DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's continue our series on how China is trying to influence the world. This is being felt across the globe today in many ways. But what China's leaders really want is to shape how the world perceives their country. They've devoted massive resources to this. And the center of these efforts to shape perceptions is China's supreme leader himself Xi Jingping. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing on Xi's message and his media.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The China Daily is the country's biggest English-language newspaper by circulation. I met with some of their young journalists recently at a cafe outside their headquarters. They asked to be identified only by their English first names, as they weren't authorized to speak to foreign media.
One of them, Gary, said that no matter what's going on, President Xi Jinping is always at the top of the news. In fact, he says, that's a rule of the government's mobile news app, which China Daily runs.
GARY: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: "News of President Xi Jinping always comes first," he says. "And Premier Li Keqiang always comes second." That's not to say that they make news every day. But even if they don't, their news stays in the top two positions.
Another journalist named Miranda says that news about Xi is edited with extreme caution.
MIRANDA: (Through interpreter) If we can possibly avoid using his name, we do, because an error in an article related to Xi would have very serious consequences.
KUHN: Chinese state media depicts Xi as both a forceful visionary leader but also a down-to-earth man of the people. One minute, they trumpet Xi's achievements in building China into an economic powerhouse. The next, they show him holding an umbrella for his wife Peng Liyuan. Meanwhile, Xi himself has embraced social media and used it to broadcast simple, earthy messages. Here he is delivering a characteristic line in a New Year's address in 2015.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: "Meat pies don't just fall from the sky," he observes. He adds, "we've all just got to roll up our sleeves and get down to work." Miranda says some of it seems to work on a domestic audience.
MIRANDA: (Through interpreter) The elder generation of my family and my classmates all have pictures of Xi and Peng on their walls. From what I see, there's a lot more reports on his family life compared to previous leaders.
KUHN: But behind the feel-good coverage, Xi's use of the media has helped him to consolidate his own political power to a degree not seen in China for decades.
DAVID BANDURSKI: The party controls the media. And of course, that means it controls the message. And basically, Xi Jingping is the message.
KUHN: That's University of Hong Kong media expert David Bandurski. He argues that the media's obsessive focus on Xi Jinping is displacing or erasing other important news, contributing to an information vacuum about China just when the world can least afford it. But Liu Xiaoying, a media scholar at Communication University of China in Beijing, argues that China needs to focus on a main character to tell its story effectively, and Xi is that character.
LIU XIAOYING: (Through interpreter) We call our leader the promoter in chief of the nation's public image. He himself takes this very seriously.
KUHN: China began taking its image-building very seriously before Xi Jinping became president. Liu traces this back to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He says that many Chinese felt that foreign media criticism of their pollution and human rights record spoiled their moment in the world's spotlight.
LIU: (Through interpreter) We felt our ability to transmit our views was inadequate. We were unable to speak up.
KUHN: Since then, China has poured billions of dollars into its state-run media, hiring journalists and public relations firms. For example, the official New China News Agency, or Xinhua, has expanded its overseas bureaus from 100 to 180 in less than a decade. State broadcaster China Radio International, meanwhile, has expanded to allow it to put out 2,700 hours of programming a day in 61 languages. The message to its audiences, says David Bandurski, is that China's rise is a boon to all nations. China portrays itself as a provider of public services and solutions to global problems.
BANDURSKI: This is all about China's position in the world - in a sense, China's rightful position in the world; a kind of return to centrality for China. And this is all tied up with this important new foreign policy effort Belt and Road.
KUHN: More than 70 countries have signed on to participate in Xi Jinping's signature policy aimed at building infrastructure, ports and roads linking the world to China.
Of course, China is hardly alone in its focus on its leader and his policies. Maria Repnikova, a media expert at Georgia State University, says Xi Jinping has a lot in common with other leaders, from Russia's Vladimir Putin to Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan to even U.S. President Donald Trump. All of them, she says, use social media to portray themselves as political strongmen and to put out nationalist and populist messages.
MARIA REPNIKOVA: There's kind of the highlight on the leader himself - like his style, his personality, humor and the communications though various channels kind of in addition to the communication of the system at large.
KUHN: Repnikova argues that China's story and its example of high-speed economic growth has found more receptive audiences in many developing countries.
REPNIKOVA: We should think about the broader picture that many other countries would still probably continue to see China as this strong global actor and potential partner and investor and all of those things.
KUHN: But independent analyst Wu Qiang says that China is having a harder time coming up with ideas that appeal to Western audiences. That's partly because, Wu says, the Communist Party has publicly rejected universal values, which it argues don't fit China.
WU QIANG: (Through interpreter) China's leader publicly opposes everything from civil society to freedom and democracy. That gives him very little room to express himself.
KUHN: If China has an alternative to what the West considers universal values, it hasn't been clear about what those are. Despite this, China appears to have put influencing foreign perceptions high on its agenda. One of the young China Daily journalists, named Bridget, suggests that this shift is apparent in her newspaper's slogan.
BRIDGET: (Through interpreter) Our motto used to be, let China go out into the world, and let the world understand China. Now it's report on China, and influence the world.
KUHN: This motto doesn't make it explicit. But it's clear from China's media policies that their intent is not just to shape the world in a way that suits China's interests but also to leave President Xi Jinping's indelible mark on it.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANATOLE'S "LIKE DEEP WATER (FEAT. OLAFUR ARNALDS)")