China is slowly expanding its power in Africa, one TV set at a time

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His small home in Limuru village doesn’t have running water and its walls are made from corrugated metal. Yet outside, where chickens roam the yard, the father-of-two, who repairs shoes for a living, has a large Chinese-built satellite dish that connects his old television set to hundreds of channels — many of which are being beamed from Beijing. “It’s advantageous to have many TV channels,” said Nganga, who was limited to a few local Kenyan stations before the Chinese dish. “Because you can know how the world is changing every day.” Nganga’s connection to the wider world is directly thanks to Xi Jinping, the president of China.In 2015, Xi announced the 10,000 Villages Project, a lofty plan to take digital television to impoverished parts of Africa, such as the village where Nganga lives. Previously, television access in many parts of the continent was a privilege of the elite, and those who were connected relied on old-fashioned, snowy analog reception. Xi’s dream was to upgrade huge swathes of Africa to modern, digital satellite TV networks, that could broadcast a constellation of channels over long distances — so long, in fact, that a TV channel from Beijing could be beamed to African homes. This was more than just a philanthropic gesture. It was a stroke of soft-power genius that would raise China’s profile among Africans, while giving Beijing a tighter grip on the continent’s communications infrastructure and control over how it is portrayed there in the media. And it would boost the fortunes and power of one important Chinese company that otherwise keeps a low profile.StarTimes has been the Chinese government’s primary contractor to carry out the 10,000 Villages Project, paving the way for the Beijing-based firm — not any of its American or European media competitors — to dominate the African market of 1.2 billion people. A spokesperson for StarTimes said it was “important” for Beijing to work with “an experienced and cost-conscious enterprise for the assignment.” Today, the company beams Chinese TV shows into the homes of 10 million subscribers in 30 African countries, pushes China’s state-owned propaganda news network into households over Western news networks, and controls television networks to such an extent in Zambia and Kenya there have been fears the company could black out TVs in those countries, if it wanted to. While channels like the BBC reach more people and South African distributor MultiChoice has more subscribers, StarTimes’ breadth of reach has some critics worrying: Does the company, with its close ties to Beijing, now have too much power over African television networks?In many ways, StarTimes’ situation runs parallel to better-known communications giant Huawei, which is battling global criticism for its control over 5G internet networks and ties to Beijing. But unlike Huawei, StarTimes has become one of Beijing’s most powerful soft power tools in Africa — without much of the world even knowing its name. Here’s how it got that way.The African opportunity In 2000, the Economist ran a cover story about Africa titled “The Hopeless Continent.” The headline aptly captured the pity through which much of the Western world viewed the African continent at the time: $1 trillion 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. Aid dollars served to ease Western guilt over what then British Prime Minister Tony Blair called a “scar on the conscience of the world,” but aside from drilling for oil and establishing military bases, little energy went into doing real business in Africa. Meanwhile, China took an entirely different approach.In the same year as that Economist cover, Chinese President Jiang Zemin invited heads of state across Africa to attend the inaugural Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing, to discuss how the two regions could better work together. By the mid-2000s, the Chinese government, under its “Going Out” strategy, was encouraging entrepreneurs to head abroad and forge stronger ties with African nations.Chinese entrepreneurs looking to make early inroads in nascent markets started moving to Africa. George Zhu, for example, went to Nigeria and launched Transsion, which sells cheap multi-SIM handsets and now has the biggest smartphone share on the continent. Ren Zhengfei took Huawei into Kenya, a country that today remains unfazed by the West’s concerns about the company’s ties to Beijing. And not long after that, TV enthusiast Pang Xinxing decided to pivot his telecommunications company StarTimes away from China, where the TV market was quickly becoming saturated, and into Africa.Pang reported seeing a largely underdeveloped market where many families either did not have a TV or were sharing one with several households. “Even if there is a TV, they can only watch two or three channels, digital TV is beyond their imagination,” he said back in 2002. Furthermore, there was normally only one strong company in each country and users were being charged about $70 a month for a subscription — a huge fee on a continent where GDP per capita was around $700 a year at the time.Pang saw an opportunity for a low-cost TV provider. Today, StarTimes has some of the world’s most affordable digital TV packages, which can cost as little as $4 a month. His arrival was also perfect timing in another way. A 2006 United Nations treaty had tasked African countries with making the switch from snowy, unreliable analog signals to digital by 2015. It was a deadline that nearly all African governments missed but the pressure was on to invest — and to find a company that could help them do it.That gave StarTimes another revenue stream — building and operating the digital TV infrastructure of nations.In 2007, Pang landed the company’s first digital TV license in Rwanda. The next year, StarTimes launched the Rwanda Digital TV Platform, offering Rwandans more than 30 channels for $3 to $5 a month, including four Chinese channels from the main state-owned broadcaster in mainland China. When contracts came up to turn off governments’ analog networks and take them digital, at first “StarTimes was the only company competing,” said Dani Madrid-Morales, an assistant communications professor at the University of Houston, who researched the company while studying as a PhD student at City University of Hong Kong. “Then [Pang] was able to provide evidence that StarTimes had experience in African countries and offer very low prices.” Other competitors started to join the market, said Madrid-Morales. But StarTimes almost always won. Control of a continent’s airwaves?Nearly two decades later, the China-Africa summit President Jiang had hosted in 2000 has become one of the most important diplomatic events in many African nations’ calendars. In 2018, virtually every African head of state descended on Beijing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation to secure a slice of the $60 billion in development loans and business deals on offer. While in the capital, heads of state and top ministers from Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia, Central African Republic, Malawi, Ghana and Uganda all had an important appointment.They visited Pang at the StarTimes’ huge mothership on the outskirts of the capital. “I don’t think any head of the BBC has had one-on-one meetings with so many African heads of state,” Madrid-Morales said.Befriending governments has been crucial to the StarTimes’ business, as it bids to win state contracts to help countries make the leap from analog to digital TV. Angela Lewis, a PhD candidate in the international communications department of Nottingham University in Ningbo, China, who has been researching the company for years, said the company has had full backing Beijing in doing this. StarTimes is the only private Chinese company with authorization from the Ministry of Commerce to operate in foreign countries’ radio and TV industries. Furthermore, China’s state-owned EXIM bank has provided the company with hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to enter the African market. StarTimes claims to be a private enterprise pursuing business goals while maintaining “cordial relations with its parent state.”The idea that a company with such close ties to Beijing has control over many African nations’ TV networks has sparked headlines such as “StarTimes plots to take over Africa public broadcasters” — echoing concerns that internet security experts have expressed over 5G giant Huawei and how its ties to the Chinese state could compromise other nations’ communications infrastructure.In Zambia, for example, StarTimes entered into a joint venture called TopStar with state broadcaster ZNBC to help the country make the switch to digital TV. The deal gave the Chinese player a 60% share in the state broadcaster for 25 years. That split in the Chinese partner’s favor has caused critics to fear that StarTimes has effectively taken control of the country’s television network.Josephat Nchungo, an international trade analyst at the University of Zambia, said: “The primary objective of this partnership is providing the infrastructure for digital TV. The secondary objective is also to exchange culture and knowledge between the two countries. StarTimes has been so controversial because people interpreted it as a sale of the state broadcast to the Chinese and hence the loss of sovereignty.”Similar concerns have been raised about deals in Ghana, by the Independent Broadcasters’ Association, and Kenya, where StarTimes has also partnered with state broadcasters to operate the new digital network.”If the StarTimes pulled out of some countries,” said Madrid-Morales, “the country’s TV stations would stop working. Essentially, StarTimes has the power to black out some countries’ TV networks, if it wants.” That’s a claim that StarTimes…



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