one year. For Avusa, neutral, positive, and negative reports all exist, but relatively more negative reports were published.

According to the analysis, the media coverage discloses universality in positive and negative topics. On the one hand, the positive topics mainly focus on the maco-level analysis of the topic. The positive aspects present some African countries’ willingness of continuous cooperation with China in multiple fields and getting more support from China. In turn, China can also gain a positive evolution in globalization and trade.

On the other hand, negative topics mainly focus on more specific issues. For instance, the debt trap is most mentioned. CarmenLing, the director of Renminbi internationalization, criticized the slow adoption of the Chinese currency in trade settlements in deals between China and Africa, partly attributing the reason to a lack of adequate clearing houses for the currency. The censure is a typical example of locals concerns in Sino-African Corporation.

Why? Three Reasons

Considering the reports analyzed above, this research also summarizes the speech of Ambassador Lin in order to find reasons for the status quo.

One reason is the management of Media Groups. China International Television Corporation and China African Development Fund owns a twenty percent share of Independent Media, which paves the way for large-scale cooperation between the media. In Independent Online, positive opinions are mostly written by Chinese reporters. The other two media groups do not widely cooperate with Chinese companies, so their attitudes are diverse.

Also, the single-dimensional image shown by China results in such a situation. From the reports analyzed above, evidently, the main images of China transmitted to Africa are of trade and investment. Economic information occupies the news concerning China. The “feeling of a kind” left by China may turn into a daunting “feeling of fear” by its rapid development.

The third reason lies in the lack of Chinese media’s integration with local readers. South African employees have to study Chinese for the sake of working but hardly are they exposed to Chinese media. So Chinese media like People’s Daily and China Daily have few influences in the local area, which means that it is almost impossible for Chinese media to construct a positive image.

How to improve?

Solutions to such issues are various.For those who value the gravity of the rise of China, it is essential to remain open-minded and critical in their way of thinking. Definitely, propaganda should be replaced by two-way communication. The style of one-dimensional analysis made in BRI reports, enforcing official coverage to shape popular sentiments, can no longer meet the needs of cross-cultural communication.[1] On the contrary, the lack of bilateral interaction may enlarge the gap between China and South Africa.

One suggestion for Chinese media is to enhance cooperation with local media. Manzvanzvike, Herald’s chief editor, suggested having Chinese journalists report African stories and welcome African reporters to Chinese media to popularize Chinese stories. Lin proposed setting up reporting inspection agencies by cooperation to reduce fake sources.

Another suggestion is to increase news transparency, which requires the government to clearly present their views. Lin has been more proactive in accepting interviews and discussing the BRI as well as the local and global issues. Setting goals such as anti-corruption, Chinese media can actively help build China’s image among local people and expand China’s point of view.

Moreover, more mediums of communication should be explored. Image and data visualization can help Chinese media gain more foreign readers. CGTN’s data news Who Runs China has introduced the constitution deputy to the National People’s Congress to other countries, which is a good example of spreading Chinese stories.

In 2019, with the gradual international media cooperation,the BRI can be a platform to not only build positive Chinese national images but also for Chinese and foreign media to sing “Beautiful Songs” of Cooperation.

China House is a social enterprise that brings young Chinese to the global south for research, conservation activities and development projects.

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