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China, Africa and The West: Media Representations in a Changing World

The UK media are likely to resort to stereotypes when describing Chinese activities in Africa and they should scrutinise the West’s record in Africa much more closely. That was the message from Dr Emma Mawdsley, of Cambridge University, when she presented her research based on coverage from UK broadsheets to a meeting of the Africa Asia Centre – a research initiative based at LIDC.

Her findings were based on 230 articles printed between 2000 and 2007 – a period marked by a dramatic shift in the awareness of China’s strengthening commercial ties with Africa. She said: “Demonising China and exculpating the West does not help. The West should take a more critical look at its own record”. Mawdsley delivered her talk, entitled The Politics of Representation in a Changing World: UK Newspaper Reporting on China and Africa, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on 11 November.

Persistent stereotypes
Mawdsley showed how more nuanced reporting on African affairs is compromised when it comes to specific reporting on Chinese interactions. She highlighted how the UK media’s portrayal of China’s trade and diplomatic relations with Africa demonstrated enduring stereotypes, reflecting a fear of China and too often portraying Africans as either victims or villains. In the meantime, the West is dominantly presented in these articles (if not always elsewhere) as a benign, well-intentioned presence. Although subtle, these themes of African weakness, Western trusteeship and Chinese ruthlessness are persistent across the media coverage.

Double standards
Mawdsley argued that articles concerning China and Africa tended to acknowledge Western exploitation, but firmly relegate this to the colonial past. Although journalists and editors might be more critical in other articles, when discussing China’s impacts they largely draw a veil over more contemporary problems, including protected western markets, the legacies of Structural Adjustment, ongoing debt servicing from some of the world’s poorest countries, arms sales and weak Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitments, such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). Mawdsley described how China’s appetite for African resources is portrayed as “guzzling, aggressive and insatiable”, whereas no journalist says the same of Western companies and their interests in Africa when the discussion includes analysis of China. Her presentation showed the West’s complacent view of relations with Africa. She added: “Africa is seen as the West’s political backyard and the UK has demonstrated a persistent failure of humility in recognising ongoing inequalities”.

New era
Mawdsley underlined how the world economy is experiencing “monumental transitions” and how China is playing a “major role” in these developments. China’s booming economy has led to increased demand for energy and commodities and a hike in trade and investment in African countries, which Mawdsley recognised  has brought many problems, as well as benefits. She also stressed the recent nature of the West’s interests in such Sino-African affairs, which were barely mentioned in the Commission for Africa report in 2005. She added: “Africa is going to be one of the arenas where discursive geopolitics is played out”. The thrust of the presentation was clear: representations matter. 
By Guy Collender, Communications Officer, LIDC
Further Reading


Dr Emma Mawdsley’s biography