China’s Angriest Newspaper Doesn’t Speak for China – Foreign Policy (blog)

As tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula, the world’s eyes are on China’s response. And “China” has given plenty of answers. “China Offers to Defend Kim Jong-un If He Gives Up His Nuclear Weapons,” read one National Interest headline. “China Warns North Korea Not to ‘Cross Point of No Return’ With Nuclear Test,” claimed Breitbart.

The problem is, it wasn’t the Chinese government issuing these statements; it was a market-driven tabloid that strives for exactly this sort of attention.

China is home to nearly 2,000 newspapers — many of them state-owned to some degree and all of them subject to increasingly tight censorship — but few come close to exerting the influence abroad that the Global Times does. Established under the ownership of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship paper, the People’s Daily, in 1993, the nationally circulated daily claims a Chinese readership of several million. Since 2009, there has also been an English edition that shares editorial content with the Chinese flagship. It has earned attention — and notoriety — in China and abroad for its hawkish editorials and has been labeled by Western observers as “China’s Fox News.”

But that nickname is revealing in more ways than one. By its own admission, the paper’s actual relationship with China’s levers of power is tangential at best. And while the Global Times and the Chinese government have interests that overlap, they aren’t nearly identical. Several current and former editors at the paper say business incentives drive it to be intentionally provocative whenever possible. Provocations that involve straying from the official line of the Chinese government are welcome, so long as they don’t entirely sever the illusion of a tight connection between it and the newspaper.

The newspaper owes its outsized voice in international media and politics precisely to that illusion of “official” status. On its own, the Global Times’s sensationalism (conveniently available in English) may have earned it an international audience, but not nearly the influence it currently enjoys. In his rambling interview with The Associated Press this month, U.S. President Donald Trump cited what was, most likely, the Global Times as evidence his policy was working. “You saw the editorial they had in their paper saying they cannot be allowed to have nuclear, you know, et cetera,” he stated. “People have said they’ve never seen this ever before in China.”

Western headlines regularly fail to distinguish between the Global Times and the Chinese leadership. Take the round of such stories after the election, following Trump’s promises of targeting Beijing over trade. “China warns of ‘tit for tat’ on iPhone sales if Trump starts trade war,” read one NBC headline. “China threatens to cut iPhone sales and replace Boeing with Airbus,” reported the Independent. “China warns iPhone sales could be hurt,” said Fox News. After Trump’s call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, headlines talked of China promising it would “take revenge.” In every case, it wasn’t “China” that was talking but one newspaper.

“As reporters in Beijing, we all loved the Global Times because they said a lot of wacky [things] and gave us something to quote,” joked Barbara Demick, a longtime Beijing correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, at a PEN America event in September. “It was like this crazy ultranationalist, and if you were lazy, you could always get a good quote from them.”

While official voices in China’s government tend to issue sedate boilerplate statements in response to international events — if they say anything at all — the Global Times is often happy to fill the colorful quote vacuum. In the past year, the paper has said Australia is “at the fringes of civilization,” the British people have a “losing mind-set,” and that war between China and the United States in the South China Sea may be “inevitable.”

The Global Times shares a compound with its mother paper, the People’s Daily, which legitimately lays claim to the title of “Communist Party mouthpiece.” In contrast to the Global Times’s famously antagonistic language, People’s Daily editorials, which can be considered actual reflections of government attitudes and policy, tend to be committee-written, carefully screened, and packed with dry official-speak that rarely elicits much public interest.

David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project and editor of its website, said being under the umbrella of the People’s Daily does afford the Global Times more leeway than most other publications, especially regarding international affairs. “But this does not mean that its positions correspond to those of the leadership,” he said. “It is a more commercially oriented publication than many official party newspapers, and it panders to a more nationalistic and nativist — meaning, in this context, anti-Western — readership.”

Since Donald Trump’s victory, the Global Times has reached new heights of international relevance. While the Chinese government formally issued several “serious” but restrained expressions of concern toward the then-president-elect, the Global Times has cranked up the volume. In the wake of Trump’s phone call with the Taiwanese president, it said China should prepare to “punish” Taiwan militarily and take it back by force. A separate editorial called Trump “as ignorant as a child” for his foreign policy.

These pieces all received extensive foreign media coverage that left readers with little to infer that the Global Times isn’t a mouthpiece for the state. A common shorthand for the paper is simply a “state-backed” or “Communist Party-backed” newspaper — sometimes with qualifiers that indicate its role might be a bit more complicated, like “hawkish,” “nationalistic,” or “tabloid.” Others suggest official sanction by emphasizing its ownership by the People’s Daily or asserting that the Global Times has “close ties to China’s ruling Communist Party” or is “one of the major state-controlled papers reflecting Communist party views.”

Then there are the headlines that allow the Global Times to speak for the entire country, which is an approach that can pay off. One Guardian article titled “China threatens to cut sales of iPhones and US cars if ‘naive’ Trump pursues trade war” was shared more than 18,000 times on social media.

But just as the designation of “Chinese beauty with sexiest bottom” by People’s Daily Online doesn’t necessarily indicate the official line, the Global Times has a complex mix of market, personal, and political motivations that are often a far cry from state-endorsed.

Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of both the English and Chinese editions of the Global Times, has said he personally writes or oversees most of the paper’s editorials. Staff say he often dictates them over the phone, which may account for their often incoherent quality. In an interview with Quartz last year, he claimed that he frequently speaks with officials in the Foreign Affairs Ministry and state security apparatus and that the paper’s views often overlap with theirs. “Some of my words are in line with their thinking,” Hu said. “They can’t speak willfully, but I can.”

He added that on very rare occasions, government authorities will try to dictate the content or style of his paper’s editorials (which no Chinese paper is immune to). But when the Quartz reporter asked if it’s accurate to call the Global Times a “Communist Party media outlet” or an “official Chinese state media outlet,” he replied:

People’s Daily and Xinhua are party media and official media. You can’t understand our paper from this perspective. We are market-driven media.”

Hu went on to concede that the paper’s influence mainly comes from its commentaries and “especially its editorials.” When pressed on the idea that he loves getting quoted in foreign media, regardless of whether the coverage is positive or negative, he replied, “In general attracting attention is a good thing. But we don’t live for foreign media.”

Past staff noted the paper strives for foreign media mentions, good or bad, which incentivizes antagonistic positions and provocative language. A Global Times editor confirmed that the paper monitors foreign media coverage, “as other media organizations do.” In the Global Times office in Beijing, a list pinned to a corkboard catalogs foreign media mentions every month.

“‘It pays to provoke’ seems to be [the Global Times’s] motto,” said Shastri Ramachandaran, a former editor in the paper’s English opinion section. “The stance, tone, language, and topic are calculated with an eye on attention abroad.”

“This is to troll for clicks and media mentions,” he added. “It has paid off.… Foreign media revels in picking up these articles.” China’s neighbors are particularly susceptible to these tactics. By far, the most commentated on articles at the Global Times are those attacking Vietnam or the Philippines, inciting angry nationalists from both sides to clash below the line.

The premium placed on foreign media attention was highlighted at a 2012 conference in Melbourne, Australia, where Global Times Deputy Chief Editor Wu Jie presented a chart showcasing “explosive growth” in international press citations of the paper, increasing from 201 in 2007 to 4,412 in 2010 (the year following the English edition’s launch). Among his examples of articles cited in foreign media were commentaries that mocked Japan’s “weakness,” made unsubstantiated claims about the blind lawyer and anti-forced-abortion activist Chen Guangcheng, and attacked the “aggressive political stance” of an Al Jazeera journalist who was expelled from China.

Former employees of the paper also reported that mischievous foreign editors routinely jazz up the language of translated articles they’re tasked with polishing for the English edition — sometimes with the aim of getting their prank picked up by foreign media. “This was a pastime at [the Global Times],” said Julie Bertoni, a former editor at the paper. “And sometimes a lifeline keeping us sane, for entertainment or for a sense of justice in an otherwise bleak political bind. Foreign staff traded stories about what had gotten slipped in over the years.”

Another former foreign editor, for instance, reportedly slipped the term “rascally varmints” into an editorial to describe members of the U.S. Congress. The quote was picked up by the Diplomat, Tehelka, and Freedom House.

“[They know it will] play well to the ‘look how crazy Chinese media is’ audience at home,” said another former editor, describing frequent foreign media coverage of the Global Times’s mischievous language. “And why let facts and nuance stand in the way of comic gold?”

The paper undoubtedly does, on occasion, overlap with, or even sway, the government’s views. In late 2015, a Global Times editorial condemned a commentary by French journalist Ursula Gauthier in the magazine L’Obs that was critical of terrorism crackdowns in the volatile region of Xinjiang. The editorial sparked a series of state media attacks and online nationalist backlash that culminated in Gauthier’s expulsion from China.

It may be more useful, however, to think of the Global Times as serving as one end of a measuring stick gauging permitted public discourse in China at any given time. While privately owned media like the widely respected Caixin or Economic Observer may mark the limits of permissible liberal attitudes, the Global Times can serve as the marker for the most fiercely nationalistic. It can also act — wittingly or not — as a purveyor of more unpalatable propaganda while the party itself stays at arm’s length and maintains plausible deniability. “Global Times very often expresses viewpoints that are more hard-line than what we hear from the leadership or expresses them with a fire and vehemence we wouldn’t expect from the government,” Bandurski said. “The paper is often like an attack dog — and the problem with attack dogs is that they can also bite their masters.”

Undercutting the idea of the Global Times as a party voice is that it has, in many known instances, run afoul of party lines. In 2014, propaganda authorities ordered the paper to delete its reporting on terrorism in Xinjiang; it experienced similar rebukes after publishing an article on an open letter by overseas Chinese students condemning the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and another editorial that discussed the case of five kidnapped Hong Kong booksellers.

Last May, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s chief internet censor, slammed the paper for running a poll on whether China should reclaim Taiwan by force, as well as a separate series of editorials the agency deemed sensitive and overly sensational. Global Times management was reportedly summoned for censure, and a written criticism was circulated to senior editors at other news outlets.

When these nuances of the Global Times’s political significance are lost, it has real effects. In late 2015, a Global Times editorial called then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton a “rabble-rouser” who resorts to “ignominious shenanigans” because of her tweet that condemned Chinese President Xi Jinping for suppressing feminist activists. The quote was widely reported in foreign media (one CNN report was titled “China calls Hillary Clinton a ‘rabble rouser’ over Xi tweet,” which described the Global Times simply as a “state-run media outlet”). Clinton herself was apparently given the impression that the state had issued this peculiar insult: She released a statement saying, “If China believes defending women’s rights is ‘rabble rousing,’ then they can expect much more of it from me.”

This year, the Global Times has published editorials suggesting that China might accept a surgical strike on North Korea, that China should grow its nuclear stockpile, that “Beijing won’t fear setting up a showdown with the US, pressuring the latter to pay respect to China,” and that China should perhaps “reformulate its Taiwan policy” and “make the use of force as a main option.”

None of these positions represent the official line. But if the conflation of the Global Times and the Chinese government similarly influences other world leaders, such as a U.S. president who routinely buys into tabloid conspiracy theories and lashes out over things as simple as bad restaurant reviews and the size of his inauguration crowd, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Photo credit: Global Times/Foreign Policy illustration

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