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

His small home in Limuru village has no running water and its walls are made of corrugated metal. Yet outside, where the chickens roam the yard, the father-of-two, who repairs the 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 beamed from Beijing .

"It's good to have a lot of 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."

In 2015, Xi announced the 10,000 Villages Project, and plans to take digital television to the underprivileged 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 the old-fashioned, snowy analog reception.

Xi's dream was to upgrade the vast swathes of Africa to modern, digital satellite TV networks, which could broadcast a constellation of channels over long distances ̵

1; 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.

StarTimes has been the Chinese government's primary contractor to carry out the 10,000 Villages Project, paving the way for the Beijing-based

And it would boost the fortunes and power of one important Chinese company that otherwise holds a low profile. 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, China's television shows are being shown in the homes of 10 million subscribers in 30 African countries, pushing 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 were 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's situation is parallel to the 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.

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 did not prevent famine from taking one million lives in Ethiopia in the 1980s, stemmed from the scourge of AIDS, or stopped and a brutal genocide of 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 setting military bases, little energy went into doing real business in Africa .

Meanwhile, China took a completely different approach

 A StarTimes transmission site in Limuru, Kenya. Satellite dishes receive content from China, uplink it from Kenya, and beam it out across the country.
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 charged about $ 70 a month for a subscription – a huge fee on a continent where GDP per capita was around $ 700 a year.

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 a perfect timing in another way.

A 2006 United Nations treaty has been tasked with African countries making the 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 to invest – and to find a company (196590029) This gave StarTimes another revenue stream – building and operating the digital TV infrastructure of nations

 A StarTimes transmission site in Limuru, Kenya

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 Dani Madrid-Morales, an associate professor of communications at the University of Houston, has 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 have started joining the market, said Madrid-Morales.

But StarTimes almost always won.

Nearly two decades later, the China-Africa summit President Zemin hosted in 2000 has become one of the most important diplomatic events in many African nation's calendars.

In 2018, virtually every African head of state descended on Beijing for China-Africa Cooperation Forum to secure a slice of $ 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. mothership on the outskirts of the capital. "I do not think any head of the BBC has had one-on-one meetings with so many African heads of state," said Madrid-Morales.

Befriending governments have been crucial to 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 been fully backing Beijing in doing so.

StarTimes is the only private Chinese company with authorization from the Ministry of Commerce to operate in foreign countries' radio and TV industries. In addition, 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 nation's TV networks has sparked headlines such as " StarTimes plots to take over Africa's public broadcasters "- echoing concerns that Internet security experts have expressed over 5G Huawei's giant and how his ties to the Chinese state could compromise other nation's communications infrastructure
 A receptionist sits at her desk in the lobby

In Zambia, for example, StarTimes entered into the office of the StarTimes headquarters in Nairobi. and a joint venture called TopStar with the state broadcaster ZNBC to help make the switch to digital TV. The deal gave the Chinese player a 60% share in the state broadcaster for 25 years.

Josephat Nchungo, an international trade analyst at the University of Zambia, said: "The primary objective of this partnership is to make sure that StarTimes has taken effective control of the country's television network. "StarTimes has been so controversial because people have interpreted it as a sale of state broadcast to the Chinese, and hence the loss of sovereignty." [19659010] 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 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 pushes back on, saying the company "does not control any country's TV network and does not have the capacity to spark media black outs." [196590010] While the viewers in the West increasingly consume content through online streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, the prevalence of pay-as-you-go data contracts in Africa makes it expensive to watch shows on these types of services.

 StarTimes subscriber Purity Njambi watches television with her children, from left, James Ngugi, Margaret Wahu and Agnes Wambui at their home in Ndumbuini village. </noscript> </div>
<p> George Mbuthia, research analyst at East and West Africa, at IDC, said: "Although video streaming services it's on the rise in Africa, for the majority of the population, mobile video streaming remains out of reach, due to poor connectivity and high cost associated with live streaming. "</p>
<p> There are also economic concerns in the deals that StarTimes has made. </p>
<p> To pay for the $ 271 million contract, for example, Zambia took out loans from China's Export-Import Bank. "In order for partnerships to happen, the African country must usually take money from Exim Bank," said Lewis. </p>
<p> Haggai Kanenga, from the Department of Development Studies at the University of Zambia, said: "It's just one example of how Beijing benefits when StarTimes prospers. "In the Zambia, they are widely viewed as one." </p>
<p><h3> A hard play for soft power </h3>
<p> While StarTimes chased large government contracts to operate digital TV infrastructure, it also wooed consumers with cheap TV packages </p>
<p> From the beginning, the Chinese startup was regularly offering more channels than MultiChoice, the South African market leader in Anglophone Africa, and Canal + in French-speaking countries – and for half the price. Consumers could get StarTimes cable and satellite TV packages for as little as $ 4 a month. </p>
<p> Competitors often complained that they were facing unfair competition because StarTimes was so cheap, Madrid-Morales said. But there was little they could do. </p>
<p> The content offering by StarTimes included the kind of Filipino and Turkish soap opera that audiences in places like Kenya have been watching for years. But it added Chinese dramas and Kung Fu films to the mix – the latter proved so popular that StarTimes launched the StarTimes Kung Fu TV channel dedicated to them. </p>
<p> While not overtly political, Chinese dramas were carefully curated to portray China as a modern, urban place, said Madrid-Morales – despite the fact that about half of China's population still lives in the countryside. The idea, he says, was to portray China as a wealthy, modernizing country. </p>
<p> That aspirational narrative worked. One Chinese drama "A Beautiful Daughter-in-Law Era" – about the intermarriage of a rural migrant woman to an urban man – proved wildly popular in Africa in the early days after being translated into Swahili, Madrid-Morales said. </p>
<div class=
 An orange StarTimes satellite sits atop a home in the village of Ndumbuini

In 2011, the company established a vast translation campus on the outskirts of Beijing, where it hired mostly foreign staff to voice Chinese dramas into English and African languages ​​including Swahili and Yoruba. The StarTimes Dubbing Contest scoured African countries seeking voice actors to be whisked into China to narrate new content.

There was also another key component to StarTimes' programming: pro-Chinese news

The cheapest TV packages only gave viewers access to Al Jazeera and China's Global Television Network (CGTN) – a state-owned news broadcaster that is part of Xi's soft power mission to "tell the story China well." That has often translated into reporting news with a pro-China slant, to such an extent that in the United States, CGTN recently had to register as a foreign agent under anti-propaganda laws. One example of China's outbreak of Ebola outbreak, for example, found that 17% of stories by CGTN (referred to as China) emphasized the role of its doctors in relief efforts. In fact, China had spent much less than the US, United Kingdom and Germany fighting the disease.

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

A huge turning point

In a flashy business district in downtown Nairobi, Japhet Akhulia is celebrating at StarTimes' new glass headquarters.

After another round of price slashing, StarTimes has hit 1.5 million subscribers in Kenya, putting it just behind the established MultiChoice player, says Akhulia, brand marketing director for the company in the East African country.

 Japhet Akhulia is the director of brand marketing at StarTimes Kenya.

StarTimes has been in Kenya In the year 2018, Beijing gave Akhulia's team 800 million Kenyan shillings (roughly $ 7.8 million) to roll out the 10,000 Villages project in China, Kenya. That money would take StarTimes to an additional 16,000 households and 2,400 public institutions, such as schools and hospitals, across the country for free.

In most of the villages where StarTimes installs TV for free, the wall is painted with the flags of Kenya and China side by side. That StarTimes enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing is clear: the company is paid to execute the 10,000 Villages Project, and gains more customers from doing so.

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

This symbiotic relationship has caused people like Lewis to question how private StarTimes really is

has never given an interview to Western media, allowing him to answer such allegations. As the StarTimes' founder's fortunes have amassed, he has kept an assiduously low profile even on matters such as whether or not he is a Communist Party member.

When asked about the government's relationship with StarTimes, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing said via fax: "The Chinese government is always encouraging quality and reputable Chinese enterprises to develop in Africa."

"It is not easy to carry out the 10,000 villages project. In fact, the project has earned extensive recognition from local governments and people, "the spokesperson continued. Zambian President Edgar Lungu said several times that China-Zambia relations are mutually beneficial, and any distorted publicity can not stop us from advancing our friendship for the Zambia. reciprocal principles and benefits. "

Localized content

Sande Bush is a comedian known as Dr. Ofweneke. But recently he was wondering if his stage name should be Dr. Love. That's because Bush is the co-presenter of the hit dating TV show "Hello, Mr. Right," which pairs Kenyans with potential love matches.

"Actually, men have proposed on air," says Bush. "These guys were literally just falling in love at first sight. It was beautiful."

"Hello, Mr. Right" is important because it was StarTimes' first foray in producing African-made content in Kenya, having already successfully tested the waters in Nigeria. The project shows how the Chinese company is evolving in local markets to maintain its foothold.

While conceived and directed by Chinese executives, the format of the show was shaped by its African co-hosts Bush and Vera Sadika. "We were very modern and we know what's trendy," said Sadika.

 Comedian Dr. Ofweneke is the co-host of the popular StarTimes dating show " Hello, Mr. Right. "

As StarTimes secured its stronghold in Africa, creating localized content was key to growing its position in the market – and warding off Western competitors, who having seen the success of Chinese companies like StarTimes and Transsion on the continent. Meanwhile Netflix has been painfully slow to the continent. It finally entered Africa in 2016 – but even then it encountered criticism for demanding too much bandwidth for many slow internet connections in the region, where many people still have pay-as-you-go data contracts. Good internet speeds can be prohibitively expensive

"The Africa is a scientific experiment for the creative industries of China," said Lewis, noting that the underdeveloped market in Africa often gives entrepreneurs a blank slate to play with.

The more Chinese firms invest and experiment in Africa, the more their dominance on the market is entrenched on the continent – and the more Beijing's soft power grows. While Spotify and Apple Music target mostly users in developed markets, Boomplay, which is owned by two Chinese companies, has become the largest streaming music service in Africa; it has 46 million users on the continent with a catalog of five million videos and songs, according to the company's figures
 The Chinese phone giant who beat Apple to Africa

This early adoption advantage is what StarTimes has been banking on for decades, as it hoovers government contracts and customers, from poor to elite, sewing up television markets across the continent. As the African continent continues to migrate to digital TV, StarTimes' subscriber base is predicted to jump to 14.85 million by 2024, according to Digital TV Research, putting it ahead of MultiChoice.

That will only deepen China's influence in a region that the West once saw as "the Hopeless Continent." But should African nations be worried about StarTimes' influence and relationship with Beijing, in the same way West is about Huawei

Madrid-Morales does not think so. The potential negative consequences of having StarTimes dominate Africa's television networks are still just possibilities, he said. Second, the costs associated with building these networks are enormous.

Many countries could not have done it without Beijing

"In the tradeoff between letting go of some sovereignty and building a state-of-the-art telecommunications network, most African countries have chosen the latter," he

CNN's Serenitie Wang also contributed to this report

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