As China seeks to extend its global clout, it has gone to great lengths in recent years to promote its culture and values abroad, building vast media operations overseas and opening hundreds of language and cultural outposts.
Now it is turning to a new tool: online education, a rapidly growing industry that promises access to millions of students and the endorsement of some of the world's most renowned institutions.
When "Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought," taught by Feng Wuzhong, an associate professor at Tsinghua's School of Marxism, made its debut last month, it quickly found a large audience, attracting about 3,100 students from 125 countries, including more than 700 from the United States.
The course is one of more than a hundred offered on edX and other top education platforms by mainland Chinese universities. There are classes on philosophy, architecture and computer science, but also a handful on subjects deemed politically sensitive in China, such as international relations or law, in which Chinese professors must adhere to the party's views.
Aiming to expand their offerings and draw a global audience, Chinese universities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on sleek videos and translations. They are advising instructors to abandon dull lecturing styles. And they are coaching professors on how to deal with foreign students, telling them to embrace open discussion and dissent.
But the effort faces significant challenges, most notably convincing overseas students that their courses are intellectually compelling and rigorous. It also puts online education providers in a difficult position, forcing them to strike a balance between preserving academic freedom and maintaining high standards for thousands of courses.
Yong Zhao, an education professor at the University of Oregon, compared China's push in online education to its efforts to build an international following for its flagship news network, CCTV, over the past decade.
"China has been on the receiving end of education for a long time, and now it has a big opportunity," Professor Zhao said.
"Putting courses on international platforms can help promote Chinese culture," said Shi Xuelin, who oversees the online curriculum for Tsinghua. "It also helps boost the school's reputation."
China's top universities have forged ties with several leading online education providers based in the United States, including edX and Coursera, to bring their offerings to millions of users, joining the ranks of schools like Columbia, Princeton and Yale. The courses are generally free, though some schools offer the option of paying a fee for a certificate of completion. The Chinese courses are typically taught in Mandarin but with English subtitles.
Xi'an Jiaotong University provides a course on Chinese philosophy. Nanjing University has started a class on the Jewish diaspora in China. Shanghai Jiao Tong University is promoting a course on Chinese medicine and traditional culture.
To some scholars, China's ambitions in online education resemble the country's efforts over the past decade to improve public opinion about China by creating a global network of learning centers known as Confucius Institutes.
Li Xiaoming, a computer science professor at Peking University who helps lead its online efforts, said there were some similarities. A course on Chinese for beginners has attracted about 300,000 students, he noted.
"Sometimes we teachers joke that we are actually doing Confucius Institutes, just with a more advanced technological approach," he said.
By aggressively pursuing online education, Chinese leaders seem eager to replicate the success of the United States, which has long derived influence from educating hundreds of thousands of foreign students each year on American campuses.
Joseph S. Nye, a scholar of international relations at Harvard who developed the concept of "soft power," said China's success would depend on whether it was able to deliver courses in a way that offered a genuine exchange of ideas.