Colonizing the Mind: How Beijing Snuck Into Africa Through TV and Film
11 September 2019
AINAMOI, Kenya—On a fine Saturday afternoon at Ainamoi shopping center in Kenya’s Kericho County, Leonard Biegon takes a few colored chalks and sketches the names of the current and upcoming films he’s showing on a board outside his video store.
Today, a Chinese film named “Twins Mission” is showing in Mandarin, but with a comic translation by a local DJ in Swahili and Sheng (Kenyan slang).
The 35-year-old father of three has been in the video business since 2004 and says that most of his customers prefer watching Chinese movies either with subtitles or with a local translation.
Long before the arrival of and switch to digital television in Africa, many families and local cinema halls were already viewing and showing Chinese movies. Young men and women would pay as little as 5 Kenyan shillings (5 cents) to enjoy a kung fu movie that would probably be in Mandarin.
“They want to follow movies about Chinese culture and way of life. Sometimes you find a movie about a very valuable artefact that used to exist and an actor is tasked with finding it and bringing it back to the present day, where it’s kept and treasured,” Biegon said.
Biegon is nicknamed Bruce Lee, and says that the name came about long before he ventured into the film-showing business.
“I used to wear a black belt and a t-shirt tucked in, and when I played pool, I won just like Bruce Lee had done in one of his movies. This is how I got the name and it has stuck with me for close to 20 years,” Biegon explained.
Chinese Soft Power
Watching Chinese movies might seem like innocent fun, but experts say it’s a clever method that the Chinese communist regime has used to gradually advance its soft power penetration in Africa.
“The media is a very powerful tool that can be used for propaganda by politicians and government at large. This is because people believe what they are told by those they trust,” said Dorcas Kebenei, a communications lecturer at Kabarak University, located in Western Kenya.
“Governments take advantage of the media to influence decisions of the common people. This follows the agenda-setting theory that media sets the agenda for the day. Media uses persuasive techniques to change people’s attitudes, and in the Chinese case, the government will show the good roads they have constructed, including SGR [standard gauge railway] and other new technologies. The messages are presented in a pleasing manner.”
In Kenjoiyet village, Faith Bett is enjoying an evening news program with her two children. They are connected to digital television via StarTimes, a Chinese media company founded in 1988 by Pang Xinxing, a Chinese businessman.
“We watch and know many things about China and other parts of the world just in the comfort of our own home. I love to follow Chinese Asian politics through CGTN [China Global Television Network], because some of the news anchors there are as popular as they were on Kenyan television before they went there,” Bett explained.
In East Africa, StarTimes has a dedicated Swahili channel named StarTimes Swahili. It shows Chinese kung fu movies and soap operas, all fully translated into Swahili so that viewers can understand what the characters are saying.
“At night, we enjoy a Chinese soap opera in Swahili. We used to watch Mexican and Filipino soaps back in the day, but not many would understand English so well. There is a lot of comfort in watching a soap opera in Swahili. We get to learn more about Chinese love and relationship issues,” Bett said.
In December 2015, during the sixth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Johannesburg, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced an ambitious project to reach 10,000 impoverished villages in Africa with digital television. The StarTimes digital television company was awarded the contract to undertake the project.
“China has carried out image-building strategies which are seen to be creating economic relations,” Kebenei said. “China has attractive issues like culture, which is well embedded in Africa. … On the other hand, China’s ‘help’ for Africans is questionable as the Africans will have to pay either in kind or in cash.”
In June last year, the Chinese government, working in partnership with Kenya’s Ministry of Information, Communications, and Technology, launched the 800 Villages Digital Television Project. Through the project, 16,000 individual homes across all 47 counties in the country will be connected to satellite television via a satellite dish, a high-definition set-top box, or other devices.
StarTimes Kenya was awarded the contract at a cost of $8 million, paid for by the Chinese government.
“China’s intention appears to be the reduction of the digital divide by providing access to satellite television under the pretext of supporting the entertainment industry and boosting the socioeconomic development of the community,” Kebenei said.
“This gives China a platform and therein tools for spreading their messages and brainwashing Africans towards accepting their policies and governance, more like neo-colonialism.”