China’s troll king: how a tabloid editor became the voice of Chinese nationalism

Øñ 2 十一月, the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted a long message on the social media site Weibo, accusing China’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, 性侵犯. As soon as the post went live, it became the highest-profile #MeToo case in China, and one of the ruling Chinese Communist party’s largest public relations crises in recent history. Within about 20 分钟, the post had been removed. All mentions of the post were then scrubbed from the Chinese internet. No references to the story appeared in the Chinese media. 在接下来的日子里, Peng made no further statements and did not appear in public. Outside China, 然而, as other tennis stars publicly expressed concerns for her safety, Peng’s apparent disappearance became one of the biggest news stories in the world.

It wasn’t long before Hu Xijin stepped into the story. Hu is the editor of the Global Times, a chest-thumpingly nationalistic tabloid sometimes described as “China’s Fox News”. 最近几年, he has become the most influential Chinese propagandist in the west – a constant presence on Twitter and in the international media, always on hand to defend the Communist party line, no matter the topic. 在 19 十一月, he tweeted to his 450,000 followers that he had confirmed through his own sources – he didn’t say who they were – that Peng was alive and well. Over the next two days, he posted 视频 of Peng at a restaurant and signing autographs in Beijing.

To many observers, this seemingly stage-managed footage, disseminated by organs of the Chinese state, was not reassuring. 在 21 十一月, the International Olympic Committee spoke with Peng on a video call and declared that she was “doing fine”. When this intervention still failed to convince many that Peng was safe, Hu took the opportunity to hammer home one of the central themes of his three-decade career in journalism: when it comes to China, the western media sees only what it wants to see. “They only believe the story about China that they imagine,”他发推文. “I’m surprised that they didn’t say the lady who showed up these two days is a fake Peng Shuai, a double.” Those who continued to question Peng’s safety, Hu wrote, were trying to “demonize China’s system”.

Hu’s eagerness to reframe a story about sexual assault and censorship as a story about clashing political ideologies and anti-China prejudice is part of a significant change in the way China presents itself to the world. From the late 1970s onwards, as China was opening up but had yet to assume a major role in international affairs, it struggled to handle criticism from abroad. The official response was usually some form of wounded denial, or a stilted demand that other countries stay out of its business. But over the past decade, as China’s global power has grown, 总统 Xi Jinping has pushed the country into a more confident, aggressive posture, and Hu, more than any other Chinese journalist, has become the voice of this pugnacious nationalism. On China’s most popular social media platform, WeChat, the Global Times is reportedly the most read outlet.

“My English is almost all self-taught,” Hu once said in a video on Weibo, “and in English, I’m most skilful at picking a fight.” He has hyped up the prospects of military confrontation between the US and China over Taiwan. He has warned that if Britain infringes Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea then it will be treated like “a bitch” who is “asking for a beating”. He has compared India to a “bandit” that has “barbarically robbed” Chinese companies. 防守结构更好,他们的压迫略有不同 referred to Australia as nothing more than “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe”. He recently concluded an 文章 with the question: “In the face of such an irrational Australia, shouldn’t China be prepared with an iron fist and to punch it hard when needed, teaching it a thorough lesson?”

When he picks a fight with foreign officials on Twitter, Hu likes to take screenshots of the tweets and post them on Weibo, just to show his 24 million followers – most of whom are blocked from Twitter by the great firewall – that he’s out there, defending China’s honour. “The most important thing about Hu is that he has constructed a whole style of authoritarian, nationalistic rhetoric,” Xiao Qiang, an expert in Chinese media at Berkeley’s School of Information, 告诉我. “His readers go around repeating the same things and spreading the same sentiments.” Hu’s combative approach has been taken up by a number of Chinese diplomats and spokespeople – often called “Wolf Warriors”, in reference to a jingoistic Chinese blockbuster movie – who promote a “China first” philosophy and use social media to trash anyone they see as opposing Chinese interests. But where the Wolf Warrior diplomats are a recent phenomenon, people like Hu “have been propagating this idea for 10 年,” says Xiang Lanxin, a professor of international politics at Geneva’s Graduate Institute.

Hu’s endless stream of quotable insults and invective stands out amid a sea of bland official statements, calls to “occupy new platforms for party discourse”, and so on. Once you know his name, you see him quoted everywhere – the BBC, NPR, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, the Times, Reuters. In the past two years, the New York Times has mentioned him 46 次. “He’s willing to be quoted in the Xi Jinping era, when huge numbers of others – especially liberal commentators – have grown too nervous to go on-the-record with foreign journalists,” says Evan Osnos, who has written about 中国 for the New Yorker since 2008. Hu has even become the subject of headlines in his own right. “Editor of Chinese state newspaper which routinely mocks Australia enjoyed LUNCH at our embassy”, reported Daily Mail Australia last year.

One reason for Hu’s ubiquity is that he has unparalleled licence to speak bluntly about politics. Hu’s domestic critics have described him as “the only person with freedom of speech” in mainland China, though that freedom is partly a reflection of his adherence to the CCP line. Hu’s insistence on thrusting himself into every passing controversy has earned him the nickname diaopan, or “Frisbee catcher” – like a loyal pet, he tries to bring every argument home for the government he serves.

“达米安·赫斯特偷走了我的樱花”, Hu has encouraged a kind of mystique around his connection with party leadership. “To be honest, I myself don’t know for sure to what degree I reflect the authority’s voice,” Hu told me when we spoke on the phone late last year. He likes to say that the Global Times’ success is a product of the market. But when I asked him if the paper is financially independent from the government, he eventually told me, after some back and forth, that the English edition receives government funding for providing overseas propaganda.

Where Hu once spoke for a hardline fringe of the Communist party, his newspaper’s aggressive China-first ideology is now ascendant. As one American author who stopped writing for the Global Times in 2011 把它: “With all those Wolf Warrior diplomats, it’s like the government has been Global Times-ified.”

一世ñ 2016, President Xi visited the Beijing headquarters of the People’s Daily, the largest newspaper group in China, which is run by the Communist party and publishes Hu’s Global Times. On his tour of the offices, as he passed through the exhibition hall, Xi pointed approvingly to a display copy of the Global Times and declared himself a reader. Hu, it seemed, was successfully pursuing the propaganda strategy that Xi had laid out early in his presidency.

Hu’s rise is hard to grasp without understanding the broader story of free speech in 21st century China. In the 00s, hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens came online and their voices became more audible. Starting in 2008, the People’s Daily set up a dedicated team to monitor public opinion online. Its first few annual reports presented new digital platforms in a positive light, as a way to bring the government and its people closer. Weibo and other online communities were “a good tool for citizens to participate in and discuss politics,“ 这 2010 report stated. 在这段时期, journalists in China were afforded a little more freedom to do reporting that touched upon politically sensitive issues, though certain topics – such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and the lives and conduct of top leadership – remained off-limits.

Starting in the early 2010s, and particularly from 2012, with the rise of Xi, this more liberal approach to public discourse was gradually reversed. “When Xi Jinping became president [在 2013], he was not interested in the voices on the internet,” Xiao, the UC Berkeley professor, 告诉我. “反而, he perceived such voices as a threat to his power, and recognised that it was time for a complete crackdown.” Posts on social media, such as Weibo, became increasingly monitored and censored. It became more common for web users to receive an “invitation to tea”, a euphemism for a phone call instructing you to visit your local police station to answer questions about your online activities. 从 2013, a growing number of citizens were suspended or banned from online platforms, detained or sentenced to prison. Drawing on media reports and court documents, 一个 online database recorded more than 2,000 cases in which people had been punished or prosecuted for their online speech since 2013. The total number is almost certainly much higher.

在 2013, at the same time the party was tightening its grip on public discourse, Xi called a conference with propaganda officials from across the country, urging them to “tell the China story well”. That meant covering China in a way that was positive, engaging and harnessed new digital platforms. It meant proudly celebrating China’s achievements, rather than focusing on its imperfections.

Hu adapted fluidly to China’s new media environment, which was at once very online, obedient to the party line and international-facing. In his articles, social media interventions and interviews, he played the role of both dutiful defence attorney – there to deliver the party’s side of the story, no matter how implausible it might seem – and aggrieved relative of the accused, yelling out to the court that the prosecution and the judge were prejudiced or corrupt or stupid, or all of the above. It was a style that suited the tenor of Chinese social media, as well as the new self-image of the Communist party. Other party media outlets started to mimic Hu’s style, writing in a more colloquial manner. Even People’s Daily, famously stolid and voiceless throughout most of its history, encourages its commentators to be more “fun” and to grow personal brands.

在 2019, Xi visited the People Daily’s office again. He asked the country’s media workers to embrace new technology to “maximise and optimise propaganda impact” and “to promote the voice of the party directly into various apps and occupy new platforms for party discourse”. As Xi cruised through the office, the People’s Daily editorial team lined up and applauded. Among them was Hu in a dark grey jacket, smiling ear to ear.

ño event seems to distil Hu’s remarkable place in Chinese journalism like the Tiananmen Square massacre. Journalists are always proud to tell their readers that they were there when something significant happened. Hu does the same when it comes to Tiananmen, except that he inserts himself into this history in order to discredit it. References to the Tiananmen massacre are prohibited in China. Perhaps the only exception to this rule is the Global Times. When Hu writes about the subject, he paints it as a dangerous folly. “If the incident 32 years ago has any positive effect,” Hu wrote this June, “it has inoculated the Chinese people with a political vaccine, helping us acquire immunity from being seriously misled.”

Hu was 29 when the pro-democracy protests began. He had been born into a poor, Christian, but otherwise traditional family. His father was an accountant at a factory that manufactured rockets, and his mother, who was illiterate, made embroidery with a sewing machine to bring in some extra income. 在 18, Hu joined the People’s Liberation Army and enrolled in its foreign-language college in Nanjing, where he majored in Russian. 在 1986, still a military officer, he started a masters programme in Russian at Beijing Foreign Studies University. In the spring of 1989, when protests erupted across the country, Hu was months away from graduation. “I went to Tiananmen Square every day, chanting slogans like everybody else,” Hu told a Chinese reporter in 2011. (Xiao, the UC Berkeley professor, who was a student at Notre Dame in 1989 and flew back to Beijing upon seeing the news on TV, laughed at the idea that Hu could have been there as a protester. He noted that the military college Hu attended is sometimes known as “China’s cradle of 007s”. “If he truly participated in the protest, god knows what his role was,” Xiao said.)

Shortly after the violent suppression of the Tiananmen protests, Hu joined the People’s Daily newspaper, where he spent two years as a researcher and another two years as an editor on the night shift. 当时, China was more than a decade into Deng Xiaoping’s push to develop a market economy. Hu was part of a group of journalists at the People’s Daily who sought to create new revenue streams by launching a weekly newspaper called Global News Digest.

在 3 一月 1993, 20,000 copies of the first issue, which included a story on Diana, Princess of Wales’s split from Prince Charles, appeared on newsstands. The front page featured a grandiose message from the editors, which proclaimed that after 500 years of falling behind the west, 和 14 years of economic reform, China was “saying goodbye to poverty and backwardness, like a giant dragon about to take off, standing tall in the east of the world, its head held high”. Despite this lofty rhetoric, Hu claims there wasn’t a clear vision at first. “We published whatever ordinary people liked to read,” he told me.

The publication was filled with exotic stories about spies, royal romances, historical assassinations and children raised alongside wild animals. Most mainstream publications were so propaganda-heavy, so filled with party lingo and news of top leaders’ endless meetings, that the arrival of the plain-talking, eye-catching Global Times must have felt like an episode of Sex and the City beamed into the middle of a long sermon. Articles from the 90s included The Dark World of the Russian Mafia, From Female Slave to Fashion Model, and The Unexpected Madness of Monks: Korean Buddhists’ Rivalry Doused Monastery with Blood.

A few months into his stint at Global News Digest, Hu’s career was transformed when he was dispatched abroad to cover the Bosnian war for the People’s Daily. In his memoir about the experience, 出版于 1997, he recalled thinking that the fact of a Chinese journalist reporting on a foreign war “was likely more newsworthy than whatever articles he has to file”. To Hu, the conflict in Bosnia became the backdrop for a private battlefield in his mind, as he began measuring himself against the western journalists around him, whom he both admired and resented. “To be a soldier in a modern news war, I couldn’t defeat the western reporters, but I congratulate myself for being able to even join them for a fight,” Hu wrote in his memoir. (Almost a quarter of a century later, his Twitter avatar is a photo of him in Sarajevo, sitting on the curb taking notes.)

The book is sprinkled with a mixture of pride and vulnerability, as Hu struggles with his own inferiority complex: “Why can’t I be the one who creates a sensation? Why can’t a Chinese reporter be in the limelight?” he writes at one point. He admits that he spent his time obsessing over how to “look more like a real reporter”, rather than focusing on reporting. I couldn’t stand being looked down upon, not only on a personal level, but also on the account of being Chinese – a fact that brings with it a kind of unbearable pressure for me.” He carried this chip on his shoulder everywhere he went. On one occasion, he turned up to a news briefing that was in Albanian. He didn’t understand a word, but that didn’t stop him from asking a question in English – not to seek an answer, just to assert his presence.

Hu returned to Beijing in 1996 and soon became Global News Digest’s deputy editor. “I was a war and international affairs reporter, and my personal interest was fused into our coverage,” he told me. 在 1997, the paper changed its name to the Global Times, and in the next two years, circulation tripled. “China was becoming integrated with the world,” Hu said. “在过去, international news were merely pieces of knowledge or information from remote corners of the world. 逐步地, international news became more and more related to China, and the Chinese audience developed a keen interest in what’s happening outside the country.”

One international incident from this period symbolised that new reality. 在 7 可能 1999, a Nato bomb hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. Officials from the US claimed that it was an accident and that the real target had been a Yugoslavian defence agency a few hundred metres down the road. But many people in China believed it was a deliberate attack, and anti-American protests erupted across the country. Two days after the bombing, the Global Times published a special issue, featuring a report by a Global Times journalist who had been speaking with the ambassador in the building just minutes before the explosion. According to Han Rongbin, a professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia, events such as the embassy bombing strengthened a collective sense of aggrieved national identity. “That’s why some nationalists like to say that it was America who made them so nationalistic,“ 他说.

As the Global Times grew, China’s most powerful politicians watched with admiration. 在 2004, when the paper published a column that criticised Chinese journalists for unthinkingly accepting American media narratives about the “war on terror”, the foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, said that he’d long been waiting to read such an article. “Journalism might be without borders, but journalists do have motherlands,” wrote Li – in the Global Times – shortly after.

Later that year, the president of the People’s Daily publishing group, Wang Chen, spoke at a seminar to discuss the “Global Times phenomenon”. Wang said that the minister of foreign affairs and the head of the overseas propaganda office had repeatedly told him how much they loved the paper, and that the Global Times exemplified how to make propaganda readable. In presentations to advertisers during this period, the publication would tout its close ties with top leadership, claiming that its readers included “nearly 200 key leaders of the country at the party central, the state council, the central military commission and the National People’s Congress”. As soon as each issue was published, the presentation claimed, special messengers would deliver the paper to Zhongnanhai, the walled compound where much of the Communist party elite live and work.

小号ince 2005, when he took over the paper as editor-in-chief, Hu has expanded the Global Times to an operation of 800 蝴蝶通常在 5 月底出现,Fineshade Wood 的游客将由两名“船长护林员”以及蝴蝶保护志愿者和林业部监督, publishing six days a week in Chinese and in English. “We needed to expand our influence, and we couldn’t do that without using English,” Hu told me, explaining the decision to launch the English edition in 2009.

往后看, the first few years of the English-language Global Times can seem like a strange interlude in the paper’s history. Located in a rented office building outside the People’s Daily compound, the English operation was largely separated from the Chinese one. Rather than rigidly following the nationalistic line, it afforded journalists some space to report on more sensitive topics. Around the time of the English edition’s launch, the Global Times hired a dozen foreign editors. Their job was to ensure that stories in English read smoothly, but they had little say on editorial decisions. The English-language content was written mostly by Chinese journalists. James Palmer, who worked at the Global Times for seven years and is now a deputy editor of the American magazine Foreign Policy, told me that in the early days, the newspaper’s English content was about 60% “banal”, 20% “mad nationalistic stuff” and 20% “genuinely interesting”.

Hu differentiated his paper from the other English-language party outlet, China Daily, by running stories on subjects such as dissidents and LGBTQ rights. “The Global Times was trying to make waves,” Jemimah Steinfeld, a British former editor, 告诉我. Staffers from this period remembered that Hu liked to paint himself as a force for progress. All reforms begin with rule-breaking, Hu told a Chinese magazine in 2013. If your type of rule-breaking helps the country, eventually the government will give it approval. 这, 他说, is how progress in China works.

According to Wen Tao, a Chinese reporter who worked for the English edition, Hu told staff to avoid self-censorship and to pursue whatever they considered newsworthy. Wen’s pieces captured the everyday struggles of life in Beijing a decade ago: a poet criticising his local government’s plan to cut down 20,000 trees in order to extend a road; a father trying to advocate for food safety, after his children got ill from adulterated milk formula, only to be put on trial himself. 二月里 2010, he broke a story about the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and other local artists protesting in downtown Beijing against the demolition of a residential complex. 然后, Ai visited the newsroom of the English edition, and was warmly welcomed.

The divergence between the English Global Times and the Chinese Global Times was striking. “Their reports depicted two different Chinas,” wrote Wen on his personal blog in 2016. Where the Chinese edition demonised international voices, the English edition reported “some realities” in an attempt to show the outside world that the Chinese, 也, enjoyed a free press. “If you didn’t look at the byline or the name of the paper, it could have very well been a story from the Wall Street Journal,” Wen told me.

It did not last. Not long after his Ai Weiwei story, Wen was asked to submit his resignation. “The paper was looking to push boundaries, but I probably overdid it a little bit,” Wen told me. Around that time, he ran into Hu in the elevator. Wen recalled the older journalist expressing frustration: sometimes you write your stories, hoping to make room for more reporting like this – only to find yourself being told to take a big step back. (Palmer told me that the Global Times “had a culture of two ‘serious mistakes’ every six months” and that Hu was “very regularly” told off by the propaganda authorities and other ministries.)

It is hard to tell to what extent, 如果有的话, Hu’s English-language Global Times reflected his own journalistic ideals, or whether, as Wen suggested, the licence given to its reporters was itself a kind of propaganda exercise, intended to give foreigners the impression that the Chinese press enjoyed greater freedom than it really did and that he, 也, was a real reporter. At the very least, it seems that during this period, at the English edition, Hu was fairly committed to performing the role of a liberal-leaning editor. Palmer recalled that in their first meeting, Hu told him, unprompted, that he wanted democracy and freedom of speech in China, but that reform had to be gradual. In Wen’s view, Hu is a deeply conflicted figure. “On the one hand, he wanted to do journalism professionally, but on the other hand, he couldn’t change his position as a party man,“ 他说.

经过 2011, as the government line on freedom of speech hardened, so did the editorial line of the Global Times. 那年, the authorities detained Ai Weiwei for 81 天, and the Global Times denounced him in a series of Chinese and English op-eds, including one headlined “Ai Weiweis will be washed away by history”. “It was a very sudden pivot,” Palmer remembered. “And after that it just became worse and worse.” The American author who no longer contributes to the Global Times told me: “Their business model seems to have switched to being completely provocative and just to piss people off.”

扑灭野火是一项体力消耗大、风险大的工作,需要长时间远离家乡并经常面对危险情况, one former editor told me, when an article seemed particularly inflammatory or outrageous, “we sent up a red flag, and they would be like, '不, that’s exactly what we want to say.’”

Ťhere are many ways to be an editor in chief, Hu told me as his mobile phones rang in the background. “Some people might use their energy on managing, but I devote more of my energy to content.” On the phone, Hu was polite and warm, in contrast to his aggressive online persona. He took long pauses before answering most questions, as if to compose mini-essays in his mind. Every day, he told me, his team “monitors” the internet in search of popular subjects, and once they land on an idea, they prepare a summary of the issue and brief Hu on it. Then Hu gets to work, turning it into a column. For each piece, his staff typically interview two or three experts, mostly government thinktankers and professors from top universities. According to Hu, this means that his columns “don’t only reflect my own opinion, but absorb the opinions of many people in our society. We represent a somewhat mainstream take in China.”

As the space permitted to alternative views has shrunk, it has become increasingly difficult to judge what proportion of China’s 1.4 billion people share the Global Times’ worldview. Scholars, 记者, 第一位两次获得笔会/福克纳小说奖的人, lawyers and activists have found their social media accounts suspended or erased because of their unspecified violation of the platform’s rules. These cases are so common and seemingly minor that they attract little international attention, but their collective effect is suffocating. In mainland China today, censorship and self-censorship are like the weather – you can complain about it, but you have to adapt to it. To rebel is to submit to the possibility of having your life ruined. 去年年初, a 36-year-old woman, Zhang Zhan, decided to report from Wuhan as a citizen journalist. She was soon arrested and sentenced to four years in prison, and now, several months into a hunger strike, she is on her deathbed. Most people in China don’t know about Zhang Zhan, and those who do tend not to think about what she represents – to do so would only lead to trouble.

That doesn’t mean that party-approved figures such as Hu are beyond criticism in mainland China. Hu’s critics include former contributors to the Global Times, who feel that since 2010, he has grown into an increasingly absurd, even dangerous, caricature of himself. “You might have noticed that I rarely write for them any more,” Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University, who is on the Global Times’s go-to “我感觉自己是比赛的赢家” of experts, told me in an email. “The reason is their inclination towards extreme nationalism.” Xiang Lanxin, who is based outside China, told me something similar, having been put off by Hu’s increasingly crude politics. He used to be a frequent contributor to the Global Times, but he stopped in the early 2010s when he sensed that Hu was “no longer interested in meaningful debates”.

Hu’s critics are particularly alarmed by enthusiasm for military solutions to problems. After a recent border scuffle in the Himalayas with India, Hu argued that the Chinese army should “ready themselves to launch into battle at any moment”. In another column, Hu suggested that China should build up an arsenal of 1,000 核弹头. 在九月, the Global Times published an op-ed headlined “People’s Liberation Army jets will eventually patrol over Taiwan”. When I asked Hu about critics who accuse him of warmongering, he became agitated and denied suggesting that China should start a war. “What I said is that if Taiwan started to assault us, then we must fight back with overwhelming force,” he told me. (One wonders what kind of action would constitute an “assault” in his view.)

To Xiang, Hu’s influence is far more important than that of the headline-grabbing Wolf Warrior diplomats. Where diplomats can be silenced with one word from the top, the feelings of Chinese superiority that the Global Times stokes every day are far harder to control. “This newspaper has been leading popular mood in a nationalist direction for a long time, and the consequences of this are not to be taken lightly,” Xiang told an interviewer 去年.

Occasionally, it can seem as if Hu is becoming a stranger in a sphere he helped build. 在五月, the Weibo account of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission posted an image titled China Ignition vs India Ignition, contrasting a recent Chinese rocket launch with Indian cremation – a reference to the country’s surging Covid death toll. When Hu criticised the post and expressed sympathy for India’s plight, he was attacked by nationalists for being too soft on one of China’s principal rivals. A decade ago, 在社交媒体上, Hu had seemed to be the No 1 flag bearer for Chinese nationalism. Now his status is not so certain. On Weibo, while Hu was being criticised for insufficient national pride, one Global Times journalist asked: “Has Hu Xijin changed? 或者, have the times changed?” The answer seemed clear.

Hu is 61, and rumours about his imminent retirement surface periodically. Yet he remains as zealous and full of fight as he was three decades ago. “He really is the soul of the paper,” Wen told me. “It’s very hard to imagine a de-Huxijinised Global Times.” The audience he once dreamed of as a young reporter in Bosnia – readers who don’t unquestioningly admire western journalism and instead cheer on their Chinese counterparts – has materialised. Each of his Weibo posts are followed by thousands of comments and tens of thousands of likes.

Hu likes to call himself a shubianzhe, an antiquated term for a guard stationed on the nation’s frontiers, keeping it safe. In just the past week, fulfilling this duty has involved insulting Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, comparing Hong Kong activist Nathan Law to a 6 January Capitol rioter, taunting the Australian prime minister, bickering with a Florida senator and posting numerous cartoons highlighting American hypocrisy. It is a ceaseless task. 目前, Hu fights on.

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