March 25, 2011
KAMPALA – The Chinese government and western media painted the evacuation of 29,000 Chinese nationals from Libya last month the same way – as a reflection of China’s swift inroads into yet another resource-rich country at the expense of the West.
Western media reports showed a sea of monotonously stoic faces disembarking from a ship and spoke of “China’s growing economic clout,” while China’s state press called it “a massive operations overseas.” The Financial Times used the occasion to point out that two-way trade between China and Libya stands at $6.6 billion, most of it in oil.
Covered more objectively, i.e. not force-fitting the news into the “China rise” narrative, the larger story here would be not the degree to which China-Libyan ties have grown – indeed the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1978 and they have never been interrupted by sanctions – but the massive growth in US-Libya trade, which has skyrocketed from nearly nothing in 2003, the year before US sanctions were lifted, to $2.7 billion last year, and finds companies like Halliburton, Dow Chemical, Fluor, Occidental, Hess, Marathon, Conoco Phillips, Caterpillar, Boeing, and ExxonMobil, muscling their way into the engineering, construction and energy sectors.*
Let us consider if the reverse had been true. If it was China who had entered Libya only seven years ago and was already posting billions of dollars in trade, while the US had been there for three decades. It would no doubt have been used as proof of China’s inexorable rise. (Words like “fear” or “anxiety” or “concern” would no doubt be used to describe the West’s innermost feelings.)
So why is global media so inclined to distort the larger picture?
Anti-western quarters of the media, of course, see it as their duty to break America’s will and boost the confidence of its competitors. But indeed the western media too have succumbed to the trend, and the main reason (looking beyond the press’s pack mentality and dumbing down over time) is that the news media in general are obsessed with, indeed thrive on, dualistic narratives that speak of tectonic global shifts, which over the years has found the media hyping the Russians, the Japanese, jihadists, and more recently to the Chinese.
Not overlooking the very real imprints these forces have made or are making on the world, the media tend to exaggerate their clout, because they are commodities, and in the media world the value of a commodity rises through hype. If conversely, the power and reach of a new global force is put into context and questioned, its news value diminishes and you run the risk of alienating audiences over the long term.
What then we’re often left with is half-hearted attempts to provide context. For instance, the New York Times reported on Thursday that the Canadian company IMAX is set to open 75 theatres in China in a deal worth $100 million. In a few days we might hear about another Starbucks or Louis Vuitton outlet opening on the mainland. Or the US scoring another oil deal in sub-Saharan Africa. On a superficial level those developments meet the standard of news – they’re new – so the story runs. But rarely if ever are they used to suggest that maybe the West isn’t losing its grip to the degree we’ve been led to believe, for it would make for a less riveting, digestible, worrying – simply less newsy – narrative. And who’s going to tune in for that?
In my making this case, no doubt some quarters will dismissively charge me with sour grapes or being in denial. In fact I take no joy in reporting findings like those in Libya; I’m always a little disheartened to hear about Western companies and governments doing what the Chinese are rightfully accused of doing but with less pretense.
And as anyone who has followed my writings (or known me from my time in journalism school) can attest, I’m preoccupied in general with the industry’s general failure and sometimes arrogant refusal to accurately reflect the world we live in; and very uneasy with the collective price we pay for their negligence. As the world has grown more interconnected and news more fleeting and shallow, with infotainment now an acceptable ideal embraced by billions, the cost of that failure has only grown. (Click here for a report I did on this shift and its consequences in Uganda.)
In the case of US-China coverage, misinformation advances unwarranted fear and pessimism on one side, inflated self-esteem and a sense of entitlement on the other, while encouraging nationalism and xenophobia all around. At the governing level, it lends itself to bad policy.
From a moral standpoint, it diverts attention from Western hypocrisy. To go back to Libya for a moment, had China penetrated there as rapidly as America has, it would be cited as proof that China is a neo-imperialist power unscrupulously propping up the world’s most ruthless dictators. China no doubt has played that role in parts of the continent, and without airs. But scrutiny of China’s supposed unquenchable thirst for world resources has amnesiacly removed us from the fact that from Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea the US still does quite the same.
The lack of media scrutiny abets the US’s preference to shrewdly pursue its interests discreetly, and one can quite literally hear officials back in Washington sighing with relief that China-in-Africa gets all the coverage, as the US cuts resource deals and strengthens military alliances out of the spotlight.
In a departure from the norm, Foreign Policy magazine last month reported on Equatorial Guinea, sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest oil producer, where American firms have invested billions of dollars over the last 15 years, turning Brig. Gen. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo into one of the continent’s wealthiest big men, while four-fifths of his subjects lives in abject poverty, and the brigadier general’s son lives the life of an untouchable prince in Malibu, California.
Of course the US has played a more positive role elsewhere on the continent, pressing for reform in virulently tribalistic and corrupt Kenya, helping block the anti-homosexual bill and tackle AIDS in Uganda, fighting piracy off Somalia. And China hasn’t been entirely neo-imperial, indifferent to the welfare of locals.
But you wouldn’t know much about that, relying on major media.
* Actually, 90 % of Libya’s oil goes to Europe, according to Libya’s secretary for European Affairs. Professor Michel Chossudovsky puts the figure at 85 %, with China accounting for 11%. These facts, along with American expansion in Libya, were reported by some media but mainly only in the context that large sums of money are at stake now that Gadhafi has flipped out, not to point out the West’s flair for securing desired resources and deal-cutting which severely complicates the China takeover prophesy.