The Chinese government is inviting foreign journalists to Beijing on international relations fellowships, on the understanding that they write "positive stories" about China, an online newspaper in India reported.
The Chinese foreign ministry has been running the 10-month programs for journalists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and more than a dozen countries from Southeast Asia and Africa since 2016, The Print news website reported.
"They have been given the red-carpet treatment: Apartments in one of Beijing’s plush residences ... and free tours twice every month to different Chinese provinces," the article said.
The initiative follows a call from Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016 for journalists to "tell China's story better" to the rest of the world, it said.
Participants are also given language classes, access to Chinese government officials and ministries, and degrees in international relations from a Chinese university, the paper said.
The journalists carry accreditation from regional press centers run by the Chinese government, rather than from their own organizations, but some news organizations, including the Indo-Asian New Service (IANS), Jansatta, and The Indian Express, have run stories that were written as part of the programs.
Journalists who take part in the programs travel everywhere with a government "minder" and are therefore unable to cover more "sensitive" stories, The Print reported.
It quoted The Indian Express as saying that it had paid its participating journalists full salaries on top of a Chinese government stipend, and was satisfied with their coverage.
"There are no terms or conditions, no 'caution' or advisory imposed on what they report from there," it said.
According to Cédric Alviani, East Asia director for the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), China actually started buying foreign journalists before 2016, with attempts to influence international media reporting dating back to 2011.
"The Chinese authorities are constantly trying and influencing journalists’ narratives about China," Alviani told RFA on Monday.
"Inviting these journalists to go China, where everyone is very nice to them, is one way to make friends with journalists and to train up supporters," he said.
Buying shares of media companies
But the government has other ways of influence overseas media coverage, Alviani said.
"The Chinese government and Chinese companies have been aggressively buying shares in foreign media organizations in the past year," Alviani said.
Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia, said China has also boosted its influence overseas by providing free news.
"They also have a lot of influence in the Chinese media in Africa," Nathan said. "Take, for example, Xinhua News Agency. More than 90 percent of its news is fairly objective, and contains valuable information, but about 10 percent of it is information that has a pro-China bias."
"Xinhua is huge in Africa, because African news organizations don't have much money, so Xinhua supplies a lot of stories to them free of charge," he said. "So, of course, they are going to use Xinhua copy."
Xinhua News Agency is directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party and answers to the country's cabinet, the State Council, while CGTN is the English-language network of Beijing-based state broadcaster CCTV, under the direct control of the ruling party's Central Propaganda Department.
In September, the U.S. Justice Department demanded that Xinhua and state-owned international broadcaster CGTN register as foreign agents, which could limit their access in Washington, according to media reports at the time.
The power of propaganda
In March, the administration of President Xi Jinping strengthened its hold on all forms of public expression, enlarging its powerful propaganda department to absorb agencies responsible for regulating the mass media, as the president himself embarked on an unlimited — and controversial — term in office.
'The new leadership structure was introduced to "strengthen the party’s centralized and unified leadership in public opinion work by the media," the party's central committee said in a directive at the time.
"After this adjustment, the main responsibility of the Central Propaganda Department will be to implement the party’s propaganda guidelines," it said, adding that the department will also formulate and implement media and publication policy and manage the sectors.
The country's international broadcasters will be tasked with "propagating the party's theories, directions, principles and policies" as well as "telling good China stories," it said.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.