By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - Faced with a patchy image abroad, China is adopting an unusual tactic in its propaganda campaign: using bright-eyed foreign students to burnish its reputation.
The problem is that most people appear not to buy it.
A new video, released on Tuesday on the YouTube and Facebook accounts of People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's official newspaper, has been ridiculed on the Internet for the interviewees' fawning praise of President Xi Jinping.
The three-and-a-half minute clip, which featured university students from 15 countries, is titled "Who is Xi Dada?", a term of affection in Chinese that translates into "Uncle Xi".
It is the first known video of its kind to feature foreign university students, all of whom are studying in Beijing. They celebrate "Xi Dada" as a potential husband, corruption fighter and "cute" leader.
The outreach to foreigners reflects a desire by party leaders to influence public opinion at home and abroad at a time when China's image has been damaged by disputes over territorial claims, human rights record and a long-running cyber security spat with the United States.
Xi is in the United States for his first state visit there, and will discuss the issues with President Barack Obama.
On Friday, the video on YouTube, which is blocked in China, had been watched more than 90,000 times, with 136 "likes" and 803 "dislikes". The comments were overwhelmingly negative.
"I don't think there's a single person who would watch this and say: 'Oh, interesting. He's so lovable like a teddy bear'," Jorge Guajardo, the former Mexican ambassador to China from 2007 to 2013, told Reuters. "I think it just totally backfires."
Alexander Sherr, a 23-year-old third-year international relations student at the elite Peking University, praised Xi in the video as being "very well-educated".
"I also have a copy of his book on the governance of China and I would actually love to read it," the American said in the video, which carried the Chinese subtitles: "I love reading the book very much". ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnRo9AMT8FI )
Sherr told Reuters that the university had approached him last week, saying the People's Daily was interested in interviewing several foreign students.
He said the 20-minute interview was mostly about his life experiences in China and his views on Sino-U.S. relations, adding that the questions were not focused mainly on Xi.
"I had no idea that they were going to clip it here, there and everywhere, and then turn it into a 3-minute and 30 second propaganda piece," he said.
An employee at Peking University, who declined to be named, confirmed that the People's Daily had approached them for the interviews. Wang Yang, an employee from the People's Daily, confirmed that the organization had produced the video.
The video is the latest example of the government's desire to build a cult of personality around Xi. His folksy, man-of-the-people image has inspired videos and books.
"Only Mao, and now Xi, have been ... singled out for such adulation by foreigners," said Anne-Marie Brady, a political science professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, referring to Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China.
In an email, Brady said such adulation was disparaged as the "cult of the individual" after the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when Mao turned against his comrades in the name of radical upheaval.
CHINA'S OWN STAR POWER
In the video, the comments on Xi's looks reflect an awareness of the star power of some world leaders like Obama, and "a desire to show that China can match that too", said Nick Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, in an email.
Having the admiration of the world helps Chinese leaders make "an important claim on their continued trust, acceptance and loyalty" for a domestic audience, added Cull.
Asked about the video, Hong Lei, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, said China hoped to expand student exchanges with the United States in the future.
"We should provide complete affirmation and support to these kinds of positive remarks," he said at a daily news briefing.
The party is trying to shift perception overseas as it believes "that China has a negative international image", according to Brady.
Last Friday, a studio known for creating positive videos of the government released a clip called "When China Met Carolina", celebrating Chinese investment in South Carolina. The clip was shown on YouTube and had more than 231,000 views.
The use "of foreign students gives the video a sense of fashionability, 'hip-ness' and a pretence of cool", Cull said.
Lila Kidson, a 22-year-old fourth-year American film student at Peking University who described Xi as a handsome and "super charismatic" leader in the video, said she thought the outcome was "cute".
"I don't think I would go so far as to say it was propaganda," Kidson said. "I think every country's media wants to portray their country in the best way that they can."
(Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan and Zhang Qi; Editing by Mike Collett-White)