China Power

How a Pay TV Company Is Serving up a Soft Power Win for China in Africa

StarTimes is making inroads across the continent, and winning fans in the process.

By Angela Lewis for
How a Pay TV Company Is Serving up a Soft Power Win for China in Africa

A StarTimes building — and billboard — in Tanzania.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Ali A. Fazal

According to BuzzFeed News, on February 1 Chinese state television broadcaster CGTN America registered as a foreign agent in the United States, to comply with the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). CGTN America director-general Jing Ma remained upbeat, claiming the registration was not a reflection on the editorial professionalism of staff, but it is bad news for China’s soft power efforts. Registration directly links CGTN America to propaganda messaging of the Chinese state, thereby weakening public diplomacy objectives of building trust and credibility.

Unfortunately, this setback is part of a pattern of failure in Chinese media capacity building since the turn of the 21st century. In 2002, China designated “culture” as an industry and named it as integral to the “going out” policy of internationalization, with the aim of increasing Chinese soft power. Through media content that countered U.S.-Anglo cultural hegemony and anti-China news narratives, it was hoped that the soft power dividends would support China’s geopolitical and economic interests. According to David Shambaugh at George Washington University, China spends $10 billion a year on efforts to improve soft power, but thus far, the track record of the Chinese film and television industries has been abysmal. CGTN breaks no international news, not helped by the fact that content must be sanctioned by Beijing. With regards to cinema, ticket sales of domestically popular Chinese films were limp elsewhere in 2018, with films such as Operation Red Sea, Detective Chinatown 2, and Dying to Survive barely leaving an imprint on box offices of international markets. Chinese media is — generally speaking — considered neither attractive nor influential to non-Chinese.

But there is one continent where China’s international push for media influence is making inroads, with the help of a state affiliated but privately-held pay television company. StarTimes, with content focused on sport and entertainment, is partnering with African state broadcasters and other organisations to provide both new channels and digital satellite infrastructure. Its influence is only likely to increase, as research predicts that this company will be the biggest beneficiary of the pay TV market subscription growth in the coming years in Africa. Digital TV Research claims StarTimes subscribers, currently at around 7.75 million, will have jumped to 14.85 million by 2024.

StarTimes, founded in 1988 in Beijing, is both a beneficiary of economic diplomacy and a creator of unprecedented access for African television consumers. Despite being private, it is funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars by Chinese state banks as part of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) agreements. It is contracted by Beijing to implement Africa’s ITU digital switchover process and provide new channels for African television, a sector characterized by poor resources in finances, staff training, and technology.

Aside from digital migration, to widen access, StarTimes money has been carving out the new subscriber landscape. The company traverses vast but previously disregarded territories in within countries such as Uganda, Zambia, Guinea, Botswana, Ghana, Senegal, and the Democratic Republic of Congo for an operation called the 10,000 Villages Project. This provides digital satellite television to rural regions of sub-Saharan Africa, venturing into parts of the continent left unserved by former colonial powers Britain and France. These populations were also not a priority for Cold War rivals the United States and the Soviet Union and were not a lucrative enough customer base during TV de-regulation and marketization in the 1990s, which delivered pay television to urban African elites. But now, in regions with deficient electricity, StarTimes partners with solar energy companies such as Azuri Technologies and Mobisol in nations including Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Kenya, offering low-cost subscriptions and hardware installation packages. DStv, owned by MultiChoice which is part of South Africa’s Naspers, targets the most affluent viewers, offering the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League, but StarTimes is step-by-step making incursions at the cheaper end, providing the Europa League, Bundesliga, and last year’s FIFA World Cup.

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As a result of this economic diplomacy, China benefits in numerous ways. Local officials act as “borrowed boats,” praising China profusely when the 10,000 Villages Project reaches their region. This is a soft power drive that potentially delivers China intelligence gathering penetration deeper than any other foreign country. Additionally, it is snapping up broadcasting rights deals, which might reap intellectual property rewards in the future. It sponsors national leagues in Ghana, Uganda, and  Senegal, thereby creating leagues that it can broadcast on its newly created channels.

But this economic and soft power push has not been without controversy. While it curries favor by sponsoring sports writer associations, among those not drinking the Kool Aid is Gregory Chifire, a Zambian anti-corruption critic. He is particularly concerned about TopStar Communications, a partnership that hands StarTimes 60 percent of Zambia’s state-owned broadcaster, ZNBC, for 25 years. Chifire blasts the deal as “one of the biggest financial scandals in modern-day Zambia.” Meanwhile, the Guardian newspaper quotes the Ghana Independent Broadcasters Association (GIBA) as warning that “If StarTimes is allowed to control Ghana’s digital transmission infrastructure and the satellite space … Ghana would have virtually submitted its broadcast space to Chinese control and content.”

In addition, as with other areas of China’s media internationalization, StarTimes has not met expectations. It was hoping for 20 million subscribers by 2019. Chief Executive Officer Justin Zhang was replaced on February 1 by David Zhang.

But others admire StarTimes’ contribution to change. A partnership with charity SOS Villages helps boost the company’s credibility, while production companies utilize StarTimes’ resources for local language programming, encouraging Africans to take up subscriptions.

Since it is undoubtedly a state proxy for Beijing, this aiding of African broadcasting is a win for Chinese soft power. China would be better off continuing to deploy more non-state actors, another example being Alibaba Pictures, the Chinese backers of award season smash Green Book. While CGTN America’s state-owned status is a turn off, private content partnerships and collaborations are a model of soft power that any average American could warm to – and that people across Africa are already embracing.

Angela Lewis is a Ph.D. candidate in the International Communications department of Nottingham University in Ningbo, China.