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

His small house in the village of Limuru has no running water and its walls are made of corrugated iron. But outside, where chickens roam the yard, the two-time father, who repairs his livelihood shoes, has a large Chinese satellite dish that connects his old television set with hundreds of channels – many of which are blasted from Beijing.

"It's good to have many TV channels," said Nganga, who was limited to a few local Kenyan channels before the Chinese court. "Because you know how the world changes every day."

Xi Jinping, the president of China, owes Nganga's connection to the world directly.

In 2015, Xi announced the 10,000-Village Project, a high-level plan to bring digital television to impoverished parts of Africa, like the village where Nganga lives. Previously, TV access was a privilege of the elite in many parts of the continent, and those who were connected relied on an old-fashioned, snow-covered analogue reception.

Xi's dream was to equip vast sections of Africa with modern digital satellite television networks capable of transmitting a constellation of channels over long distances ̵

1; until a television channel from Beijing could be broadcast to African households.

This was more than just a philanthropic gesture.

It was a stroke of the soft-power genius that would increase China's popularity among Africans while giving Beijing a better overview of the continent's communications infrastructure and control over how it is portrayed in the media.

And it would strengthen the fortune and power of a major Chinese corporation that would otherwise be in the background.

StarTimes was the prime contractor to the Chinese government, which completed the 10,000-village project and paved the way for the Beijing-based company – not one of its US and European media competitors – to dominate the African market with 1.2 billion people , A spokesman for StarTimes said it was "important" for Beijing to "work with an experienced and cost-conscious company for the contract."

Today, the company broadcasts Chinese television broadcasts into the homes of 10 million subscribers in 30 African countries, transmits China's state-owned propaganda news network to households via Western news networks and controls television channels to such an extent in Zambia and Kenya. There were fears that Companies in these countries could obscure televisions if they so wished.

While channels like the BBC are reaching more people and South African distributor MultiChoice has more subscribers, StarTimes' reach is worrying for some critics: does the Beijing-affiliated company now have too much power over African TV channels?

In many ways, StarTimes' situation is parallel to Huawei, the more well-known communications giant, who is opposed to global criticism of control over 5G Internet networks and connections to Beijing. Unlike Huawei, StarTimes has become one of the most powerful soft power tools in Africa – without much of the world knowing its name.

That's how it happened.

The Opportunity for Africa

In 2000, The Economist published a cover story about Africa titled "The Hopeless Continent". The headline correctly pointed out that it was a pity that much of the Western world considered the African continent at that time: In the 1980s, $ 1 trillion in development aid did not prevent famine in Ethiopia from claiming one million lives, the AIDS Scourge contained or stopped a brutal genocide committed in Rwanda in the 1990s, with approximately the same number of slaughterings.

Auxiliary dollars were used to alleviate the guilt of the West over what British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the "world scar", but apart from oil drilling and military base construction, little energy was spilled in Africa put real business.

In the meantime, China took a completely different approach.

  A StarTimes broadcasting site in Limuru, Kenya. Satellite dishes receive content from China, relay it from Kenya and broadcast it nationwide.

The same year, in the Economist Cover, Chinese President Jiang Zemin invited heads from the state across Africa to participate in the China-Africa Opening Forum in Beijing to discuss how the two regions could work together better.

In the mid-2000s, the Chinese government encouraged entrepreneurs to go abroad and build closer ties with African nations as part of their "go out" strategy.

Chinese entrepreneurs seeking to gain a foothold in emerging markets began to move to Africa. For example, George Zhu went to Nigeria and launched Transsion, which sells cheap multi-SIM mobile phones and now has the largest smartphone share on the continent. Ren Zhengfei led Huawei to Kenya, a country unfazed by Western concerns about the company's ties to Beijing. And not long after, TV enthusiast Pang Xinxing decided to relocate its telecommunications company StarTimes from China, where the TV market was rapidly saturated, to Africa.
Pang reported a largely underdeveloped market where many families did not have a TV or shared one with multiple households. "Even if there is a TV, they can only see two or three channels, digital TV is beyond their imagination," he said in 2002. Also, there was usually only one strong company in each country, and users were about 70 US Dollars billed a month for a subscription – a huge fee on a continent where per capita GDP at that time was about $ 700 a year.

Pang saw a chance for a low-cost TV provider. Today, StarTimes has some of the world's cheapest digital TV packages, which can only cost $ 4 a month.

His arrival was also in other ways a perfect timing.

A 2006 United Nations contract mandated African countries to switch from snowy, unreliable analog signals to digital by 2015. It was a deadline that almost all African governments missed, but the pressure was on investing-and finding a company that could help them do that.

This gave StarTimes another source of revenue – building and operating nations' digital TV infrastructure.

  A StarTimes broadcasting station in Limuru, Kenya.

In 2007, Pang received the company's first digital TV license in Rwanda. Next year, StarTimes launched Rwanda's digital TV platform, which offered more than 30 channels to Rwandans for $ 3 to $ 5 per month, including four Chinese channels from the largest state television station in mainland China.

When contracts came to shut down and digitize governments' analog networks, "StarTimes was the only rival company," said Dani Madrid-Morales, a deputy communications professor at Houston University who studied the company as a graduate student while studying the City University of Hong Kong. "Then [Pang] could prove that StarTimes has experience in African countries and offers very reasonable prices."

Other competitors began to join the market, said Madrid-Morales.

But StarTimes has almost always won.

Control of the air waves of a continent?

Nearly two decades later, the China-Africa Summit that President Zemin held in 2000 was one of the most important diplomatic events in the calendars of many African nations.

In 2018, virtually every African head of state traveled to the China-Africa Cooperation Forum in Beijing to receive some of the $ 60 billion in development loans and deals offered.

During their stay in the capital, leaders from Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia, the Central African Republic, Malawi, Ghana and Uganda had an important date.
They visited Pang at the big StarTimes mothership on the edge of the capital. "I do not think a BBC leader has had one-on-one talks with so many African heads of state," Madrid-Morales said winning state contracts to help countries make the transition from analog to digital television.

Angela Lewis, a Ph.D. student in Nottingham University's international communications department in Ningbo, China, who has been researching the company for years, said the company fully supported Beijing.

StarTimes is the only private Chinese company authorized by the Ministry of Commerce to operate in the foreign radio and television industry. In addition, China's state-owned EXIM bank has provided the company with several hundred million dollars of credit to enter the African market. StarTimes claims to be a private company that pursues business goals while maintaining "cordial relationships with the mother state".
The notion that a company so closely tied to Beijing has control of the television channels of many African nations has sparked headlines such as "StarTimes plans to overtake public service broadcasters in Africa" ​​- based on the Internet security experts worry about the 5G giant Huawei and how its ties to the Chinese state could endanger the communications infrastructure of other nations.
  A receptionist sits at her desk in the lobby of StarTimes headquarters in Nairobi.

In Zambia, for example, StarTimes entered a joint venture called TopStar with state broadcaster ZNBC to help the country transition to digital television. The deal gave the Chinese player a 60% stake in the state broadcaster for 25 years. This split in favor of the Chinese partner has led critics to fear that StarTimes has 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 to provide the digital television infrastructure, and the secondary objective is to share culture and knowledge between the two countries." StarTimes has been so controversial that it was interpreted as a sale of state broadcasting to the Chinese and thus as a loss of sovereignty. "[19659010] Similar concerns were voiced regarding deals in Ghana by the Independent Broadcasters & # 39; Association and Kenya, where StarTimes also collaborated with government broadcasters to operate the new digital network.

"Madrid-Morales said," the country's television stations would stop working. In essence, StarTimes has the power to turn off some countries' TV channels. if it wants. "This is a claim that represses StarTimes and states that the company" does not control a country's television network and is unable to trigger media blackouts. "

This is important because satellite television is the preferred option for many Africans and lower cost option.

While viewers in the West are increasingly consuming content through online streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, pay-as-you-go is prevalent Data contracts in Africa make it more expensive to watch broadcasts of this type of service. [19659042] StarTimes subscriber Purity Njambi watches TV with her children from the left, James Ngugi, Margaret Wahu and Agnes Wambui at her home in Ndumbuini Village. ” src-mini=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190715144603-05-star-times-kenya-small-169.jpg” src-xsmall=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190715144603-05-star-times-kenya-medium-plus-169.jpg” src-small=”http://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190715144603-05-star-times-kenya-large-169.jpg” src-medium=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190715144603-05-star-times-kenya-exlarge-169.jpg” src-large=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190715144603-05-star-times-kenya-super-169.jpg” src-full16x9=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190715144603-05-star-times-kenya-full-169.jpg” src-mini1x1=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/190715144603-05-star-times-kenya-small-11.jpg” data-demand-load=”not-loaded” data-eq-pts=”mini: 0, xsmall: 221, small: 308, medium: 461, large: 781″/>

George Mbuthia, Research Analyst for East and West Africa at IDC, said: "Although Video Streaming Services In Africa, the increase in the number of mobile video streams is still out of reach for the majority of the population. This is due to the poor connectivity and high cost of live streaming. Few users use mobile phones for streaming, while the majority favor pay-TV. "

There are also economic concerns in the deals completed by StarTimes.

To pay the $ 271 million contract, Zambia, for example, raised loans from the Chinese Export-Import Bank." So that partnerships can be established "The African country usually has to withdraw money from the Exim Bank," Lewis said, adding that countries are burdened with debt to China.

This is just one example of how Beijing benefits from it if StarTimes is good

Haggai Kanenga from the Department of Development Studies at the University of Zambia said: "The loan shows that the money for this project comes from the Chinese government itself, so that both – StarTimes and the Chinese government – can not be separated. In Zambia, they are widely regarded as one. "

A tough piece of soft power

While StarTimes was pursuing large government contracts to operate the digital TV infrastructure, it promoted consumers with cheap TV packages that they could buy on digital networks which often outperformed local competitors.

The Chinese startup regularly offered more channels than MultiChoice, the South African leader in English-speaking Africa, and Canal + in the French-speaking world at half the price – Satellite TV packages received for only $ 4 per month.

Competitors often complained that they were unfairly competitive due to the low price of StarTimes, Madrid-Morales said, but there was little they could do. [19659002] The StarTimes content offering included the type of Filipino and Turkish soap operas that audiences in countries as Kenya has been looking at for years. But Chinese drama and kung fu films have been added – the latter proved so popular that StarTimes launched the StarTimes Kung Fu TV channel dedicated to them.

Although not openly political, the Chinese dramas were carefully curated to portray China as a modern, urban place, Madrid-Morales said – despite the fact that about half of the Chinese population still lives in the countryside. The idea, he says, was to portray China as a prosperous, modernizing country.

This aspirational story worked. A Chinese drama "A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era" about marrying a land migrant to a city man turned out to be hugely popular in Africa in the first few days after its translation into Swahili, Madrid-Morales said.

  An orange StarTimes satellite is located on a house in the village of Ndumbuini.

The company built a vast translation campus on the outskirts of Beijing, employing mostly foreign personnel to broadcast Chinese dramas in English and African, including Swahili and Yoruba , The StarTimes Dubbing Contest roamed African countries looking for voice actors to be brought to China to tell new content.

There was another key component in StarTimes' program: pro-Chinese news.

The cheapest television programs only gave viewers access to Al Jazeera and the China Global Television Network (CGTN) – a state news broadcaster part of Xi's soft power mission to "tell China's story well." This has often been reflected in pro-Chinese coverage, so CGTN in the US recently had to register as a foreign agent under anti-propaganda laws. For example, an analysis of the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014 found that 17% of CGTN's reports (then under a different name) mentioned China and highlighted the role of its doctors in relief efforts. In fact, China spent far less than the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany on fighting the disease.

Western news channels such as the BBC, whose broadcasts in many African countries are not subject to the government censorship they operate in China, were only available with more expensive packages.

A Great Turning Point

In a striking business district in downtown Nairobi, Japhet celebrates Akhulia in StarTimes' new glass headquarters.

After another round of price cuts, StarTimes has reached 1.5 million subscribers in Kenya, just behind the established MultiChoice player, says Akhulia, director of marketing for the company's brand in the East African country.

  Japhet Akhulia is Director Brand Marketing at StarTimes in Kenya.

StarTimes was in Kenya since 2012, but its recent growth has been fueled, at least in part, by the support of President Xi.

In 2018, Beijing Akhulia's team gave 800 million Kenyan shillings (about 7.8 million dollars) to implement the 10,000-village project in Beijing, Kenya. With this money, StarTimes would also be available free of charge to 16,000 households and 2,400 public institutions such as schools and hospitals across the country. Half of that money was spent on equipment and half on implementation costs, including travel for StarTimes employees.

In most of the villages where StarTimes installs television for free, a mural depicting the flags of Kenya and China is painted side by side. It's clear that StarTimes has a mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing: the company is paid to run the 10,000 Villages project, thereby gaining more customers. Xi gets the opportunity to bring Chinese content to households across Africa.

This symbiotic relationship made viewers like Lewis question how private StarTimes really is.

"It's obviously a proxy for the Chinese state," she said.

Pang never gave the Western media an interview that allowed him to respond to such allegations. While the assets of the StarTimes founder have accumulated, he has inconspicuously held himself back in questions such as whether he is a member of the Communist Party or not.

Asked about the Government's relationship with StarTimes, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Beijing Foreign Ministry said, "The Chinese government is always encouraging high-quality, serious Chinese companies to develop in Africa."

"It is not easy to carry out the 10,000-village project Many foreign countries have neither the ability nor the readiness In fact, the project has been widely recognized by local governments and people," the spokesman continued. "Zambian President Edgar Lungu has publicly stated several times that the relationship between China and Zambia benefits both sides, and any distorted public can not stop us to further our friendship. " mutual principles and benefits.

Localized Content

Sande Bush is a comedian by the name of Dr. Ofweneke, but lately he has wondered if his stage name should be Dr. Love Co-host of the hit dating TV show "Hello, Mr. Right," which connects Kenyans with potential lovers.

"Actually, men have proposed on air," Bush says, "These guys literally just got up in love with the first view. It was beautiful. "

" Hello, Mr. Right "is important because it was StarTime's first attempt to produce African content in Kenya after Nigeria's waters were successfully tested Developed businesses in local markets to keep going.

While the show was designed and led by Chinese leaders, it was designed by African co-presenters Bush and Vera Sadika. "It was easy to communicate. We gave them new ideas. We are very modern and know what's in vogue, "said Sadika.

  Comedian Dr. Ofweneke co-hosts the popular StarTimes dating show

With StarTimes securing its stronghold in Africa, the creation of localized content was the key to expanding its position in the market – and warding off its Western competitors, which was the success of Chinese Netflix has become painfully slow on the continent by the end of 2016. It eventually came to Africa in 2016, but it also came under criticism because of many slow Internet connections in the region, where many people still live Contracting over pay-as-you-go data requires too much bandwidth, and good Internet speeds can be prohibitively expensive.

The locomotive StarTimes benefited the local African creative industry, which has received an investment from the Chinese company.

"Africa is a science experiment for China's creative industries," said Lewis, noting that the market is underdeveloped in Africa, often giving entrepreneurs an empty board to play with.

The more Chinese companies invest and experiment in Africa, the more their market dominance is anchored on the continent – and the more Beijing's soft power grows. While Spotify and Apple Music are aimed primarily at developed markets, Boomplay, owned by two Chinese companies, has become the largest streaming music service in Africa. There are 46 million users on the continent, with a catalog of five million videos and songs.
  The Chinese phone giant that hit Apple to Africa

StarTimes relies on this advantage at the premature introduction Decades as it builds government contracts and clients from poor to elitist and networks TV markets across the continent. While the African continent continues to transition to digital television, StarTimes' subscriber base is expected to rise to 14.85 million by 2024 – according to Digital TV Research – ahead of MultiChoice.

This will deepen China's influence only in a region where the West once saw as "the hopeless continent". But should African nations worry about the influence of StarTimes and the relationship with Beijing, as the West means with Huawei?

Madrid-Morales does not believe that. The potential negative consequences of dominating African television broadcasts are just options, he said. Second, the costs associated with building these networks are enormous.

Many countries would not have succeeded without Beijing.

"In the compromise between the loss of some sovereignty and the establishment of a state-of-the-art telecommunications network, most African countries have opted for the latter," he said.

CNN Serenitie Wang also contributed to this report.

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