A number of Chinese internet users were under the mistaken impression that China’s stern warnings and the threat of a People’s Liberation Army attack on her plane might deter Nancy Pelosi from visiting Taiwan. Her safe arrival earlier this week left many shocked, upset, and confused, and was followed by a burst of jokes and laments about China being “soft.” Now that Pelosi is off the island—and China has dramatically reacted by encircling the island, firing missiles over Taipei, and canceling cooperation with the United States on a number of fronts, including climate—the anger directed at the Chinese government’s initial response has found a new target: Hu Xijin, the former editor of the state-run tabloid Global Times. Before Pelosi’s visit, Hu offered a litany of incendiary predictions and suggestions about Pelosi’s trip on Weibo and Twitter, culminating in a tweet urging the PLA to shoot down her plane. A number of critics now argue that Hu’s bombastic rhetoric primed the public to believe in a bloody fantasy at the expense of the Chinese government’s credibility both at home and abroad. US-China Perception Monitor translated a WeChat essay that analyzed how Hu was able to lather the public into a war fever over Taiwan, and why he may have wanted to do so:
Hu Xijin has been devoted to creating the persona of the propaganda apparatus off government’s (and even the military’s), so that people mistakenly believe that some of the official statements that cannot be made openly are spoken through him, and news not convenient to be released through official channels are revealed through him.
[…] Such tactics led many to believe that Hu Xijin was leaking information and making harsh statements on behalf of the state and the military for the purpose of deterrence. As a result, when Hu Xijin made predictions about the possible consequences of the Pelosi visit, many people mistakenly thought that he had real insider information about the country’s response package.
[…] In fact, in the end, Hu Xijin’s various actions have a common root.
He is a fanatical warmonger. [Source]
This is far from Hu’s first time on the receiving end of public ire, nationalist or otherwise. In 2021, Hu came under attack for suggesting a top Party body’s mocking Weibo post comparing a Chinese rocket launch to funeral pyres for coronavirus victims in India was in bad taste. His subsequent (lukewarm) defense of a Global Times reporter’s condemnation of the same post as “totally ridiculous” left one Weibo user wondering: “Ten years ago, people called Hu Xijin China’s Number One ‘Fifty Center,’ and he represented radical nationalism. But in the last couple of years, it seems that more and more people see him as ‘evasive,’ a mere ‘public intellectual,’ or even a ‘traitor.’ The question is, is it Hu Xijin that’s changed, or the times? Who knows.” The discussion led to a broader analysis of Chinese nationalist commentators’ division into two groups: establishment voices, like Hu, that support a Chinese regulatory state and populist newcomers that look to Mao as the guide to building an omnipotent state.
In December 2021, Hu was pushed out of his perch atop Global Times for reasons that remain unclear but that may have been related to the clumsy “forced reappearance” of tennis star Peng Shuai. Yet Hu still plays an important role in coverage of China. In May 2022, it was Hu who dispelled market-tanking rumors that Jack Ma had been arrested in Hangzhou, beating the state’s central television agency by thirteen minutes. Despite his “retirement” as editor-in-chief, Hu still commands his own video channel on Global Times’ website that appears before world news, life, and sports. It is on Weibo and Twitter that Hu wields his greatest influence. He has nearly 25 million Weibo followers and over 500,000 on Twitter, and he posts prolifically across both platforms.
His posts during the latest Strait Crisis have reignited the debate about Hu’s position. In a WeChat essay titled, “Has Hu Xijin Been a Hawk or a Dove During the Taiwan Strait Crisis?” writer Yang Liu argued that Hu is simply a “clicks hog.” Hu’s endless posts about Pelosi, the writer argued, were no more than a product of his desire to earn digital attention, rather than an articulation of his political leanings. Nationalist clickbait is a lucrative field, but also hazardous, as nationalist poster San Lei discovered earlier this year after backlash over his attempt to attack foreign media reporting on Changchun’s lockdown. Hu now faces similar criticism. Bloomberg News reported on how public anger at Hu’s failed prognostications might undermine the Chinese government’s credibility:
The public disappointment is “a huge blow to Xi’s authority,” Deng [Yuwen, former editor of the official Study Times] said, while adding that the pressure is coming mostly from average citizens rather than from other senior leaders. “There might be differences on how to deal with Taiwan issue at the top, but the public has one single aspiration, and they’re very much disappointed.”
Those feelings were articulated by Ren Yi, an online commentator better known as “Chairman Rabbit,” who has more than 2 million followers on Weibo and WeChat. In a lengthy post on Weibo that is now inaccessible, he blamed the former editor Hu for hijacking public opinion with his own views — and benefiting from the online traffic he attracted.
The Chinese public could be left feeling “confused and disappointed” when expectations are high and where “the actions don’t match,” Ren wrote. “This would damage morale, and could also exhaust government credibility.” [Source]
Hu has brushed off his critics. In a lengthy Weibo post that made no mention of Chairman Rabbit but rebutted his points, Hu said: “These past few years I’ve weathered more storms than they’ve taken showers.” He has also continued to post on Twitter, most recently hailing the PLA’s response as a “historic precedent.” Yet that bravado may be short-lived. “Beijing appears to have brought the narrative back under control, while Hu has become a scapegoat for stirring up nationalist sentiment,” Alfred Wu, a professor at National University of Singapore, told CNN. A Beijing academic who advises the Chinese government on Taiwan policy told The Financial Times that going forward “There will be less tolerance of hawkish expressions that are not in line with the official tone.”