For only his second international trip of the year, Xi Jinping participated in the BRICS summit in South Africa with the goal of achieving a significant political success. The group of five nations, including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, declared on Thursday at the conclusion of the summit that they will welcome six new members starting in January 2024: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Xi stated that the “momentous” expansion of membership “demonstrates the commitment of BRICS countries to unity and collaboration with other developing nations.”
According to Steven Erlanger, David Pierso, and Lynsey Chutel’s article in The New York Times, Xi’s “victory” at the BRICS summit may hold more symbolic meaning than actual substance.
However, the perceived success of China could potentially be the most noteworthy outcome of the summit, as it did not achieve its primary objective of establishing a BRICS currency to challenge the dominance of the U.S. dollar. Instead, the group advocated for the use of local currencies in trade.
“The focus of these meetings is largely on symbolism,” stated Jim O’Neill, the economist who first coined the term BRIC in 2001. He also expressed doubt about the effectiveness of BRIC summits, saying, “It is uncertain if they have had any impact.”
According to Philippe Le Corre, an expert on China from the Asia Society Policy Institute, in light of China’s struggling economy, a real estate scandal, the unexpected removal of the foreign minister, and the sudden dismissal of top generals, Mr. Xi sought a political victory to showcase domestically.
The Washington Post’s Christian Shepherd explained that Xi’s main goal in advocating for an expansion was to enhance the group’s position as a substitute for Western-dominated forums.
According to Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, this year has witnessed a strong effort from Xi Jinping to transform the BRICS into a platform for challenging hegemony.
Small stated that Xi’s speeches have consistently denounced the U.S. alliance system and financial systems under U.S. control. Additionally, Xi has advocated for the creation of different frameworks outside of Western influence for developing nations to engage in trade.
According to Small, the intention is obvious. China has made a long-term decision to prioritize relations with the developing world, as they believe that relationships with the West will decline in the future. They are working towards establishing and solidifying resilient systems in order to secure their position in global relations.
According to independent political commentator Ming Jinwei, who was formerly an editor at the state-run Xinhua News Agency, the summit delivered a strong message to the United States and its allies that China cannot be contained or suppressed due to its global network of friends.
The media often portrays BRICS cooperation as a means of advancing global development and tackling challenges for the collective advantage of its participants. However, a thorough analysis of Chinese state media and their partners’ news coverage shows a heavily China-centric messaging strategy intended to denounce the West and promote Xi Jinping’s “core” leadership.
The BRICS Media Forum is a prominent instance of media collaboration. It was introduced in 2015 by China’s state news agency Xinhua, headed by Fu Hua, who serves as the forum’s executive chairman. The latest forum, held in Johannesburg from August 18-20, focused on “BRICS and Africa: Enhancing Media Dialogue for a Shared and Impartial Future.” Around 200 participants from 30 countries representing 100 media outlets, think tanks, and international organizations attended the event. Fu Hua stated during the opening ceremony that the forum aims to deepen communication and cooperation among BRICS media and countries. Additionally, two research reports were presented at the event by Xinhua’s think tank, New China Research, covering “Xi Jinping’s economic thought” and the CCP’s “Second Integration” theory. According to a Xinhua article, the report on Xi’s economic thought provides a comprehensive explanation of its core meaning, spiritual essence, and global perspective from philosophical, strategic, and tactical dimensions, serving as an authoritative interpretation for better understanding.
Miao Xiaojuan, a reporter for Xinhua, conducted interviews with several individuals at a media forum and created a video montage titled “Global South Challenges Western Media Monopoly.” The video highlights the participants’ dissatisfaction with Western media narratives, a sentiment that Miao heard repeatedly. One of the interviewees was Mahasha Rampedi, the editor-in-chief of Africa Times, who shared potential strategies for media collaboration among BRICS countries. According to Rampedi, one approach could be content syndication to benefit from each other’s expertise. Another suggestion was to cultivate a pool of expert commentators from within the Global South to counter the dominance of Western voices on media platforms.
During the summit, the syndication strategy was prominently displayed. On Monday, Xi wrote an article titled “Advancing China-South Africa Friendship and Cooperation Towards Greater Success” for multiple South African media outlets. This included The Star, Cape Times, The Mercury, and Independent Online (IOL), according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The media then reciprocated with praise and coverage, all emphasizing the same points. Xinhua and CGTN both covered Xi’s article, with the latter producing a video segment highlighting The Star’s front-page publication of the article, complete with a large photo of Xi. Chinese state media, including Qiushi, also celebrated the South African press’ coverage of Xi’s article. In a full circle moment, IOL published an article praising CGTN’s coverage of their own subsidiary’s coverage of Xi’s article. Even the Chinese journalist who created the CGTN video shared IOL’s post on Twitter, along with The Star.
This episode showcases the extensive range of content syndication, the connections involved, and how this syndication relies on its own group of expert commentators, as suggested by Rampedi. One of the African interviewees featured in the CGTN video is Sifiso Mahlangu, who is both the editor-in-chief of IOL and a valuable source for pro-China BRICS media. In an article published by China Daily on Thursday titled “China, S. Africa set to strengthen ties, amplifying Global South voices,” Mahlangu is quoted as saying: “Our history shows that China has been a friend to us. The Chinese people, the People’s Republic of China, and the Communist Party of China have been friends to the people of South Africa.” Previously, Mahlangu gave a speech at a media workshop for the Belt and Road News Network and was quoted by Global Times in 2019. He also chaired a meeting on China-Africa media cooperation with various Chinese media organizations in 2020 and attended a seminar on “Chinese Modernization and Its World Significance” hosted by Xinhua in 2022. Another African interviewee in the CGTN video is Austin Thomas from Awoko, a Sierra Leonean outlet. Thomas has previously written a positive interview with the Chinese ambassador to Sierra Leone and published an article under his name that was copied from a China Daily piece praising Xi’s role in the CCP’s 20th Party Congress.
In addition to the CGTN video, IOL also expressed admiration for China at the summit. The news outlet shared several articles on Wednesday and Thursday, including “Chinese President Xi emphasizes unity and BRICS expansion in his speech,” “China’s aid in ending the power crisis comes without conditions,” and “South Africa and Eskom are relieved as China offers assistance.”
Several media reports focused on Xi, and these reports were shared among outlets in both China and the Global South. Prior to the summit, Xi wrote a letter to a Confucius Institute in South Africa, which has trained approximately 10,000 students since its inception ten years ago. In the letter, he emphasized the importance of strengthening people-to-people connections among the BRICS group. Chinese state media covered the letter, and it was also promoted on social media by Chinese government officials. Additionally, other African press outlets reported on the letter in a positive light. CCTV and Hu Xijin took advantage of the opportunity to share a Twitter video of Xi receiving the highest honor of South Africa from its president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
CCTV praised Xi’s performance at the BRICS summit for domestic viewers in China, as shown by Phil Cunningham’s screenshots on his China Story Substack.
CCTV places a high importance on the grandeur and formalities surrounding Xi’s exclusive meeting with the leaders of India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and Russia (who was not physically present) at the table.
This highlights Xi’s superior status compared to others, potentially making him the top leader without any strong competition. However, this does not bode well for Modi, Lula, and Lavrov, who are diplomatically downgraded and indirectly disregarded due to the excessive focus on Xi.
The news segment from CCTV features the leader with heavy makeup delivering a long speech. The news voice-over repeats images, making the speech even longer. The segment also includes three shots of host Ramaphosa appearing to pay attention, but it does not have the same effect on the audience as it would in China. [Source]
However, there were some small errors made by the media. Xi’s arrival at the airport was not handled well by Chinese state media, according to Cunningham. He pointed out the unflattering lighting and constant flashes in the footage. This was a rare occurrence for CCTV and even more so for footage of Xi. Cunningham also questioned whether Qin Gang’s absence, known for his attention to detail in diplomatic protocol, played a role in the amateurish coverage. Later, Xi unexpectedly missed a scheduled speech on the first night of the forum. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying mistakenly tweeted that Xi had given the speech. Additionally, there is a cringe-worthy video of one of Xi’s aides (likely his translator) running to catch up with him, only to be stopped by a security guard who closes the doors in the translator’s face, preventing him from entering the forum venue with Xi. This incident was not mentioned in official Chinese or BRICS media.