A remarkable scene opens Jenni Marsh’s recent report on the growing digital communications industry in Africa. In a small village in the outskirts of Nairobi (Kenya’s largest city and capital), inside a rusty metal shanty that lacks running water, a shoe repairman, Michael Nganga, sits in front of an old television set and enjoys a Chinese Kung Fu film. Yet, what’s new and remarkable about this scene, is this Nganga and his family have many channels to choose from. For, standing in their yard, where the chickens roam, is a large state-of-the-art Chinese-made satellite dish that beams in hundreds of channels, many of them from Beijing. “It’s advantageous to have many TV channels,” Nganga says. Whereas in the past, he and his family could watch only a few local Kenyan stations, they can now “know how the world is changing every day.” As Marsh’s report goes on to explain, Michael Nganga and his family are among thousands of Africans whose access to the changing world has rapidly expanded-and the reason for this development is ’10,000 Villages Project’ led by the premier of China Xi Jinping. What exactly is the China’s ’10,000 Villages Project’, and how could China spread its channels all around the continent of Africa?
Chinese Media Spreading Its Power in Africa
a. Xi Jinping’s ’10,000 Villages Project’
In 2015, the premier of China Xi Jinping announced his new ’10,000 Villages Project’. This project is a very big undertaking for China in that it is aiming to provide digital televisions to 10,000 villages throughout Africa, including the poverty areas. In the past, it was a privilege of elites to own a television at home in Africa where some citizens do not even get enough food, clothing and shelter. But now Xi Jinping is trying hard to provide the Africans general public with high accessibility to digital televisions. Xi Jinping is attempting to modernize the expansive continent of Africa through this project. Recently, China is trying to transmit the TV channels of Beijing to Africa with their long-distance satellite dish. Also, in addition to broadcasting original African national channels and those from Beijing, a Chinese company StarTimes produces more channels of its own content in local languages.
b. The Africa Seen from the China
In May 2000, The Economist, a well-known English weekly magazine, released a cover page with a title calling Africa ‘The Hopeless Continent’. “Does Africa have some inherent character flaw,” the magazine provocatively asked, “that keeps it backward and incapable of development?” (Its article primarily contained concerns and suggestions toward the UN and other associations which were participating in the aid projects of Africa, rather than blaming the situation of Africa.) In Marsh’s view, the article “aptly captured the pity through which much of the Western world viewed the African continent at the time: 1 trillion dollars in development aid hadn’t prevented famine from taking one million lives in Ethiopia in the 1980s, stemmed the scourge of AIDS, or stopped a brutal genocide from slaughtering roughly the same number in Rwanda in the 1990s.” 11 years later, in 2011, The Economist ran a cover page with the title “Africa Rising”. By this time, a growing optimism, along with a rising middle-class, was growing through Africa. In his book ‘Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong’, Morten Jerven, Professor of Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Visiting Professor in Economic History at Lund University, wittily asked, “Do economists have a character flaw that makes them incapable of doing good scholarly work on Africa?” He goes on to contend that the continent of Africa was wrongly assumed to be an uncompetitive market field. As a result, countries were more into implementing aid projects in Africa than putting real businesses into force.
Meanwhile, in the same year as The Economist released its now infamous cover ‘The Hopeless Continent’, Chinese politician Jiang Zemin launched the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation(FOCAC) in Beijing with the aim of enhancing media cooperation between China and Africa. More than 80 ministers from China and about 400 delegates and senior government officials from 42 African countries attended for the forum, where they shared opinions on cooperation and development of media in Africa. According to NexTV News, government ministers and the heads of media organizations from China and Africa were most interested in the support in the area of digital broadcasting and online content improvement. Whereas nations in the Western world were focused on aid projects in Africa, China envisioned the continent of Africa a destination for export.
c. The Main Cooperator, StarTimes
The ’10,000 Villages Project’ put into force by the Xi Jinping is working together with Chinese enterprise StarTimes. Ruling out the American and European enterprises, StarTimes of Beijing is obtaining good results at dominating the African market which is made of more than 1.2 billion people. The Beijing-based company StarTimes now has 10 million subscribers across 30 African countries. It is the leading digital television operator in Africa and covers about 90% of the continent’s population with a massive distribution network. Some Chinese citizens raise a question about the reason of working with the less respected enterprise StarTimes, not the globally well-known Chinese enterprise Huawei. A spokesperson of StarTimes has once answered the question that it would be very important for Beijing to work with the StarTimes which already has an experience of broadcast exporting business and also is cost conscious. However there are still a lot of worries that Xi Jinping should rather work with BBC or MultiChoice which has more large subscribers. Lately, as if the StarTimes is proving its capability, it is demonstrating its growth. Huawei, which is getting global attention for its 5G network, is also a Beijing-based enterprise. But unlike Huawei, StarTimes is exerting its influence at spreading software power in Africa in recent days. It is now playing an important role in China’s soft power diplomacy agenda in Africa.
What is China Looking for?
a. The Purpose of the ’10,000 Villages Project’
Thanks to the Xi Jinping’s ’10,000 Villages Project’, many Africans experienced Chinese various kinds of news media and movie films and they couldn’t control their surprise to directly watch the world issues. However, it is hard to say that the project is only philanthropic. According to CNN news article ‘How China is slowly expanding its power in Africa, one TV set at a time’, the Xi Jinping’s project is aimed for raising awareness of Africans of China by keep exposure Africans to Beijing TV channels. Moreover, in the process of the ’10,000 Villages Project’, China government is trying to gain power of control on Information and Communication of the continent of Africa. Lastly, since the satellite dish being used for this project is entirely controlled by the Chinese government, this will let China hold control on the image of China portrayed among citizens of Africa.
b. Major Inroads of Chinese Enterprises into Africa
Until now, there are various inroads of Chinese companies into the continent of Africa. A ‘Transsion Holdings’ is a manufacturer of mobile phones based in Shenzhen, China. The Transsion entered the market field of Africa with its brands ‘Tecno’ and ‘Itel’. The company sells cheap multi-SIM handsets, and according to a research firm IDC, in 2018, it sold 124 million mobile phones, capturing 48.7% of the continent’s mobile phone market. Also, the chairman of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei has made a success at entering Huawei into Africa. Not long after the Huawei’s expansion, Pang Xinxing moved his company StarTimes to Africa. While Pang looked around the huge continent of Africa, he realized that most of the families weren’t able to own a television. Even when they own a television, it wasn’t for a house but for more than 2 houses. What is more, the local media broadcast offers only about 2 or 3 channels. The situation like this made the African citizens unable to even imagine the concept of digital televisions in their lives. In addition, as Pang has researched, they had to pay about 70 dollars each month to watch television. Pang has decided to take a chance as a provider of cheaper television channels in Africa. In fact, his company StarTimes is actually providing a number of TV channels for only about 4 dollars in a month.
As the Xi Jinping’s ’10,000 Villages Project’ recognizes the entire continent of Africa, there are a lot of worries towards the project considering its size. Above all, the China’s control of the African local broadcast network is a hot potato. Many people are worrying that the StarTimes which made a contract with local broadcasting station to increase the rate of digital televisions supply can dominate the local broadcast network. The StarTimes is not only transporting the channels from Beijing but it is also working on producing local contents. For example, since broadcasting football games gains most popularity in Africa, StarTimes announced its agreement with the Ghana Football Association to own all media rights to the Ghana Premier League for the next 10 years. Pang, the president of StarTimes, said “We would like to bring more excellent football matches to nearly 9 million subscribers of StarTimes in Africa”. Meanwhile, Ghana and Kenya actually have predicted that when the StarTimes draw off from several African nations, the nations’ broadcasting stations would have no choice but stopping their role. It is because they have less share of total numbers of channels compared to the StarTimes. In other words, it means the StarTimes has the power to pause the television networks of some African countries whenever they want. For example, in Zambia, StarTimes entered into a joint venture TopStar which is Zambia’s authorized Public TV signal distributor and made a deal giving itself a 60% share in the state broadcaster for 25 years. However, the StarTimes has accentuated that they are not controlling any television networks at all and they do not even own power to bring the local broadcasting stations to a stop. However, StarTimes is the only Chinese enterprise that granted permission from the China Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trades to run the business of foreign countries’ radio and television. It also received support fund from EXIM bank which is operated by the Chinese government. The StarTimes is a one-man business but since it is having a close relationship with a big power, China, we have to tighten the wariness.
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