Zizhu Zhang’s parents sent her to the United Kingdom for her final year of high school to improve her chances of getting into a British university. Six years later, with a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics, she returned to her home in the southeastern city of Shenzhen, in China. She had her sights set on working in Beijing, but found that she had no competitive edge — was “unwanted,” even — in a job market that she described as overly pragmatic.
China’s pervasive political system was a factor, too.
“It wasn’t likely that I’d get into government-affiliated Chinese institutions because of [China’s] unwritten rules,” Zizhu, now 26, said. “I wanted to work in an area that was dynamic, where I could have a social impact.”
Zizhu took a chance and joined a friend in Nairobi who was running a nongovernmental organization, but soon realized the job wasn’t right for her.
“I was frustrated. I started to doubt whether coming to Africa had been a good decision.”
She took an internship at a marketing research company, and later in an environmental program with the United Nations. In 2015, just before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Nairobi, she heard that the privately-owned, Hong Kong-based broadcast company Phoenix TV was looking for a Nairobi correspondent.
Her English skills were essential for interviews, and she speaks Mandarin with a refined accent, equivalent to the sophisticated English of a BBC correspondent. After a successful pilot broadcast on Obama’s visit, she was hired as a stringer, broadcasting news across the greater China region.
“I never realized that I could find a foreign-based job in journalism outside China,” Zizhu said. “I think living in Africa definitely made me think differently about lots of things.”
Kenya is a major Chinese media hub in Africa, with Chinese state broadcasters often presenting more positive coverage of Africa than many Western media outlets. And nowhere in Africa is Chinese media presence felt more strongly than in Nairobi, where the largest state-owned media have bureaus.
“When Kenyans saw me doing on-camera reporting on the streets, I often heard people saying ‘CCTV!’ [China Central Television]. That’s the only Chinese media they know.”
Usually, she continued, “when [foreign] people talk about Chinese state media, they think it means total control, censorship, etc.”
This wasn’t the case with her experience in Kenya.
However, complete freedom of speech was still slightly beyond reach, Zizhu recalls of her Africa stint at the private media house.
“Although Phoenix gave me a lot of freedom — I wasn’t told what I can or cannot report — as you know, if your main audience is in mainland China, there is a certain line you wouldn’t cross.”
But even with those reminders of the boundaries of home, Zizhu still found an element of liberation in her life in Africa. Her job facilitated contact with a broad spectrum of society, from street vendors to government spokespeople. It was a refreshing change that to this day isn’t lost on her.
“China, in my perception, is very class stratified. What you do, or your job title, is massively important. In Nairobi, I had nothing to lose. I only had my curiosity.”
This is one in a series of portraits of Chinese living in Africa.