“Ecological Civilisation” discourse in Xinhua’s African newswires: Towards a “Greener” Agency?


Over the past two decades, both China’s climate diplomacy and its global media “going out” campaign have received growing attention from scholars worldwide. These two fields are connected, in general terms, by their attempts to understand China’s growing role in international affairs. And yet, at the intersection of these two fields is a lacuna of research. Scholarship has, up to now, mostly ignored the question of how the climate emergency and China’s climate diplomacy affects – or, alternatively, is affected by – the content and discourse of Chinese media organisations and journalists, both domestically and globally.

This paper presents the findings of critical discourse analysis of a week’s worth of headline African news published by the Xinhua News Agencies on its digital-format news website, Xinhuanet. The analysis uncovered a media discourse, previously unobserved in Sino-African media content, concerning the issues of climate change and green initiatives, heavily influenced by the Communist Party’s goal of achieving “Ecological Civilisation.” Whilst the study’s sample was limited, the “Ecological Civilisation” discourse was both pervasive and varied. It appeared within twenty-five per cent of the headline articles, ranging from simple references towards green industry and energy initiatives to more complex discussions of the social good that would come of planting trees, for example. Though further research is required to establish the presence of this discourse more widely, its appearance raises important questions about the nature of journalistic production in Sino-African media organisations, as well as the issue of Chinese soft power in Africa. This paper seeks to begin exploring these questions in earnest, addressing the pressing issue of how Sino-African media is reacting to the global environmental crisis and the role of that media in shaping the crisis’ digital future.

This paper considers the emergence of an “Ecological Civilisation” discourse from the macro, mezzo, and micro levels. In the case of the macro level, it is possible that the Communist Party is directly instructing its central media organs to report on environmental issues, with a view to increasing its soft power. This can be explored either as a “positive” soft power, attracting foreign nations with China’s leadership role in climate mitigation, or as a “negative” soft power, as suggested by Callahan (2015), which panders to domestic cohesion within China. This paints the Communist Party as the legitimate force in fighting climate change and environmental degradation. At the mezzo level, this paper considers the organisational imperatives that may affect how Xinhua seeks to report environmental issues to international audiences. In particular, it asks how Xinhua’s transformation into a profit-making news agency affects its need to create “green” news. Finally, at the micro level, the paper explores how individual journalists might be affected by the climate emergency, and the Communist Party’s response to it. In doing so, it also seeks to explore and question Tong’s (2015) assertion that environmental discourse in Chinese media content is inherently counter-hegemonic, asking instead whether it represents a change in the Party’s orders of discourse.