Who Does Global Times Speak For?

Last week, a spiky editorial blasted Australia as a “paper cat” over its position on the South China Sea, bringing the perennial question of how seriously to take the nationalist state-owned tabloid back to the fore. While its provocative editorials are often reported abroad as reflective of official positions, critics accuse it of empty attention-grabbing and argue that it is best treated with skepticism, if not ignored entirely. In a profile of the newspaper and its outspoken editor , Quartz’s Zheping Huang presents Hu’s own view on the matter:

China’s most belligerent tabloid, the Global Times, is certainly a one-of-a-kind publication. The Chinese- and English-language news outlet is published by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) paramount mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, but it goes much further than China’s typically stodgy state news. The Global Times is best known for its hawkish, insulting editorials—aggressive attacks that get it noticed, and quoted, by foreign media around the world as the “voice” of Beijing, even as the party’s official statements are more circumspect.

That’s not exactly a mistake, the paper’s longtime editor says.

The Global Times often reflects what party officials are actually thinking, but can’t come out and say, editor-in-chief Hu Xijin explained during a long interview with Quartz in his drab Beijing office in the People’s Daily compound. As a former army officer and current party member, Hu said, he often hangs out with officials from the foreign ministry and the security department, and they share the same sentiments and values that his paper publishes. “They can’t speak willfully, but I can,” he said. [Source]

Hu expounded his claim that Global Times offers an unfiltered view of at least some officials’ true thinking in a separate interview with Huang at Quartz:

Many foreign news outlets assume your editorials and op-eds can be interpreted as the Communist Party’s official voice. Is that a misunderstanding?

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. We live in the same system. We have many similar understandings, sentiments and values.

As a market-driven news outlet, we have more freedom of reportage. We can say all kinds of stuff, while party media or official media can’t. The stuff we say is probably the same as some officials are thinking in many cases.

But it’s like this: 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. There are some officials who don’t like me. For example the late ambassador Wu Jianmin, he openly criticized me. [Read more on Wu and his run-ins with Hu via CDT.]

[…] Have government officials ever ordered the Global Times to write an editorial, or write one in a certain way?

I can’t say never. But rarely.

[…] In April, an opinion poll on your website asked whether China should take over Taiwan by force “in three to five years time.” Media reports say that the Global Times was warned by the cyberspace watchdog for this?

It’s true. These kinds of things happen quite often. It’s nothing. I’m still sitting here, right? A news outlet is a practical institution, not a theoretical one. I need to make some judgements. Sometimes they might conflict with a policy, and I’ll be criticized. When they criticize us, we’ll improve our work. It’s not a big deal. It won’t kill my enthusiasm. It’s normal under the system. [Source]

A notice circulated to media editors on that occasion also criticized Global Times for coverage of the South China Sea, North Korea, Hong Kong, the release of the last Tiananmen prisoner, and Donald Trump. It concluded:

The newspaper has one month to make focused corrections, standardize related management systems, further improve the process by which articles are drafted and reviewed, and conduct education for the entire editorial staff, in order to raise awareness of politics, national interests, the core, and keeping in line with the Party. All websites should take this as a warning and strengthen their respective management systems. If another problem occurs, it will be dealt with severely. [Source]

The newspaper has also been the target of leaked deletion orders on more than one occasion.

Hu’s lengthy conversation at Quartz also touched on Hu’s presence at the 1989 Tiananmen protests, and the subsequent experiences in the disintegrating U.S.S.R. and the former Yugoslavia which he says convinced him of the need for strong Party rule to maintain stability in China. Hu also discusses the relationship between the interests of Party and people; the struggle to “adhere to press freedom and the party’s leadership at the same time”; his feelings on the looming U.S. election and Sino-U.S. relations; his hopes for greater diversity of opinion and the eventual fall of the Great Firewall; and his surprising suggestion that “in general the West’s criticism of China, including the pressures put on China’s human rights [development], is constructive. In the long run, the West’s criticism will promote the development of China’s human rights. [… But w]e can never let the West set the agenda, roadmap and timetable for China’s human rights development. Otherwise, human rights will become the West’s political leverage over China.”

In a third piece, Huang focuses on Global Times’ foreign staff, who work in the English edition’s separate office in the “iconic” People’s Daily building. This article includes an explanation for the paper’s sometimes surprising forays into sensitive subject areas. In 2014, for example, it reported on “skyrocketing” usage of VPNs to circumvent Chinese internet controls. Many such articles are quickly deleted, but that one survives to this day.

There are currently around twenty foreign editors working with the Global Times who are referred to as “foreign experts,” a clichéd nickname for any foreigner working with Chinese . They do everything from assigning stories to reporting to copy editing—as long as the coverage is not about politics.

[…] Foreigners work for Chinese state media, including the Global Times, for all kinds of reasons. Some just want to stay in China with a well paid job that isn’t being an English teacher, Mitchell said, while others are “idealists” who think they will “convert the publication to a western point of view.” And others are in it for the novelty value. “I once helped the Communist Party with the propaganda machine—it’s funnier than anything,” one former foreign editor, who asked not to be named, said. He said he didn’t feel embarrassed working with the Global Times, but some did leave because they were sick of serving the party.

[…] In 2013 after departing the tabloid, Mitchell wrote a blog post titled “It’s not a sin to work for Global Times” to counter an opinion from a Hong Kong reporter. “The opinion page continues to suck dead rats and draws the most negative attention,” he wrote, “but if one sifts through the news pages there are still some gems.”

“The main point of Global Times was just Hu’s opinion pieces and the other opinion pieces written by left-wing political commentators,” the former foreign editor, who wished not to be named said. “All of the other content on the newspaper were simply there to provide more pages.” But because of that, more provocative reporters are enabled to cover sensitive topics including gay rights, labor protests, and ethnic minority groups, he said. [Source]