As China continues its economic courting of Africa, Beijing has quietly been flexing its soft power, attempting to rebrand its image through closer ties with African media and a wider presence on the continent.
Last week, President Hu Jintao used his opening speech at the Forum on China-African Co-operation to call for enhanced media exchanges, highlighting them as a new approach to strengthening strategic partnerships.
'We should strive to boost friendship among the people ... China proposes setting up a Sino-Africa press exchange centre in the country, to mobilise communication between Chinese and African media, and to support exchange programmes for journalists from both sides,' Hu said.
Zhan Jiang , a professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said that although such exchanges between the two sides were not new, this was 'the first time the strategy has been endorsed at such a high level'.
The Chinese government has been offering training programmes for both African government press officers and journalists since 2004. According to state media, about 300 government officials and senior executives at media outlets from 48 African countries had attended such programmes by last year. Workshops for African journalists had also been organised during the period.
The programmes, managed by the State Council Information Office and the Ministry of Commerce, provide courses on hard skills, such as broadcasting and the use of new media. But they focus more on introducing African journalists to social and economic change in China via trips to factories, economic zones and historical sites outside Beijing.
China's leaders hope that with a better understanding of the nation, African journalists can contribute to a more positive image of China's involvement on the continent, offering a contrast to 'biased' Western coverage.
With its trade and investment in Africa rising rapidly in recent years, China has been criticised for overlooking human rights as it pursues 'cheque book' diplomacy. It has also been accused of supplying arms to rebel factions in various African conflict zones. There are concerns Beijing is preying on the continent's resources to feed the Chinese economy, contributing little significant improvement to the livelihood of Africans.
Propaganda chief Li Changchun , a member of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee, told a group of African journalists last year that media from both sides 'should cover each other's social and economic development and other issues in a comprehensive and truthful way,' Xinhua reported.
'Geographically far apart, China and Africa have long learned about each other through Western media. However, Western reports do not always reflect the truth,' Xinhua quoted Li as saying.
China's state media has increased its presence on the continent, with Xinhua moving a regional headquarters from France to Kenya in 2006, followed by state broadcasters China Radio International and China Central Television.
The Guardian reported in May that the English version of the China Daily was going to launch a weekly African edition later this year, with bureaus being prepared in Nairobi and Johannesburg, in South Africa.
Professor Zhan said such moves were aimed at creating an easier environment for China to do business in Africa. 'At the moment Africa is the only continent where China can really expand its so-called soft power. The ultimate goal is still the economic benefits,' Zhan said. He disagreed with the idea that Beijing was trying to export any political ideology to African countries.
While media exchange programmes may have had an effect on a handful of journalists at a personal level, the push had not yet led to the broader, systemic change that Beijing seeks, experts say.
A deputy editor-in-chief from The Southern Times in Namibia who joined a training programme in 2006 said he would tell his readers China was making tremendous progress, and was a model worth learning from, the state-owned Banyuetan magazine reported.
'African people are strongly influenced by Western reports, where China is often depicted as a country that does not follow WTO rules and does not respect the rule of law, a country that is against the historical trend. But what I've seen is progress on social security and poverty reduction,' the magazine quoted him as saying.
Deborah Brautigam, a professor who has published several books on China-Africa relations, said China's media strategy was aimed at presenting a different perspective from what the United States and Britain conveyed.
'But I'm not sure I've seen any improvement in China-related coverage over the past decade [in Africa],' Deborah said.
The strategy adopted by the Chinese media - emphasising positive stories on friendship and sincerity between China and Africa - may not carry wide appeal in a media-saturated marketplace where more aggressive coverage attracts readers.
Yu-Shan Wu, a researcher with the South African Institute of International Affairs, said: 'China is making efforts to rebrand its image through the media initiatives but it still needs to develop as a credible and attractive source of information.'Topics: China China Xinhua News Agency Africa Media of the People's Republic of China Xinhua News Agency Hu Jintao