China: Manufacturing Consent in South Africa

Analysis of China’s image in selected South African media during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic

By: Anton M. Pillay

A few months ago, China temporarily withdrew its ambassador to Pretoria after waiting for more than a year for South Africa to appoint an emissary to Beijing. It appears that the Chinese would only accept Siyabonga Cwele, a former South African intelligence minister, minister of state security and minister of telecommunications and postal services. South African authorities are believed to have refused to issue Cwele a security clearance, preventing his appointment over Cwele’s apparent scrapping of a probe into the controversial Gupta family, whose ties to former President Jacob Zuma played a major role in bringing down Zuma’s government.

That is a demonstration of the clout that China wields not only in South Africa, but across the continent. It is clout that is built largely on money and trade. According to the South Africa Financial Markets Journal, Chinese banks have been active lenders to infrastructure projects in 19 different countries in Africa in the past four years. Infrastructure projects in Ethiopia have received US$$1.8 billion since 2014, Kenyan projects US$4.8 billion, Mozambique infrastructure deals US$1.6 billion and Nigerian projects US$5 billion from Chinese lenders.

South African infrastructure projects have received US$2.2 billion from Chinese lenders since 2014, Zambia US$1.5 billion and Zimbabwe US$1.3 billion in loans from Chinese policy lenders since 2014. At the BRICS Summit Energy in 2018, China pledged to invest US$14.7 billion in South Africa and to grant loans to state-owned enterprises Eskom and Transnet. South Africa has been China’s biggest trading partner in Africa for 10 years and China the largest recipient of South African goods and services for 11 years, according to Chen Xiaodong, China’s recently appointed ambassador to South Africa, in a September 2019 briefing. In 2019, total trade was $43.2 billion between the two nations although it fell sharply in 2020 as Covid-19 took its toll.

What China has earned from this largesse is silence. In an analysis of South African media, one alternative view notably absent from the Covid-19 debate was critique of China. For example, while an international discourse grew concerning an “inquiry into the origins of the virus,” South African media did not report this. Despite US ideological hegemony in South Africa, China is not an enemy or target as it is in the US press.

This example, and the overall absence of any critique within the South African media, points in the direction of censorship. China is in effect manufacturing consent – a term invented by the US social critic Noam Chomsky – by South Africa’s elites, government and big financial institutions’ stranglehold on what is perceived as “independent media.” This is achieved through reporting through a narrow, biased lens which ensures that audiences accept their position in the unequal and unfair structure of society.

China has zero tolerance for criticism of its governance. In 2019, Reporters Without Borders, ranked China’s press situation as “very serious,” the lowest rank on a five-point scale. The concern however is on the export of these censorship values over the last two decades. What was previously known as the “Great Firewall” which prevented Chinese citizens from seeing foreign criticism has evolved into the “Great Cannon” which is increasingly attacking critics themselves, whether they represent a foreign government, are part of an overseas company, or join real or virtual avenues of public protest. Elizabeth C. Economy differentiated the concepts, noting that where the firewall is blocked, the cannon is able to adjust and replace content as its travels across the internet. According to the Human Rights Watch 2020 Annual Report, Chinese authorities are “seeking to censor criticism of China overseas, mute attention to human rights in its global engagements, and weaken global rights mechanisms.” China's efforts are tantamount to the "most extensive efforts to selectively censor human expression ever implemented," according to a Harvard University study in 2013.

Beijing’s presence in South African media is unsettling to say the least. Chinese interests are major stakeholders in one of South Africa’s biggest media conglomerates, the Independent Media Group which publishes a number of popular South African dailies. Another top heavyweight of South African media, Naspers Ltd, receives the overwhelming majority of its revenue from its China operations through the world’s largest media gaming company, Tencent. There are only four dominant media corporations in South Africa. With two under China’s yoke, there is concern here. Chinese interests in South Africa perceive that their image with the public needs to be controlled. Confucius Institutes are now at South Africa’s top Universities including the University of Cape Town, University of Johannesburg, University of the Western Cape, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch, Wits, and Durban University of Technology.

This dominance of lending, trade, education and the media, according to our study of newspaper headlines from March to May 2020, earned Beijing at least 17 laudatory headlines (and no negative ones) including: “A friend SA can count on (The Star, April 15), “China is a friend indeed to SA in fight against Covid-19” (IOL.co.za, April 15), “South Africa: Time to Make South Africa's Relationship with China Mutually Beneficial” (Daily Maverick, April 20th) and “China is lending Africa a hand during the Covid-19 pandemic” (IOL.co.za, May 7th) ‘

The most obvious reason for media silence is that where China invests heavily, such as in South Africa, the investments need to be protected. Where Africa’s previous colonizers disseminated their knowledge in the form of religion and language, China has never sought to enforce its culture, instead choosing to restrict the control of information. Instruments of global communication such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google are banned in China. Pax-Sinica not only bans these communication devices but has exerted its influence within these instruments. For example, a mid-April Covid-19 documentary which analyzed the origins of the virus was banned from Facebook. Similarly, YouTube said on May 26, 2020 that it was investigating the removal of comments critical of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from its platform, saying that the filtering approach appeared to be “an error.”

Controlling, banning or restricting information is only one element of how censorship works. Potential space which criticism would occupy needs to be filled. South African media has chosen to fill space concerning China with a public agenda of goodwill. Such a sentiment corroborates with Freedom House President Mike Abramowitz who noted that “many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship.”

A decade ago, China’s leverage became clear when South Africa refused to issue a visa to the Tibetan dissident the Dalai Lama. More recently, in 2018, Azad Essa’s weekly column was canceled after he wrote about the persecution of Chinese Muslims. He linked this to the fact that Chinese corporations own a 20 percent stake in Independent Media.

According to Independent Media’s website, its combined readership across different platforms totals 17.1 million local and international readers. The website declares that some of its “quality publications” include 20 of South Africa’s “most prominent newspapers” such as the Star in Johannesburg, Cape Times and Cape Argus in Cape Town, and the Mercury in Durban. One of Independent Media’s biggest shareholders is Interacom Investment Holding Limited which comprises China International Television Corporation (CITVC) and China-Africa Development Fund (CADFUND). Naspers, another top South African publishing house with popular titles such as News24, City Press and Die Burger, is heavily intertwined with the business prospects of Tencent, a Chinese social media corporation. Naspers’ 2020 interim results noted it had generated US$2 billion from its ecommerce sector, and US$8 billion from its social and internet platforms, US$7.8 of which was derived from Tencent. Media24, one of the top four media houses in South Africa, and a different entity on its own, shares the same offices with Naspers.

Over the past 15 years, China has been targeting African viewership via the “10,000 Villages” project which has brought modern digital satellite TV networks to many parts of Africa. Dubbed as a philanthropic gesture, the project gives Beijing a tight grip on Africa’s communication infrastructure and control of how it is portrayed in the media. The benefactor is China’s “StarTimes” which now controls TV networks in Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda, and Zambia. In the latter, StarTimes entered into a joint venture with the Zambian National Broadcaster (ZNBC). The deal gave the Chinese player a 60 percent share in the broadcaster for 25 years.

China thus crafts its image so as to ensure it can continue to execute power behind the scenes without interference. The case of Cwele aside, China’s withdrawal of its highest government representative in the week prior to South Africa’s lockdown is a definite flex of its political muscle. By removing its most important agent, the possibility of direct links with China in a time of crisis was out of the question. As China comes to control more resources and power over domestic elites, there will be less need to use benevolent hegemony in favor of a harder type. Eskom, South Africa’s national power utility which has accepted massive loans from Chinese banks, has been encouraging municipalities in arrears to trade its municipal land to shave off debt.

There is a clear correlation between propagandistic messages sponsored by state actors, and changes in the political rhetoric of those targeted. As the South African mind is programmed for Chinese propaganda, concern is growing that democratic rights will be naturally eroded. Lack of critical thought and debate will also be hindered, as noted by social critic Noam Chomsky, “as long as people are marginalized and distracted and (they will) have no way to organize or articulate their sentiments.” Realities are preferred to be fabricated and disseminated to the masses.

Anton M. Pillay is based in Johannesburg, South Africa