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Why is the Western media so biased against China in Africa? 

— Kai Xue via LinkedIn

 
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I am not going to go as far as to say there is an anti-Chinese bias, though, because I think that would actually give these news organizations too much credit. When people use the word bias, there’s an implication that there is an informed agenda of some kind that is being acted upon. The reality is far more depressing. Mediocrity is the culprit here more than any premeditated bias.

I’ve spent over twenty years working in many of those Western news companies you refer to, including CNN, the Associated Press, Radio France International and FRANCE 24 among others. The vast majority of these news organizations are staffed with journalists, many of who are young and inexperienced, who know a little a bit everything and nothing about anything. They operate in an editorial culture that retains deeply embedded narratives about both China and Africa. These narratives are often the same tired old stereotypes that are unfortunately quite powerful in shaping the worldview of these journalists. So when a story as complex as China’s engagement in Africa arises, they simply lack the necessary intellectual depth to report the nuance that is so essential. In turn, these journalists then fall back on those outdated caricatures that you’ve highlighted: Africans are portrayed as the ‘victims of the new neocolonial invaders,’ while the Chinese are depicted as the villainous aggressors who are there to rape the continent of its resources.

The level of ignorance is shocking.

Let me give you a couple of examples of how this plays out: when I worked as a producer at Radio France International in Paris, a network incidentally that prides itself on its Africa coverage, I regularly pitched stories to the Africa desk about a Chinese news item on the continent. The reaction from the editors was always immediate and definitive: “that’s not a story,” editor would declare when I suggested that we cover Beijing’s then recently-announced decision to remove import tariffs on hundreds of African agricultural products, “we know what the Chinese are doing, they’re just there to colonize Africa!” What was so interesting about his response is that he said it with so much confidence that there was no room for discussion. His mind was made up. Over and over again, that was the kind of reception any China-Africa pitch received from the editorial management at the network during the time that I worked there.

News outlets in the United States are often no better. In many instances, their coverage is also threaded with a subtle racial subtext where they will showcase the white NGO worker or wildlife activist doing their best to protect the vulnerable African incapable of protecting themselves from the Chinese like this report by CNN’s Arwa Damon from the Republic of Congo. The “White Savior Complex” is a well-documented phenomenon that remains regrettably common when covering Africa, particularly when it involves the Chinese.

More than anything else though, I contend that poorly-trained, inexperienced Western journalists present the biggest problem. Covering the Chinese in Africa is not a story where a reporter can be dropped in for a week, talk to 2-3 NGO personnel, interview a local activist or two and then bounce. Because the Chinese are averse to speaking with the press, it requires sophisticated language skills, an understanding of the culture and time, lots and lots of time, to build the necessary relationships so that Chinese sources will gain the reporter’s trust. In the new world of low-cost foreign reporting, none of that is possible. So what happens is that a one-sided narrative is conveyed like that on the recent Vice on HBO report (season 4 episode 10) from the DR Congo by Isobel Yeung that not only failed to articulate the Chinese side of the story but when the Chinese were referenced it was under an ominous-sounding music bed that conveyed suspicion and trickery.

While it’s clear that Western news reporting on the Chinese in Africa generally sucks, the Chinese also bear some responsibility here. The Chinese resistance to engaging the news media and the need to control the message does them a terrible disservice. Embassies, companies, activists, scholars, none of them are comfortable speaking with the international press for fear of saying something that could be misconstrued. So while the Chinese shun the press, a dangerous vacuum is created that allows for those anti-Chinese stereotypes to be published and broadcast unchallenged.

While this kind of reporting is pervasive throughout much of the industry, it would not be accurate to suggest that all Western journalists covering the China-Africa story are mediocre. Journalists like former New York Times correspondent Howard French, Quartz’s Nairobi-based reporter Lily Kuo, Canada’s Globe & Mail Johannesburg correspondent Geoffrey York and the Financial Times’ Tom Burgis are among a number of Western reporters who do an excellent job reporting on the Chinese in Africa. Unfortunately, from my experience and observation, they represent a very small minority.

— Eric

Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden are the duo behind the China Africa Project and hosts of the popular China in Africa Podcast. They’re here to answer your most pressing, puzzling, even politically incorrect questions about all things related to the Chinese in Africa and Africans in China. If you want to know something, anything at all… just hit them up online and they’ll give it to you straight:email:  | Facebook:  |Weibo: @zhongfeixiangmu | Twitter: @eolander & @stadenesque

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