Beam­ing into Kenya homes

A Bei­jing satel­lite TV com­pany gets the Chi­nese mes­sage across

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Kaiman

KA­JI­ADO, Kenya — It took the StarTimes satel­lite TV sales­man about 30 min­utes to in­stall a pipe­line for Chi­nese pro­pa­ganda into Fran­cis Gi­tonga’s squat, cin­der-block home here in south­ern Kenya, near Africa’s Great Rift Val­ley.

First, he climbed onto Gi­tonga’s roof, drilled a satel­lite dish onto the chim­ney, and dan­gled some wires through the door frame. He plugged it all into a StarTimes set-top box, and turned it on.

Gi­tonga, 43, flipped through the chan­nels, and Chi­nese pro­grams filled the screen: an old kung fu movie, a Chi­nese news broad­cast, a Chi­nese doc­u­men­tary about Japan’s wartime atroc­i­ties, most dubbed into English.

Gi­tonga was elated. His new dig­i­tal TV pack­age gave him bet­ter re­cep­tion than he’d once thought pos­si­ble in Ka­ji­ado, a small town on the sa­van­nah where Ma­sai tribes­men wan­der past rick­ety store­fronts and goats clus­ter in the shade.

“I didn’t know about China be­fore,” he said. “I can say it’s good. They have changed this coun­try in a big way, very fast.”

Although StarTimes — a pri­vately owned, Bei­jing­based me­dia and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions firm — is vir­tu­ally un­known in the West, it has been sweep­ing across Africa since 2002,

over­haul­ing the con­ti­nent’s broad­cast in­fra­struc­ture and beam­ing Chi­nese con­tent into mil­lions of homes. It has sub­sidiaries in 30 African coun­tries, in­clud­ing such war-torn states as the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo and the Cen­tral African Repub­lic.

“Our aim is to en­able ev­ery African house­hold to af­ford dig­i­tal TV, watch good dig­i­tal TV and en­joy the dig­i­tal life,” StarTimes Vice Chair­man Guo Ziqi told China’s of­fi­cial New China News Agency in De­cem­ber.

But there’s a catch. StarTimes has sub­stan­tial back­ing from the Chi­nese state — and an ex­plicit po­lit­i­cal man­date.

China’s re­la­tion­ship with Africa — for decades de­fined by re­source-for-in­fra­struc­ture deals — is evolv­ing, as Africa be­comes wealth­ier and China’s for­eign pol­icy ob­jec­tives grow more am­bi­tious.

Bei­jing has in­vested bil­lions of dol­lars into “soft power” cam­paigns aimed at con­vinc­ing the world that China is a cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal suc­cess story. Yet be­yond China’s borders, its heav­ily cen­sored state me­dia broad­casts go mostly un­watched; its news­pa­pers go un­read; and out­siders of­ten con­tinue to as­so­ciate China with pol­lu­tion, opac­ity and re­pres­sion.

StarTimes sig­nals a change in tack, one that high­lights the depth and com­plex­ity of Bei­jing’s ef­forts to win hearts and minds — with much of that ef­fort now be­ing di­rected at Africa, one of the world’s great emerg­ing me­dia mar­kets.

As a dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture provider, StarTimes is help­ing African states tran­si­tion from ana­log tele­vi­sion — a tech­nol­ogy akin to FM ra­dio, rife with snow, static and dropped sig­nals — to dig­i­tal, which en­sures high­qual­ity im­age and sound. As a pay-TV com­pany, it is stack­ing its net­works with pro-China broad­casts.

As both, it is ma­te­ri­ally im­prov­ing the lives of count­less Africans, then mak­ing China’s role in those im­prove­ments im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore.

“There’s a huge ide­o­log­i­cal el­e­ment” to StarTimes’ African op­er­a­tions, said Dani Madrid-Mo­rales, a doc­toral fel­low at the City Univer­sity of Hong Kong who has re­searched the com­pany. “It’s a huge ef­fort to get Africans to un­der­stand China. Even the se­lec­tion of TV shows is very care­fully done. It’s very spe­cific shows that show­case an ur­ban China, a grow­ing China, a non­con­tro­ver­sial view of China.”

Pang Xinx­ing, StarTimes’ chief ex­ec­u­tive, who could not be reached for com­ment, has told Chi­nese state me­dia that he ex­panded to Africa to counter “ex­ag­ger­ated and bi­ased re­ports” about China in the Western me­dia.

“There’s a mind­ful­ness among China’s lead­er­ship that China doesn’t get fair treat­ment over­seas, and some­thing needs to be done about it,” Madrid-Mo­rales said.

StarTimes es­tab­lished its Kenyan sub­sidiary in 2012; now, it has 1.4 mil­lion sub­scribers, ac­count­ing for nearly half of Kenya’s payTV sub­scrip­tions. Its cheap­est pack­age, called “Novo,” costs about $4 per month. Novo fea­tures a mix of Kenyan and Chi­nese chan­nels, in­clud­ing sev­eral be­long­ing to the Chi­nese state-run broad­caster, the China Global Tele­vi­sion Net­work, or CGTN.

Ac­cess to other in­ter­na­tional chan­nels, such as Al Jazeera, France 24 and BBC — which are more in­clined to por­tray China in a neg­a­tive light — costs more than most Kenyans can af­ford.

In De­cem­ber 2016, StarTimes launched a “pi­lot pro­gram” in Ka­ji­ado “as part of its long-term agenda” to bring dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion to ru­ral Kenyans, ac­cord­ing to the state-run China Daily. The com­pany gave free StarTimes set-top boxes and sub­scrip­tions to 120 house­holds. Sun Zhi­jun, a Chi­nese vice min­is­ter over­see­ing pro­pa­ganda and me­dia cen­sor­ship, trav­eled to Ka­ji­ado for the in­au­gu­ral cel­e­bra­tion.

By Jan­uary, StarTimes was ev­ery­where in town — bright or­ange StarTimes ad­ver­tise­ments glowed on school­house walls, and StarTimes satel­lite dishes sprouted like car­na­tions from cor­ru­gated sheet­metal roofs.

The Ka­ji­ado project “is be­ing sub­si­dized by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment,” Mark Lis­boa, StarTimes Kenya’s vice pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing, ac­knowl­edged, with­out giv­ing an amount.

The com­pany “em­barked on a mas­sive sales drive” fol­low­ing Kenya’s switch to dig­i­tal TV in­fra­struc­ture in 2014, he said; it now em­ploys 1,100 peo­ple, most of them Kenyan. He added that StarTimes will be­gin build­ing an Africa head­quar­ters, a dub­bing cen­ter and pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties within the year. “This is just the be­gin­ning, I’ll put it that way,” he said.

China’s foot­print across Kenya spreads far be­yond ac­cess to the air­waves. As in the rest of Africa, China has been in­vest­ing heav­ily in in­fra­struc­ture. But as China’s im­pact deep­ens, Kenyans have of­ten re­acted with sus­pi­cion. They blame China for steal­ing lo­cal jobs. They fear that China — Kenya’s largest cred­i­tor — is sad­dling the coun­try with un­man­age­able debt, and that Chi­nese in­fra­struc­ture projects are en­dan­ger­ing the coun­try’s pris­tine na­tional parks, some of the world’s most bio­di­verse.

In late May, a Kenyan del­e­ga­tion signed a $2-bil­lion deal with a Chi­nese firm for a 1,050-megawatt coal-fired power plant about 13 miles north of Lamu Old Town, a UNESCO World Her­itage site and the old­est Swahili set­tle­ment in East Africa. Crit­ics say the project could pol­lute the air, dam­age fish­ing grounds and push hun­dreds of res­i­dents off their land. Lo­cals were out­raged that the Chi­nese com­pany, China Power Global, would im­port 40% of work­ers on the project from China.

Lamu res­i­dents have staged si­lent protests, march­ing through the town bear­ing anti-coal plac­ards, and though the Kenya Na­tional En­vi­ron­ment Man­age­ment Au­thor­ity signed off on the project last year, the plant’s fate re­mains un­de­cided.

To get a sense of what’s at stake for China in Kenya, visit Nairobi Na­tional Park, a pris­tine na­ture pre­serve in the cap­i­tal city’s shadow, where ze­bras graze against a back­drop of sky­scrapers.

China pro­vided most of the fund­ing, in loans and in­vest­ment, for a $3.8-bil­lion rail­way join­ing Nairobi and the Kenyan port city Mom­basa, 380 miles away — part of which will cut through the park. The line opened in June; its high con­crete pil­lars rise like a mi­rage from the dry, yel­low sa­van­nah.

The new train will travel at an av­er­age of 74 mph, cut­ting trans­porta­tion time be­tween the two cities from about 10 hours to five; it will trans­port 22 mil­lion tons of cargo per year. Ul­ti­mately, it could an­chor a Chi­ne­se­backed rail net­work stretch­ing into South Su­dan, Uganda, Rwanda and Bu­rundi, where trans­porta­tion net­works are now rudi­men­tary, con­sist­ing mainly of di­lap­i­dated roads and re­mote airstrips. Im­proved ac­cess to ports could im­prove trade and open mar­kets.

But crit­ics in Kenya say the rail­way is over­priced, cost­ing a fifth of the na­tional bud­get, and could put Kenya in debt for gen­er­a­tions — 90% of the project was funded through loans from the Ex­port-Im­port Bank of China, of­ten known sim­ply as China ExIm Bank.

Some of the de­lib­er­a­tions with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials over the project hap­pened be­hind closed doors, draw­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion — though no one has of­fered much be­yond sus­pi­cion.

“In my opin­ion, the [rail] project is one of the big­gest scan­dals ever wit­nessed in Kenya,” Kenyan politi­cian Joshua Odongo Onono wrote in a com­men­tary last year. “May God have mercy on us.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have raised a loud alarm about the rail line’s ef­fect on wildlife. The flurry of ini­tial con­struc­tion is thought to have led to the deaths of 10 ele­phants. Sev­eral li­ons es­caped from the park — one of which died — and some have blamed that, too, on the con­struc­tion ac­tiv­ity, though that’s less clear.

Pro­test­ers gath­ered out­side the Chi­nese Em­bassy in Nairobi, chant­ing, “ExIm China, re­spect our laws!”

“It’s heart­break­ing,” said Paula Kahumbu, the Nairobi-based CEO of the con­ser­va­tion­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion WildlifeDirect. “We’re con­cerned that if they can get away with this in the cap­i­tal city, God knows what could hap­pen else­where.”

The con­tro­ver­sies were barely re­ported by Chi­nese news out­lets in Kenya.

Those re­ports have tended to fo­cus on the rail line’s ef­fi­ciency, eco­nomic ben­e­fits and am­bi­tion. “The line is ex­pected to speed up the trans­for­ma­tion of the East­ern African re­gion as a whole,” re­ported CGTN in Septem­ber.

Kevin Otiende, a former em­ployee in CGTN’s Nairobi bu­reau, said that its Kenyan jour­nal­ists had lit­tle say over what ul­ti­mately went on air. “I felt per­son­ally, there was no free­dom of ex­pres­sion,” he said. “Ev­ery­thing had to be nice. And any­thing that was not per­ceived to be cor­rect was im­me­di­ately killed.”

Chi­nese busi­ness ad­vo­cates paint Bei­jing’s me­dia in­vest­ments as a win-win for Chi­nese in­vestors and African con­sumers — and an im­por­tant pre­req­ui­site to China’s on­go­ing am­bi­tions on the con­ti­nent.

Huang Hongx­i­ang, the Nairobi-based founder of China House Kenya, which pro­vides con­sult­ing ser­vices to Chi­nese com­pa­nies in the coun­try, said that if China does not take steps to im­prove its im­age in Africa, “there will be con­flicts sooner or later re­sult­ing from mis­un­der­stand­ings.”

“Why would China want to do the rail­way? Of course it’s be­cause it’s ben­e­fi­cial to China’s econ­omy and Chi­nese com­pa­nies, and to China-Africa re­la­tions,” he said. “Be­tween China and Africa you have a lot of ma­te­rial ex­change — the rail­way, and so on. But peo­ple-topeo­ple ex­change re­ally isn’t enough.”

How much im­pact China is achiev­ing through its me­dia in­vest­ments re­mains un­clear. Ex­perts ques­tioned whether Kenya’s StarTimes sub­scribers, while ben­e­fit­ing from StarTimes’ sig­nal qual­ity, were ac­tu­ally watch­ing Chi­nese shows.

Li­nus Kaikai, chair­man of the Kenya Ed­i­tors Guild and a man­ager at the Nairobi-based Na­tional Me­dia Group, said Kenyan au­di­ences have been shift­ing away from for­eign con­tent for years, as lo­cal shows grow more pop­u­lar. To most Kenyans, he added, Chi­nese cul­ture car­ries lit­tle ca­chet.

“Kenyans have been sep­a­rat­ing and plac­ing — if I can put it this way — a Chi­nese wall be­tween in­fra­struc­ture and cul­ture,” he said. “Kenyans don’t see [China] as a model in the space of demo­cratic or po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses. But they see it as a very, very good model when it comes to eco­nomic growth.”

David Mwangi, owner of a small shop in Ka­ji­ado, said he has learned to ap­pre­ci­ate Chi­nese news re­ports. “BBC is shal­low. But [CGTN] has more, a lot of African stuff,” he said. “I thought China was a small coun­try, but now I know it’s a big coun­try with a lot of tech­nol­ogy and in­fra­struc­ture.

“China is im­prov­ing a lot,” he con­tin­ued, glanc­ing at his TV. He paused, briefly.

“China has con­quered Kenya,” he said.

Im­manuel Muasya For The Times

DAVID MUGITA sells StarTimes satel­lite TV ser­vice in Ka­ji­ado, Kenya. StarTimes, a pri­vately owned, Bei­jing-based firm, has been sweep­ing across Africa since 2002, beam­ing Chi­nese con­tent into mil­lions of homes.

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