Facts and Myths about Global Times, the most misunderstood publication in China

A fair assessment, Hu Xijin style

A popular joke about the Chinese nationalistic newspaper Global Times goes like this: As fatigued Chinese white-collar workers file out of office buildings late night in Beijing’s Wangjing (望京) sub-district, which hosts many international companies, they are greeted by newspaper peddlers waving stacks of Global Times.

“My brothers and sisters, I bet you have been pissed off by those foreign devils(洋鬼子)the whole day. Why don’t you buy a copy of Global Times.”

Under the auspices of People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Global Times is known for covering international issues from a nationalistic perspective. The distinctive style has earned the publication both praise and criticism.

For overseas observers of China, including those in foreign governments, Global Times bears an over-sized influence given its status as an influential subsidiary of the People’s Daily. It is also one of the most quoted Chinese media by western mainstream media, including The New York Times, AP, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, etc. For many, Global Times allegedly reports what Beijing wants to but cannot speak publicly.

Or does it?

【1】What is Global Times?

While its parent company People’s Daily was established in 1948, Huanqiu Shibao(环球时报), the Chinese version of Global Times was not launched till 1993, first as a weekly international supplement to the People’s Daily.

But the Huanqiu Shibao as we know it today took shape after only Hu Xijin took the helm in 2005. In an apparent effort to expand its influence, the publication launched its English version, namely Global Times, in 2009. There are both Chinese and English websites for the publication.

According to the paper’s official website, the Chinese and English versions of the Global Times aim at “reporting on a diverse world and interpreting complex China,” and are committed to promoting exchanges and interactions between China and the world.

“They are important channels for the Chinese to understand the international community and the international community to understand China,” the official introduction says.

Under Hu, Global Times has arguably become one of the most influential channels for the international community to understand China.

Though being a unit of the official People’s Daily, the Global Times takes an aggressive tone, particularly in its editorials, earning itself the reputation of being “China’s Fox News.”

In its latest editorials, the publication warned Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party of being “eliminated by force if they don’t stop before it’s too late,” and called India “still in the barbaric era.”

With its perceived specialty in provoking and propensity to tap into the nationalist mood within the Chinese society, Global Times and especially its editor-in-chief Hu has received abundant love and hate from the public.

For Hu’s supporters, the most often used adjective to describe him is “fair” (中肯), a synonym of “objective” that carries the undertone that even when Hu is being critical, he is critical in a constructive manner.

For those who dislike him, one of the meanest, yet popular, catchphrases reserved for him is “frisbee catcher”, implying that he can always spin an unpopular official message so that it sounds more appealing to the public.

Hu has not shied away from those criticisms, a rare quality among his peers, even playing off the phrase multiple times on Weibo, insisting that he is presenting his honest opinion that deserve a place in the public forum.

For instance, here’s what he said in a 2018 post:

我知道中国社会里有很多问题,我也支持对问题的严肃揭露。我非常讨厌涉事的地方和机构向宣传战线施压,试图让媒体沉默。舆论监督我认为是媒体的使命和灵魂之一。我同时注意到,互联网存在放大事态、以点代面的天然倾向,一个网上舆论事件往往会对人们的国家认识产生偏激的影响,而试图对此做些校正会面临遭到围攻的风险。老胡很多时候就是不自量力地管了这个闲事。我既反对捂住事情不报道,又很明显感受到互联网上的爆炸式传播自带了一种误导性夸张。老胡是触及敏感话题最多的人之一,同时我把消除事件的夸张部分作为自己的重要责任。我做的未必准确,有时网上舆论排山倒海时,我的“理中客”表现可能尤其招人怨。但我觉得,中国像我这样的“叼飞盘”者不多,还是需要的。我提供了一个看待中国问题的角度,把你的和我的角度都用用,也许你看到的中国会更全面、准确。

I know there are many problems in Chinese society, and I support serious reporting about them. I really hate it when the local governments and institutions involved put pressure on news outlets and try to silence the media. I believe keeping power in check with public opinion is part of the mission and soul of the media. I also note that the Internet has a natural tendency to amplify the situation and in the mean time simplifying the issue, and that an online uproar often has a biased effect on people's perception of the country, and attempts to do something to correct it run the risk of being under siege. In many cases, Laohu (Hu refers to himself as Laohu, in the third person) can’t help but waddle into the discussion.. I am both opposed to cover ups, and clearly feel that the explosion of communication on the Internet comes with a misleading exaggeration. Laohu is one of the people who touches on the most sensitive topics, while I make it my important responsibility to eliminate the exaggerated part of the incident. What I do may not be accurate, and sometimes my "reasonable, neutral and objective" demeanor may be particularly offensive when public opinion on the Internet is overwhelming. But I think there are not many "frisbees catchers" like me in China, and they are needed. I offer a perspective on China, if you look at matters from both your own (perspective) and mine, and perhaps you will see a more comprehensive and accurate China.

Regardless of which side you choose, the consensus from both sides is that Hu is universally acknowledged as a conduit between the government and the public, and it is the opinion of your host that whatever sentiment directed at Hu is more reflective of a person’s attitude toward the government, rather than anything personal against Hu himself.

Hu has prided himself in expressing opinions that he says reflect the genuine sentiment of the Chinese public. In a response to his critics that his newspaper is stirring up Chinese nationalism, Hu retorted in his interview with The South China Morning Post that critics “think the Chinese shouldn’t express their real thinking.”

Based on your host’s observations, Hu’s popularity steadily grew over the past few years, with critical voices in the comment section of his Weibo post dwindling. Hu is also one of the most open public figures in recognizing that his opinions are controversial. Many times he would directly address the controversies he created, and further elaborate his position in a mild manner, sometimes adding that he considered himself a “vent” that web users can express anger.

The success of Hu in building a persona has translated into commercial success for Global Times. Almost a decade ago when the traditional news media had yet to be cornered by digital media, Global Times reportedly boasted a daily print readership of 2.4 million. In his interview with QUARTZ in 2016, Hu also revealed that the Chinese-language daily paper then had a circulation of more than one million, and its English-language counterpart about 100,000. The Chinese-language website also attracted 15 million visitors a day.

【2】Now for the crucial question, whom does Global Times speak to and for?

Though Global Times reports from politics to culture and sports, it is its editorials, mostly attributed to Hu, that draw the most international attention.

Unlike most of the other media, editorials by Global Times are dictated by Hu and pulled together by an editor.

The following is Hu’s description of how a Global Times editorial is written:

Every morning, the editorial editor and I have a discussion to form the basic ideas of the editorial topic and the article. After that, the editor begins to make phone calls and ask some experts about their views and opinions on the editorial topic.

When we meet in the evening, the editor hands all material to me, and sometimes his or her draft article. After reading all materials prepared by the editor, including the opinions of experts, I start dictating the editorial, and the editor will record them on the computer while at the same time revising my views according to the information he or she has collected during the day, pointing out any conflicts between my words and the opinions of experts.

Under the perception of its “official status,” western media regularly fail to distinguish between the stance of Global Times and that of Beijing, as observed by Foreign Policy.

In his interview with QUARTZ, Hu has stayed vague on the subject, stating that he has “so many friends in the foreign ministry and the security department.”

“But they need to lay low and carry out policies, so they are more cautious. They can’t speak willfully, but I can. Some of my words are in line with their thinking,” he said before stressing that his words “won’t necessarily become state policy.”

In the same interview, Hu called Global Times “a market-driven media,” and the marketing department of Global Times says its main readers are between 20 and 44 years old, mostly male.

A comparison between Global Times’ Chinese and English versions can be revealing.

Your host found the most editorials were not originally drafted in English. Rather, they are translations of the Chinese ones published in the Chinese version of the newspaper, with a minor polishing.

To your host, this indicates that Global Times’ starting point is for domestic consumption, rather than helping the international community understand China.

Take its latest English and Chinese editorials on the Taiwan question as an example. The Chinese title of the editorial is:“社评:这非空洞威胁,而是台当局险境剧透”. Though not a word-for-word translation, the English title covers the main idea of the Chinese one: “Taiwan independence” means war not empty threat: Global Times editorial.

The following is the part in the Chinese version that features a stern warning to Washington and the Taiwan region:

“我们倒是要对台美明言:千万莫误判低估大陆捍卫领土完整、严惩“台独”冒险行动的决心和意志,如果台美把美国前届政府最后时刻的突袭操作当做双方关系的新起点,继续朝着“台独”方向推进操作,那么台海地区的军事冲突被触发将是可以预见的。”

When translated word for word, it means:

“We would like to make it clear to Taiwan region and the United States: never misjudge and underestimate the Chinese mainland’s determination and will to defend its territorial integrity and severely punish the adventurous actions of ‘Taiwan independence.’ If Taiwan region and the United States take the last-minute acts by the previous U.S. Administration as a new starting point for their relations and continue to push forward their operations in the direction of “Taiwan independence,” then it is foreseeable that military conflicts in the Taiwan Strait region will be triggered.”

While in the published English editorial, the same part is written as follows:

“Taiwan and the US should be sent a message: Do not misjudge or underestimate the Chinese mainland’s determination and will to defend its territorial integrity and to severely punish the reckless acts of “Taiwan independence” forces. If the island of Taiwan and the US regard the previous US administration’s last-minute acts as a new starting point of their ties and continue to promote “Taiwan independence,” it is predictable that military conflicts will be triggered across the Taiwan Straits.”

Take another editorial on relations with India as example. In the Chinese version published on Jan. 26, which was entitled “社评:要求印度赔偿,中国企业莫逆来顺受”, the writer, or Hu to be exact, used disparaging languages rarely seen in the media to censure the Indian government for banning the use of Chinese apps in the country:

 “世界更会看懂,印度的发展尚处于类似“跑马圈地”的野蛮时代,它离巩固包括严守主权承诺等基本商业文明还有很长的路要走。”

The following is the language used by the English editorial, almost a word-for-word translation:

“The world would better understand that India is still in the barbaric era and has a long way to go before it can consolidate its basic commercial civilization including its commitment to sovereignty.”

To your host, whether Global Times is chasing after public opinion or vice versa is an open question.

Once asked whether his paper’s editorials can be interpreted as the CPC’s official voice, Hu gave quite an honest answer.

“It’s hard to give a simple answer to this question. I’m appointed by the Communist Party, so it can influence me. My tone is in line with the Communist Party. I will never turn against the party,” he said, admitting that his paper has “more freedom of reportage” as a market-driven news outlet.

“We say these words, and the officials probably think the same, but turning them into policies is another thing. Sometimes there’s a big gap between an idea and a policy. Some ideas might never be turned into policies. Not to mention that I don’t dare to say my ideas are always the same as that of officials,” he elaborated then.

To your host, Hu’s wording seem to suggest a crucial message, that is whatever written in his editorials are NOT top-down directives from any specific gov’t agency, especially given his high-volume production on a daily if not hourly basis - it is nearly impossible for some “visible hand” to dictate, review or approve his messages as part of some 24/7 non-stop "window guidance." Rather, that's his understanding of what the government is most likely thinking. That said, given Hu’s experience and insights, his analysis is as good as any that is available on the market.

In an article published after the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, Foreign Policy also concluded that Global Times “doesn’t speak for China” by using the similar argument of Global Times craving for more circulation instead.

“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,” it quoted a Hong Kong researcher as saying.

But your host would caution against viewing the relationship between Hu and the government as a constant. Hu has been publishing more Weibo posts and tweets with terms like "based on what I know," and it is your host's opinion that these bits should be taken with utmost seriousness, as that should translate to "according to informed sources in Beijing."

In conclusion, given the criticisms Hu faces online, Foreign Policy is right to say that Global Times “doesn’t speak for China”, and that from Hu’s own words, one can deduce that Hu does not really “speak for the Chinese government”. However, in your host’s opinion, Hu’s Global Times has lived up to its commitment, that it is certainly “an important channel for international community to understand China.”

Hope you have found this newsletter 中肯.

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This newsletter is penned by Jiafei Lu, a contributor to Beijing Channel, and Yang Liu, its founder.