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27 Feb 2023

HANGWEI LI, YUAN WANG - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Kenya and Ethiopia: Vibrant media environment helps to monitor Chinese companies’ projects and shape corporate public relations strategy, research shows

"African Media Cultures and Chinese Public Relations Strategies in Kenya and Ethiopia" 27 February 2023


This policy paper focuses on the corporate communication strategies of three Chinese SOEs involved in two flagship BRI projects in Africa: the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) in Kenya, constructed by China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), and the Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway (ADR) in Ethiopia, constructed by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) and China Railway Engineering Corporation (CREC). We explore the changes, or lack thereof, in the three Chinese SOEs’ corporate communication strategies, specifically public relations (PR) strategies. We also examine whether and how these companies’ PR strategies have evolved since the commencement of these projects in 2014, and whether their utilization of localized PR strategies is primarily motivated by business or political considerations.

Based on fieldwork observation and interviews, we argue that these companies have exhibited divergent paths. CRBC has learned and adapted corporate behaviors in Kenya, largely because of the presence of the host country’s vibrant media environment and watchdog journalism, whereas CCECC and CREC have been less inclined to learn new ways of conducting outreach and PR in Ethiopia, largely because of the absence of naming and shaming by local media. In other words, Kenyan journalists have demonstrated greater journalistic agency by leveraging media norms that promote and facilitate criticism, allowing Kenyan news media to play a more active role in monitoring the railway project than their Ethiopian counterparts. This has, in turn, induced a shift in the corporate strategies of the Chinese SOE.

In sum, our comparative study suggests that Chinese SOEs’ PR strategies in Africa are predominantly influenced by the media landscape and ecosystem of their host country. We therefore refute the notion of the “Chinisation of Africa”3 and emphasize that African non-state actors, such as the media, can have a considerable influence in shaping certain behaviors of Chinese actors within the asymmetric China-Africa relationship. Our study contributes to the broader debate about Chinese SOEs’ overseas learning and African agency, and it offers practical insights for both Chinese companies and African media houses.