Jon Ossoff has billed himself as a hard-hitting “investigative journalist,” orchestrating exposés on “corruption, organized crime, and war crimes” as CEO of the documentary film company Insight TWI. But experts say that his 2015 documentary on China’s influence in Africa was naively framed and parroted CCP rhetoric.
In the buildup to Georgia’s runoff elections on January 5, Senator David Perdue’s campaign has released multiple attack ads alleging that Ossoff “won’t hold China accountable” and suggesting that he might be vulnerable to CCP influence like fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell, who unwittingly formed a relationship with a Chinese spy early in his career. The attacks began after National Review reported that Ossoff initially failed to disclose payments from a CCP-tied media company that licensed two of his documentaries.
Ossoff’s campaign has said that the Hong Kong media conglomerate PCCW — which is partially owned by a Chinese state-backed firm and whose primary owner has spoken out against the Hong Kong democracy protests — represents just “one of dozens of TV stations and distributors in more than 30 countries that have aired Jon’s work.” However, the Ossoff camp has offered shifting explanations regarding the amount PCCW paid Ossoff’s documentary company and why that figure was not included on his initial financial disclosure form. On Tuesday, the Washington Free Beacon reported that in 2012, Ossoff promoted Chinese state-run media outlet Xinhua News.
But what are Ossoff’s actual views on China? While he has labeled Perdue’s attacks “ridiculous,” Ossoff’s policy platform makes no mention of China, and even lacks a foreign-policy portion.
Ossoff’s reluctance to articulate his views on America’s chief geopolitical rival is curious in light of the way he billed himself as an experienced national security hand during his failed 2017 House run. Ossoff touted his “five years of experience as a national security staffer in the U.S. Congress” during that campaign, though that descriptor turned out to be an embellishment.
In the absence of a real record, those interested in the 33-year-old Ossoff’s potential views on China can look to a 2015 documentary titled “The Battle for Africa,” which he executively produced in coordination with Qatari state-backed media Al Jazeera. The documentary explores the flood of Chinese investment into Africa — while the majority of TWI’s films are Africa related, this is the only one with a China focus.
— Jon Ossoff (@ossoff) September 16, 2015
In a statement to National Review, Ossoff spokesperson Miryam Lipper said that “Jon Ossoff produced reporting to shine a light on Chinese expansionism in Africa, which national security experts in both parties agree is a growing threat to long-term American interests, while David Perdue ran factories in China in cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party. (This week, the Washington Post detailed how Perdue built his career traveling around Asia helping American firms such as Reebok source cheap labor.)
But while Lipper implied that the “The Battle for Africa” was an investigative project, Ossoff’s 50-minute documentary, broken up into two parts, never mentions China’s ambitious Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative (BRI) — despite highlighting some of its specific ventures and quoting Chinese nationals closely tied to the project.
BRI, which began in 2014 and has poured hundreds of billions into overseas infrastructure deals, is part of a grand, strategic, influence web promulgated by the Chinese Communist Party.
“Belt and Road is not this concept where you can go toe-first in, or where you can have one foot in, one foot out in the long run,” Michael Sobolik, a fellow in Indo-Pacific studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, told National Review. “Once you get hooked up into cooperation with this network, you are part of this bigger picture that China’s trying to achieve.”
In the opening ten minutes, TWI host Sorious Samura explains how “China’s policy of no-strings-attached investment contrasts starkly with the tradition of western-conditional aid” and cites the construction of Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), which was financed by a $3.2 billion loan from the Chinese in 2014.
“Before signing off on these multibillion dollar deals, Chinese officials are not demanding, like the West is, that African leaders conform to Western standards of human rights, economic reform, and anti-corruption,” Samura explains. “In Africa, many see this as a welcome break from the evangelism of Western governments who have been accused of putting on due pressure on them to adopt western-style democracies.”
To Joshua Eisenman, associate professor of politics at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, the description reflects the status-quo thinking of the time.
“The beginning of the documentary is certainly on the friendly side, which is not surprising given it was made in 2015,” he told National Review. “It is not propaganda, but it does echo certain elements of Beijing’s official propaganda line, for example, that China’s presence is both unique and positive compared to the West.”
To explain how the documentary missed the mark, Eisenman pointed out that, five years in, Kenya is struggling to service the Chinese debt for its massive railway project — which is operating with millions in monthly losses.
“The documentary seems to confuse debt for infrastructure deals with trade and grants,” he elaborated. “The narrator talks about these monies as if they would never need to be paid back . . . Five years ago, many in Beijing and in African capitals downplayed the debt issue, but today we see that in some cases the problem is reaching a crisis point.”
At one point, Samura raises the question of “what will be the future of human freedom” on the continent if China becomes the primary foreign funding source in Africa. But rather than exploring the question in depth, the documentary immediately pivots to an interview with Hongxiang Huang, a Chinese national who founded the “China House” in Kenya. The “China House” website states explicitly that it aims “to integrate China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into global sustainable development.”
When asked about “criticism” of Chinese policy not making investment in Africa contingent on human rights, Huang argues that China’s history of lifting “a huge population out of poverty” shows “it’s actually doing really well in terms of human rights.”
Sobolik said that Samura’s lack of pushback on the claim “speaks volumes about the documentary.”
“The fact that there was no countervailing argument to that was especially concerning,” he explained in an interview with National Review. “Because if you accept the argument that human rights is about exclusively the material wellbeing of the most amount of people — which is basically utilitarianism — then you sacrifice the dignity of the individual, which is the bedrock of the entire understanding of western human rights, the inherent dignity of the individual person. And for me, that’s not an inconsequential difference.”
In Part I of “The Battle for Africa,” Samura also speaks to a representative from AVIC International, a global holdings subsidiary of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China — “China’s Boeing,” Sobolik explains. Samura highlights how AVIC has done a number of deals in Kenya, including the building of a new terminal at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
“I feel like for the China and the Kenya, we more feel like brothers,” AVIC’s Ling Qin tells the host. “ . . . We have the same kind of history, we are kind of conquered, and so we truly understand each other. I think there are so many things we can share with our friends from Kenya, because not so far ago we are almost the same situation. So if China was in that case — we can make it — why can’t Kenya, why can’t Africans?”
No mention, however, is made of how AVIC International “actively participates in building ‘the Belt and Road Initiative,’” per the firm’s website. Also left out is any reference to AVIC’s status as a massive player in the arms industry — since 2015, it has ranked in the top ten of the largest arms-producing companies internationally. In June, the Pentagon announced AVIC as one of 20 Chinese firms “owned by, controlled by, or affiliated with China’s government, military, or defense industry.”
Sobolik said that the documentary’s profiling of AVIC, on top of the use of “win-win” and other buzzwords to describe the China-Africa relationship, echoed “the rhetoric of Chinese diplomacy.”
Samura closes Part I by profiling students at Nairobi’s Confucius Institute, an entity present on college campuses around the world, to show how “the real battle for Africa is not between east and west, it’s a battle to control our own destinies, that only we Africans can fight. And for some of us, that battle starts in the classroom.”
In recent months, Confucius Institutes have drawn intense scrutiny. In August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department has designated applied the “foreign mission” status to the institutes, explaining they were part of the CCP’s “propaganda apparatus.”
“They post the same issues for any country they’re in,” Sobolik said of the Confucius Institutes. “Yes, you learn about Chinese language. But the story that you’re told about Chinese history or recent history especially is curated by the Chinese Communist Party, which, which for understandable reasons is a big problem, and that is incredibly naive to ignore.”
Part II of the documentary explores how some African leaders have been able to leverage China’s growing presence to counter western influence and better advocate for local interests.
“China’s increasing influence brings into focus the ability of African governments to negotiate better deals in a new and competitive environment,” Samura explains. In the end, he holds up Botswana — which “unlike most African countries . . . is more cautious about the free-flowing cash from the east” — as the ideal.
Sobolik points out that Beijing’s indifference to local corruption undermines the notion that Chinese investment will improve quality of life for Africans.
“The irony here is if the whole message of the documentary was about political reform in African countries, you’re not going to get that by cozying up to China, because there’s no incentives if you take money from China to fight corruption within these governments,” he continued. “There’s no incentive towards good governance. It rewards the status quo. And that was a tension that the documentary never addressed.”
Eisenman, the Notre Dame professor, added that, by focusing on past abuses by the west, the documentary makers elided the question of China’s long-term interests in Africa and how they might differ from those of the African people.
“This documentary represents an African perspective in as much as it compares China’s presence to previous groups of foreigners who came to Africa. Unfortunately, it largely overlooks China’s intentions in Africa and how Africa fits into Beijing’s larger strategy towards the developing world,” he said. “Without understanding China’s geostrategic intentions, the country appears as a benevolent force, a message that is only magnified when it is juxtaposed with the bullying and abuses of western nations.”
It is unclear how intimately Ossoff was involved in the creation of “The Battle for Africa” — TWI did not return requests for comment. As CEO of TWI, Ossoff “vets story ideas, helps prepare interview questions and attends to film production, editing and security arrangements for his staff,” according to the recent New York Times profile.
In a podcast soon after the documentary’s release, director and TWI employee Clive Patterson — an outspoken Ossoff supporter on Twitter — did not mention the Georgia Democrat, but did explain the film’s inspiration, saying Samura held, “quite dear to his heart,” the notion that “the west is just constantly kind of coming down with unrealistic expectations on African leaders or Africa as a continent — just doesn’t get Africa.”
Ossoff was hired as CEO of TWI in 2013 at age 26 thanks to a fateful conversation he had as a teenager with Ron McCullagh, a former BBC journalist and founder of what was then called Insight News Television.
It seems that Ossoff was more willing to discuss his views on China before he entered the political arena. McCullagh recalled for the Times that, at a dinner in 2003, Ossoff told him “his thoughts on Chinese and American relationships, the importance of the China Sea” as well as the “strategic importance for the world of freedom of trade in that part of the world.”
“[T]he detail, knowledge he had of the situation was just very impressive,” McCullagh said of the “very memorable dinner.”