Story by Jenni Marsh, CNN Business
In the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, Michael Nganga is watching a Chinese Kung Fu movie.
“It’s advantageous to have many TV channels,” said Ng’ang’a, 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, a lofty plan to take digital television to impoverished parts of Africa, such as the village where Ng’ang’a lives.
Previously, television access in many parts of the continent was a privilege of the elite, and those who were connected relied on old-fashioned, snowy analog reception.
This was more than just a philanthropic gesture.
StarTimes has been the Chinese government’s primary contractor to carry out the 10,000 Villages Project, paving the way for the Beijing-based 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, the company beams Chinese TV shows into the homes of 10 million subscribers in 30 African countries, pushes 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 have been fears the company could black out TVs in those countries, if it wanted to.
TOO MUCH POWER OVER AFRICAN TV NETWORKS?
In many ways, StarTimes’ situation runs parallel to 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. Here’s how it got that way.
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 hadn’t prevented famine from taking one million lives in Ethiopia in the 1980s, stemmed the scourge of AIDS, or stopped a brutal genocide from slaughtering roughly the same number in Rwanda in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, China took an entirely different approach.
By the mid-2000s, the Chinese government, under its “Going Out” strategy, was encouraging entrepreneurs to head abroad and forge stronger ties with African nations.
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 being charged about Ksh. 7,200 ($70) a month for a subscription — a huge fee on a continent where GDP per capita was around Ksh. 73,000 ($700) a year at the time.
SWITCH FROM ANALOGUE TO DIGITAL
A 2006 United Nations treaty had tasked African countries with making the switch from snowy, unreliable analog signals to digital by 2015.
It was a deadline that nearly all African governments missed but the pressure was on to invest — and to find a company that could help them do it.
When contracts came up to turn off governments’ analog networks and take them digital, at first “StarTimes was the only company competing,” said Dani Madrid-Morales, an assistant communications professor at the University of Houston, who 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 started to join the market, said Madrid-Morales. But StarTimes almost always won.
In 2018, virtually every African head of state descended on Beijing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation to secure a slice of the Ksh. 6.2 trillion ($60 billion) in development loans and business deals on offer.
They visited Pang at the StarTimes’ huge mothership on the outskirts of the capital. “I don’t think any head of the BBC has had one-on-one meetings with so many African heads of state,” Madrid-Morales said.
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 had full backing Beijing in doing this.
The idea that a company with such close ties to Beijing has control over many African nations’ TV networks has sparked headlines such as “StarTimes plots to take over Africa public broadcasters” — echoing concerns that internet security experts have expressed over 5G giant Huawei and how its ties to the Chinese state could compromise other nations’ communications infrastructure.
ZAMBIA’S TOP STAR
Josephat Nchungo, an international trade analyst at the University of Zambia, said: “The primary objective of this partnership is providing the infrastructure for digital TV.
The secondary objective is also to exchange culture and knowledge between the two countries. StarTimes has been so controversial because people interpreted it as a sale of the state broadcast to the Chinese and hence the loss of sovereignty.”
DEALS IN GHANA
“If the 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 that the company “does not control any country’s TV network and does not have the capacity to spark media black outs.”
While 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 watching shows on these type of services expensive.
RISING DEBT OWED TO CHINA
There are also economic concerns in the deals that StarTimes has made.
It’s just one example of how Beijing benefits when StarTimes prospers.
SOAP OPERAS AND KUNG FU
While StarTimes chased big government contracts to operate digital TV infrastructure, it also wooed consumers with cheap TV packages they could buy on digital networks, which often severely undercut local competitors.
Competitors often complained they were facing unfair competition because StarTimes was so cheap, Madrid-Morales said. But there was little they could do.
While not overtly political, the 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.
In 2011, the company established a huge 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 out voice actors to be whisked to China to narrate new content.
The cheapest TV packages only gave viewers access to Al Jazeera and China Global Television Network (CGTN) — a state-owned news broadcaster that is part of Xi’s soft power mission to “tell the China story well.”
That has often translated into reporting the 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 analysis of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa, for example, found that 17% of stories by CGTN (then operating under a different name) mentioned China, emphasized the role its doctors played in the relief efforts.
In reality, China had spent far less than the US, United Kingdom and Germany fighting the disease.
After another round of price slashing, StarTimes has hit 1.5 million subscribers in Kenya, putting it just behind the established player MultiChoice, says Akhulia, brand marketing director for the company in the East African country.
In 2018, Beijing gave Akhulia’s team 800 million Kenyan shillings (roughly $7.8 million) to roll out the 10,000 Villages project in 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.
Half that money was for equipment, and the half was for implementation costs including travel of StarTimes’ staff.
INSTALLS TV FOR FREE
That symbiotic relationship caused onlookers like Lewis to question how private StarTimes really is.
Pang has never given an interview to Western media, enabling 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.
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.”
While conceived and directed by Chinese executives, the format of the show was shaped by its African co-hosts Bush and Vera Sadika. “It was easy to communicate. We gave them fresh ideas. We’re very modern and we know what’s trendy,” Sadika said.
StarTimes’ localization has benefited local African creative industries, which have received investment from the Chinese firm.
The more Chinese firms invest and experiment in Africa, the deeper their marketplace dominance is entrenched on the continent — and the more Beijing’s soft power grows.
LARGEST MUSIC STREAMING SERVICE IN AFRICA
While Spotify and Apple Music target users mostly in developed markets, for example, 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.
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 the West is about Huawei?