Like many Africans who have never set foot in China, Ugandan journalist Ronald Kato used to view the Middle Kingdom as a developing country, albeit one rising in stature and expanding its footprint on the African continent.
But his impression changed after he arrived in Beijing in February for a media fellowship sponsored by the Chinese government.
"The picture changed quite fundamentally for me when I got here," said the 30-year-old reporter with Uganda's Vision Group.
"China has so many faces to it that in one instance it comes off as a developing country, but in another it comes off as a developed - even First World - country."
Its sheer size and complexity were beyond his imagination and sometimes not fairly represented by the Western media, he said. "For one to appreciate and understand the true picture of China, they've got to visit, and probably live here."
Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has repeatedly extended an invite to foreigners to look at China first-hand. "As the saying goes, 'there is nothing like seeing it for yourself', we encourage members of the press to visit and see more of China... and learn about and report on more dimensions of China," Mr Xi said at the close of last month's 19th Party Congress.
The five-yearly party congress saw Mr Xi set out his plan for his country to become a "global leader of composite national strength and international influence" by 2050.
Soft power - the ability to persuade without force - as a national policy objective was first articulated by then president Hu Jintao at the 17th Party Congress in 2007. In his speech to the Chinese Communist Party, he called on party cadres to "enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country".
In the past decade, when China leapfrogged Germany and Japan to be the second-largest economy in the world, the Chinese government has become arguably the world's largest spender on soft power and culture-exporting initiatives.
China expert David Shambaugh of George Washington University estimates that China today spends some US$10 billion (S$13.5 billion) a year on these initiatives - more than the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Japan spend on soft power combined.
The US, on the other hand, spent less than US$670 million on public diplomacy in 2014, he noted.
Beijing's stepped-up efforts to promote itself and get its message across have been felt in all corners of the world, aided in part by the prevalence of social media and livestreaming tools.
WORLD FOCUS NEW INSIGHTS
Each lecture was a serious eye-opener: for instance, the guy who spoke on environment pulled no punches and told us how bad water pollution here is. If we were to come back as correspondents to China, these classes have already given us an edge over anybody who comes in new.
INDIAN EXPRESS CORRESPONDENT NARENDRA APURVA
SEEING IS BELIEVING
I'm sure some people will say I'm now speaking for China, or even think I've been brainwashed. But I have my own independent thinking cap on, and I can proudly say I've seen what I'm talking about, and I'll go home as somewhat of an authority on China.
GHANAIAN REPORTER EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE
State media outlets like CCTV and Xinhua have expanded their global reach in recent years. The CGTN (China Global Television Network), the international arm of CCTV, now boasts a globe-spanning reach that rivals the likes of BBC. It has a presence in 70 countries, including 200 staff in its Washington bureau alone.
The 10-month-long fellowship which Mr Kato is participating in forms a core part of China's public diplomacy push. It is the flagship course of the Chinese Public Diplomacy Association (CPDA), an organisation set up in 2012 to tell China's story from its perspective.
Ostensibly a non-profit, the CPDA gets funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and has a formidable brain trust of senior diplomats like former foreign minister Li Zhaoxing, who is its president.
The annual fellowship started in 2014 for African journalists. It has since been expanded to include journalists from India, Pakistan, Nepal and South-east Asian nations.
The Straits Times understands that next year's edition will grow to include Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, a crucial audience as China seeks to extol the benefits of Mr Xi's flagship Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure through their territories. The depth and access provided by the annual programme speaks of how much China is willing to splurge on getting foreigners to know the country through first-hand exposure.
Participants, mostly mid-career reporters and editors nominated by their respective news organisations, enjoy access to officials from state organs, such as the Ministry of Education, and business leaders.
There are week-long reporting trips to provinces from coastal Fujian to landlocked Jiangxi, where they get to quiz local officials on topics such as poverty alleviation and disaster recovery. The participants also get front-row seats to cover key events on China's political calendar, such as the annual Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit and the all-important 19th Party Congress.
How China's soft-power efforts compare with S. Korea, Japan
BEIJING • Since the early 2000s, China has vastly expanded its ability to promote its language and culture abroad compared with regional rivals, most evidently through its global network of state-affiliated Confucius Institutes.
There are today over 500 Confucius Institutes in 142 countries and regions, including one in Singapore, even though the programme began only in 2004.
South Korea's King Sejong Institutes, which serve a similar function, now number 171, spread across 54 countries. It marked its 10th anniversary this year.
Tokyo's analogue, the Japan Foundation, has 24 offices in 23 countries, despite being the oldest programme, running since 1972.
But Western critics, including the Harvard academic who coined the term "soft power", have long derided China's soft-power programmes for failing to deliver on their investments.
Until last year, China continued to be viewed unfavourably by most countries in perception polls, such as one on global attitudes conducted by the Pew Research Centre, and received consistently low marks in areas such as government respect for personal freedoms.
China was also ranked last in Soft Power 30, 2015, the first comprehensive report of the top 30 countries in the world in terms of soft power. It is compiled by the Portland Consulting Group and the University of Southern California Centre on Public Diplomacy.
"China has been making major efforts to increase its ability to influence others without force or coercion," said Professor Joseph Nye, the Harvard academic.
"But as long as the government fans the flames of nationalism and holds tight the reins of party control, China's soft power will remain limited."
But things are turning around. The latest Pew survey this year found that China and the United States are now competing to be the more favoured world power, in part because the US has lost much of its lustre under President Donald Trump.
The third edition of the global soft-power index this year saw China rise to 25th place, which the report called "the most incredible story in Asia".
Even then, these gains must be viewed in context: A diminished US still ranks third, Japan is sixth and South Korea is 21st.
"China has made significant investments in developing its soft power over recent years, (but) its efforts are perhaps undermined by its hard-line approach to foreign policy and human rights, an indication that soft-power efforts may require a certain level of congruency and consistency for it to be most effective," said the report.
Experts said Beijing needs to approach soft power from a different angle if it wants the sophistication and attractiveness of neighbours South Korea and Japan.
Mr Osamu Sayama, a visiting scholar with British think-tank Royal United Services Institute, noted that unlike most countries where soft power is generated organically, the Chinese Communist Party government plays an outsized role in this area.
Unless the party loosens control of the arts, China is unlikely to achieve something close to Hallyu, or love of Korean culture, despite the richness of Chinese heritage.
"The degree of censorship in China makes it harder to build a positive image of innovation and the arts," he wrote.
Lim Yan Liang
REALITIES OF REPORTING IN CHINA
Participants said the programme has given them not just a close-up look at modern China, but also the daily challenges for media practitioners here.
For one thing, detailed figures necessary to buttress a story are often hard to obtain, and officials who are warm and chatty in person often become unreachable once the press conference ends.
During their six-week internship at Chinese media outlets, some participants found that the editors can be very rigid and conservative in their treatment of articles.
Ghanaian reporter Edmund Smith-Asante, 51, recalled an analysis piece he wrote for China Daily following a visit by his country's vice-president to China in June. That trip saw Ghana secure US$19 billion worth of contracts with China.
The China Daily editor declined to publish the story because the numbers quoted did not come from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even though they were released by the Ghanaian side and widely reported in the African country.
"Back home, when I need any data I can just request from the ministries and they'll give me something concrete, but here we have to wait for the MFA to come out with the information," said Mr Smith-Asante, who writes for the Daily Graphic.
"When it comes to opening up, there's a lot of work to be done, especially with regard to the media."
But participants also said they were given wide berth on writing reports for their home outlets, and that the Chinese organisers never sought to direct their reporting.
Indian Express correspondent Narendra Apurva, 35, for instance, said he was "never pulled aside or frozen out" despite reporting extensively on the recent Doklam border stand-off between China and India.
"My paper can often be critical of developments in China, and one of my stories started with how China will enter the 20th Party Congress in 2022 with no clear successors, breaking two decades of succession norms," he said. "But they (organisers) have always been good about not interfering in my reporting."
China-Africa expert Lina Benabdallah from Wake Forest University noted that the programme's alumni often return to China to get higher education on their own dime. Many also go on to be based in China, or to report on China from their home country.
"In my interactions with past participants, there was definitely a sense of gratefulness and indebtedness to the Chinese government for sponsoring (and covering all expenses) for the training programmes," said Dr Benabdallah.
While this does not mean they are automatically more sympathetic to China's world view, many expressed that their experience here "will help them be more fair in their reporting on China".
Mr Smith-Asante told The Straits Times: "I'm sure some people will say I'm now speaking for China, or even think I've been brainwashed.
"But I have my own independent thinking cap on, and now I can proudly say I've seen what I'm talking about, and I'll go home as somewhat of an authority on China."
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