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Information Space as Battle Ground by Annunthra K



Image courtesy: DW

Article 34/2023


“China has a politically weaponized system of censorship”


Since its establishment in 1921, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has utilised propaganda both for instructing the masses and mobilising allies against perceived adversaries. The External Propaganda Leading Group, formed in 1980 through a collaboration between the CPC Central Committee and the State Council, comprises senior party leaders and guides China's overseas-oriented propaganda endeavours. The execution of these strategies falls under the purview of the Propaganda Department, a sprawling, intricate bureaucratic apparatus that extends its influence across virtually every platform involved in information dissemination. According to Xiao Qiang from the University of California, Berkeley, China wields a politically weaponized system of censorship that is sophisticated, organised, coordinated, and supported by the state's resources. Its purpose extends beyond mere content deletion. Huang Kunming, the director of the Propaganda Department, emphasised at the forum the divergence between America's perceived decline and the CPC's steadfast dedication to "China's socialist democracy," which he asserted to be the most inclusive, genuine, and effective form of democracy.


Interestingly, African partners are now considered crucial assets in the CPC's strategy to further its interests and counterbalance Washington's influence by establishing a more "democratic" and "multipolar" global order. Beijing aims to rally a diverse coalition of like-minded partners across the Global South to amplify its message that the Chinese political system excels, while painting the United States as an unwanted neo-imperialist force. In this manner, Beijing's efforts to alleviate perceived foreign threats have spurred the expansion of its propaganda efforts in Africa and throughout the Global South.


Between 2000 and 2020, the economic powerhouse extended loans totaling US$159 billion to African governments for the construction of railways, highways, stadiums, and bridges. In addition to these loans, the foreign direct investment from Chinese-owned enterprises operating in Africa, which provide employment opportunities for Africans, has surged from $75 million in 2003 to $5 billion in 2021. China's significant investments and influence in the region have elicited both acknowledgment and criticism from scholars and Western media. Some perceive it as a mutually advantageous partnership that enhances infrastructure and economic progress in African nations. However, there are others who caution that China's presence and its policy of non-interference may mask its underlying intent to exert a form of "colonial" influence over Africa.


China's Impact through External Media Channels:

China's "Big Four" state-controlled media outlets, including Xinhua, China Daily, CRI, and CGTN, target diverse African audiences through various platforms and languages. While affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, they do not explicitly state this affiliation, maintaining a strong presence on international social media platforms. The 2008 global financial crisis prompted China to significantly expand its media presence in Africa through a $7.25 billion campaign known as "Big Foreign Propaganda." This led to the establishment of more foreign bureaus and the introduction of English editions, reflecting China's commitment to enhancing its global influence.


Xinhua, with 37 bureaus as of early 2023, leads the media charge in Africa. CRI operates in nine African languages from regional bureaus, emphasizing China's effort to communicate with the continent in local dialects. Television remains a crucial medium, with CCTV's Africa bureau recruiting local staff and producing content comparable to major international networks. China's media strategy in Africa also extends to online platforms, aiming to positively influence perceptions of China and foster collaboration. This approach is mirrored on social media by Chinese officials and friendship organizations in Africa, reinforcing China's narrative of engagement with the continent.


Chinese tech companies, led by Opera and Transsnet, have made significant strides in Africa's digital realm. Opera's personalized content app, launched in Nigeria and Kenya in 2018, has witnessed explosive growth, amassing over 200 million monthly users across Africa by 2021. Similarly, Transsnet's Vskit, a short-video platform akin to TikTok, saw its user base surge from 10 million in 2019 to over 51 million in 2021, resonating particularly with younger Africans.


This shift signifies a preference for engaging, user-centric content from these semi-private Chinese platforms over the more traditional content disseminated by the established "Big Four" media outlets. Meanwhile, within the Big Four, the editorial process is heavily influenced by the Propaganda Department, prioritizing narratives glorifying CPC leaders. This control extends to both African and Chinese journalists, with department officials, some without formal journalism training, exercising editorial authority.


Moreover, the distinction between public content and "internal reference" reports, covering sensitive topics circulated among select government and party organs, underscores China's concerted effort to reinforce its messaging while gathering proprietary insights from the field. However, the increasing censorship at Africa presents a challenge for China's propaganda efforts in Africa. While the Big Four anticipate more resources due to China's expanding interests in Africa, rising restrictions on topics may lead to more self-censorship or reporting in line with Propaganda Department directives.


This dynamic has prompted a proliferation of non-political, "soft" content and spurred Chinese firms to invest heavily in nontraditional media avenues like digital TV, streaming services, and phone apps. In essence, China's engagement with Africa is evolving through the digital sphere, emphasizing user-driven content and expanding its influence beyond conventional propaganda channels.


China employs a strategy, as identified by Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, which involves utilizing local channels and influential voices in Africa to disseminate and validate its propaganda efforts focused on the continent. This approach, coined as "using foreign strength to promote China", involves Chinese counterparts establishing mutually beneficial partnerships with highly prominent foreign figures. As a result, nearly every country now has notable individuals designated as 'friends of China' by the Communist Party of China (CPC). The aim is to align party-controlled media conglomerates with local content providers in a way that camouflages reports to appear as if they originate from independent publications. These designated 'friends' frequently make appearances on various platforms and contribute quotes or articles for the major media outlets. In exchange for promoting Beijing's propaganda, they may receive material or financial support, as well as all-expenses-paid trips to China.


Since at least 2006, a practice has emerged involving the use of bilateral agreements to provide cost-effective or complimentary content as an inducement for African media outlets to voluntarily propagate CPC propaganda. In 2007, leaders from the state news agencies of (Adeyemi et al., 2021)Benin, Senegal, and Togo paid a visit to China, where they engaged in discussions with the president of Xinhua. This led to the formalisation of "news exchange agreements" and a commitment to "draw lessons from Xinhua's experiences and enhance collaboration with Chinese state media." Fast forward to 2023, and a number of news organisations in Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have established cooperative arrangements for sharing media content with Xinhua. In Togo, both Télévision Togolaise and Radio Lomé broadcast China's French-language television and radio reports. By 2017, CRI had successfully forged agreements with no fewer than 70 international radio stations and 18 global internet radio services.


China and AI in Africa:

In 2015, Beijing initiated the 'Made in China 2025' initiative with the goal of leading in cutting-edge technology sectors. A key aspect of China's plan is to establish global dominance in artificial intelligence (AI) innovation by 2030, outpacing its technological competitors. Additionally, China aims to cultivate a robust domestic AI industry with a total output surpassing $150 billion. The Chinese Communist Party envisions AI as pivotal in upholding social stability, not only in areas like education, healthcare, and environmental protection, but also in matters of state security. This encompasses applications such as internet censorship and the analysis of surveillance footage to track individuals' movements. Kai-Fu Lee, a prominent figure in China's high-tech venture capital scene, asserts that China holds an advantage in AI development due to its leaders' comparatively lesser concern for "legal intricacies" and "moral consensus".


China's growing investments in AI technology across Africa, particularly in nations with questionable human rights records, warrant careful consideration. At present, less than twenty percent of African countries have endorsed progressive legal frameworks like the African Union Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection. This underscores the need for civil society and legislators to advocate for appropriate safeguards to address the ethical and practical dilemmas stemming from substantial AI-related investments. Notably, major telecom operators in Africa, including Etisalat and Vodafone, are already under the scrutiny of international human rights initiatives evaluating their efforts in corporate social responsibility. Similar initiatives should extend their oversight to encompass the activities of prominent Chinese software firms like CouldWalk.


China's insidious expansion in Africa, driven by enticing loans and investments, has resulted in a dangerous overreliance on Chinese technology and services. This leaves African nations vulnerable to succumbing to China's twisted concept of 'internet sovereignty'. The peril lies in China's model of widespread censorship and automated surveillance, which threatens to severely curtail digital freedom across the continent and jeopardize emerging democracies.


Under the pretext of safeguarding 'public order', China is actively promoting digital authoritarianism as a means for African governments to exert control over their citizens through technological means. For instance, ZTE's technology has played a pivotal role in the Ethiopian government's invasive monitoring of private citizens and organisations, especially those critical of the regime. Huawei, with an alarming lead in advanced surveillance systems globally, aggressively seeks new markets in sub-Saharan Africa. It's establishing advanced 'safe city' platforms, peddling facial recognition and intelligent video-surveillance systems to oppressive regimes, and supplying sophisticated analytic capabilities. A recent exposé by the Wall Street Journal uncovered Huawei technicians in Uganda and Zambia aiding government officials in spying on political opponents.


Through seminars and official visits, the Chinese government is actively indoctrinating media elites and government officials in BRI participant countries to adopt its repressive stance on internet sovereignty. According to Freedom House, the increased presence of Chinese companies and officials in Africa preceded the passage of restrictive cybercrime and media laws in Uganda, Tanzania, and Nigeria in 2018. Governments in Cameroon, Chad, and Togo have also resorted to internet shutdowns and blocked websites and social media platforms during critical political junctures, such as elections and protests. Several African nations, including Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Mauritania, shut down the internet in the first half of 2019, with Sudan following suit as government forces unleashed a violent crackdown in Khartoum.


In a misguided move, in April 2018, CloudWalk embarked on China's initial AI venture in Africa. This ill-conceived endeavour entailed the signing of a strategic-cooperation pact with the Zimbabwean government to construct a wide-reaching national facial-recognition database and surveillance system in Zimbabwe's urban centres and public transportation infrastructure. This included integrating financial systems with technology, and fortifying security measures in airports, railways, and bus stations. Regrettably, under this agreement, the Zimbabwean government has reportedly furnished China with biometric data of numerous Zimbabweans, essentially aiding China in assembling a facial-recognition database with supposedly greater ethnic diversity to train CloudWalk's AI algorithms.


China's miscalculation in seeking access to a population with significantly different racial demographics from its own could potentially lead to unforeseen complications. It is a well-documented fact that commercial facial-recognition systems, both in the West and China, have faced substantial challenges in accurately identifying individuals with darker skin tones. This deficiency in accuracy was underscored in a test conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Lab, which examined the proficiency of major facial-recognition software providers, including American companies Microsoft and IBM, as well as Chinese company Megvii.


Conclusion:

Media literacy is barely taught in seven African countries, with only South Africa presenting elements of misinformation literacy, according to a recently-released report of a study titled Misinformation Policy in sub-Saharan Africa. China's stranglehold on internet connectivity in Africa grants it substantial leverage over African governments. This could culminate in a scenario where African nations find themselves indebted and politically subservient to China, harkening back to their colonial past. The AI technology and data-mining techniques that China is peddling represent an especially potent temptation for such states, further solidifying China's hold over them.


It is indeed alarming to discover that articles which accurately identify Chinese propaganda and cite relevant references are being systematically removed from websites, resulting in a "404 not found" error. This situation draws parallels to the lack of transparency surrounding the financial details of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The crucial distinction lies in the deliberate removal of articles, a move seemingly aimed at safeguarding and advancing China's media-driven agenda in Africa. This raises important concerns about the freedom of information and the ability to critically assess and discuss such matters.


The extensive outreach of China to local and regional newspapers and news channels in Africa raises concerns about the potential for it to result in a debt trap. It becomes evident that China is investing significant resources in its propaganda efforts, ostensibly to enhance its global image and project an image of transparency and reliability. However, it is widely acknowledged that China's influence can often overshadow the independent voices of African journalists, potentially leading to a skewed narrative. This dynamic raises questions about the authenticity and impartiality of the information being disseminated through these channels, as they may not always reflect the true complexities of the situations at hand.


References:

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https://www.media.mit.edu/articles/facial-recognition-technology-is-finally-more-accurate-in-identifying-people-of-color-could-that-be-used-against-immigrants/Cheatsheet: “AI Superpowers” by Kai-Fu Lee. (2021, March 12). Startup Investing for All by Muhan Zhang.

https://muhanzhang.com/ai-superpowers-lee/China’s influence in African media narratives and digital space. (2023, October 18). Bruegel | the Brussels-Based Economic Think Tank.

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https://doi.org/10.17159/1996-2096/2020/v20n1a5Media literacy education lacking in Africa | Wits Journalism. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 2023, from https://wits.journalism.co.za/2021/07/31/media-literacy-education-lacking-in-africa/The Impact of Chinese Investments in Africa: Neocolonialism or Cooperation? (n.d.). Policy Center.

https://www.policycenter.ma/publications/impact-chinese-investments-africa-neocolonialism-or-cooperationXiao Qiang: “China Has a Politically Weaponized System of Censorship” | UC Berkeley School of Information.

(n.d.). Www.ischool.berkeley.edu. Retrieved October 28, 2023, from https://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/news/2020/xiao-qiang-china-has-politically-weaponized-system-censorshipZhong, R., Mozur, P., Kao, J., & Krolik, A. (2020, December 19). No “Negative” News: How China Censored the Coronavirus. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/technology/china-coronavirus-censorship.html



(Ms. Annunthra K is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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