StarTimes and China’s push into Africa’s media landscape
“China in Africa” has been a highly contentious debate in Western policy circles over the past years. But Beijing has long played a leading role on the continent, stretching back decades and into the complex web of Cold War geopolitics. While much of the focus has been on China’s investment in infrastructure, so-called “debt trap diplomacy”, and political interference, there has been less attention on China’s soft power and influence on Africa’s media landscape.
Cold War politics
From the pivotal 1955 Bandung Conference onward, China has shown its willingness to engage with Africa when other nations have not. Its early involvement on the continent took a two-pronged approach. The first sought to limit the recognition of the Republic of China on Taiwan as the legitimate representative of China internationally, and the second was to counter both Western and Soviet influence in Africa.
In the 1960s, China built the TAZARA Railway, connecting newly independent and landlocked Zambia to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The railway provided a much needed connection for Zambia to take part in international trade while providing China with a boost in its image and influence in Africa. From the perspective of developing nations and those emerging from colonialism, China was seen as a partner when the West was disinterested and disengaged.
China’s interest in Africa increased further following Beijing’s brutal crackdown in the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, which abruptly ended its honeymoon relationship with the West and the Western panglossian hope of China’s eventual democratisation. Isolated, Beijing re-doubled its engagement on the continent and found support from African nations in international organisations and multilateral forums.
China in Africa’s digital transformation
This engagement has carried on into the 21st century, with China pouring billions into developing Africa’s resources industry, public infrastructure, and importantly, its digital sphere. In 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping introduced the “10,000 Villages Project”, an ambitious vision to bring digital television to impoverished regions of Africa to tackle the burgeoning digital divide between urban and rural regions of Africa by upgrading telecommunications infrastructure and providing discounted or free TV to low-income communities by StarTimes. Previously, television access was a reserved privilege of the wealthy, and even so, was unreliably connected by satellite with analogue reception.
With China’s well-established reputation on the continent, the 10,000 Villages Project further cast a philanthropic light on the People’s Republic’s activities in Africa. The project provided more than just positive reception; it crucially gave China an inroad in Africa’s communication infrastructure and media landscape.
StarTimes: from Beijing to 30 African countries
Under Jiang Zemin, China’s leader from 1989 to 2002, the “Go Out Policy” encouraged Chinese entrepreneurs to invest in Africa and forge stronger ties with nations on the continent. This saw Pang Xinxing take his then fledgling telecommunications company StarTimes away from the saturated Chinese market and into Africa in 2002. He saw a demand for low-cost TV, and today, StarTimes still provides one of the world’s most affordable digital TV packages for as little as US$4.00 per month.
StarTimes penetration of the African market coincided with the United Nations’ 2006 push for Africa to switch from snow analogue signals to digital TV by 2015, a goal difficult to achieve for most African nations, thus pivotally providing StarTimes an opportunity to lend its expertise and capability to expand its operations.
The Beijing-headquartered company currently carries hundreds of African stations, as well as providing Chinese and international channels. The cheapest package offered bundles together Chinese and African channels, including CGTN, China’s state-owned English news broadcaster established as part of Xi Jinping’s soft power push to “tell the China story well”. Concerningly, telling the China story well often translates to relaying the news with a pro-China tint to such an extent that the United States has demanded CGTN be registered as a foreign agent under domestic anti-propaganda legislation, the United Kingdom has banned the broadcaster, and France is mulling withdrawing the channel’s broadcasting licence.
Access to BBC, DW, or Al Jazeera often costs more and is beyond the financial means of most viewers. More expensive packages afford viewership to soap operas and international channels, including Chinese dramas. Although Chinese dramas are not overtly political, they are mindfully curated to portray the People’s Republic as a modernised and urban country.
StarTimes reach into Africa
Chinese programming offered by StarTimes has become so popular that African broadcasters have raised concerns that the company is edging out local companies out of the media market. In 2018, the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association apprised that “if StarTimes is allowed to control Ghana’s digital transmission infrastructure and satellite space…Ghana would have virtually submitted its broadcast space to Chinese control and content.”
From its entrance, StarTimes was able to undercut its competitors by offering more channels than previous market leaders for half the price, relegating the likes of MultiChoice from South Africa to Anglophone Africa and Canal+ to Francophone Africa to second place. With the backbone of African digital television propped up by StarTimes, the company has control and influence over what is seen and what is not on African TV by millions, potentially affecting the worldview and political opinion of millions.
In Tanzania and Kenya, StarTimes has partnered with state broadcasters to upgrade the countries’ analogue technology to digital networks. The company holds such an important position that some observers, such as Dani Madrid-Morales from the University of Houston, have commented that “if StarTimes pulled out of some countries…the country’s TV stations would stop working. Essentially, StarTimes has the power to black out some countries’ TV networks, if it wants.”
In Zambia, StarTimes has likewise collaborated with Zambia’s state broadcaster ZNBC to create a joint venture called TopStar. Under this agreement, StarTimes holds a 60% share in ZNBC for 25 years, drawing accusations that the company has effectively taken control of Zambia’s television network. Further, China’s state-owned Export-Import Bank provided the loan for the US$271 million needed for the Zambian government to seal the joint venture contract – a prime example of how Beijing benefits while StarTimes profits.
Building its operations and total reach off the back of the 10,000 Villages Project, StarTimes as the sole provider of television through the initiative has significant control over the content broadcasted on its network.
A symbiotic relationship
Although StarTimes is officially a private corporation, it is the only private enterprise with the Chinese Ministry of Commerce authorisation to operate in foreign countries radio and television industries. It has also been designated as a “key national cultural export company”, and many of its projects in Africa, including those part of the 10,000 Villages, have been noted to be “key national cultural export projects”, indicating state subsidies.
The current scenario where a private corporation with a close relationship with Beijing has such a high level of leverage and control over many African nations’ television networks naturally draws concern. Haggai Kanenga at the University of Zambia echoes this concern: the “loan shows the money for this project is coming from the Chinese government itself, so these two – StarTimes and the Chinese government – cannot be separated. In Zambia, they are widely viewed as one.”
Indeed, StarTimes and the Chinese government act in uniformity. Under the 10,000 Villages Project, in many villages where StarTimes connects digital television, a mural is painted with the flags of the host nation and China side by side.
In the same light, Beijing and StarTimes enjoy mutually beneficial relations, with StarTimes paid by the host nation and China to further the 10,000 Villages Project while gaining more customers and market reach. Simultaneously, the Chinese government increases the viewership and audience of its pro-Beijing messaging, spreading it deeper into households across Africa.
Influence and impact
StarTimes’ reach into Africa’s media landscape has allowed the Chinese government to advance its agenda in the continent whilst the company profits off the monopoly over the market. This powerful corporation with shrouded links to Beijing has come to dominate the flow of information on the African continent, providing China with a digital highway to influence public opinion in Africa and the potential to affect democracy, sovereignty, and security. Sarah Cook from Freedom House aptly summarises, “the real brilliance of it is not just trying to control all content – it’s the element of trying to control the key nodes in the information…It might not be necessarily clear as a threat now, but once you’ve got control over the nodes of information you can use them as you want,” and how China and StarTimes wish to use these nodes is anyone’s guess.
Samuel Ng is currently in his final year of a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of International Business at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He is also a Westpac Asian Exchange Scholar for Taiwan, previously studying at the National Chengchi University having undertaken units in Taiwanese international relations, diplomacy, and political history.