China’s Loudest Nationalist Steps Back

Hu Xijin, the longtime leader of Global Times, the nationalistic Communist Party tabloid, and a pioneer of China’s fiery online posturing, said on Thursday that he would step back from his position.

A standout in China’s growing chorus of nationalist voices, Mr. Hu led the paper, which some have called China’s version of Fox News, for more than a decade. Under his watch, it became one of the country’s best-known, and most truculent, media organizations.

“Old Hu will turn 62 years old after the New Year, and it’s about time I retire,” Mr. Hu wrote on China’s Twitter-like Weibo social media platform, referring to himself by a popular nickname.

“In the future, as a special commentator for Global Times, I will continue to contribute to the development of the Global Times and continue to do my best for the party’s news and public opinion work,” he added.

His flair for verbal combat, in English and Chinese alike, set the tone for a new generation of Chinese pundits and diplomats who have taken to global social media to lash out at the country’s critics and rivals. Though he occasionally and lightly critiqued the party’s tightening social controls, he has been a forefront of a group determined to show the world that China will not back down.

He was among the first to respond to the international criticism about China’s vast detention of Muslims, arguing that while minorities were being held against their will, the re-education camps were a sincere attempt to educate and train them. When tensions with Australia soured last year, he likened the country to gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe.

More recently, he was one of the loudest voices from Chinese media trying to rebut global concern about the safety and freedom of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, after she accused a former top leader of sexual assault. He released videos showing her dining in a restaurant in Beijing.

He also lashed out at the Women’s Tennis Association and others who had expressed concern for Ms. Peng in a tweet: “They are depriving Peng Shuai’s freedom of expression, demanding that her description of her current situation must meet their expectation.”

Mr. Hu has courted criticism from those who see his strident language as unproductive. Within China, his critics sometimes called him a “Frisbee fetcher,” a party loyalist who jumps at the prompting of officials and bends the truth to inflame passions within China.

A screenshot of a Twitter post from Mr. Hu showing a video of tennis player Peng Shuai dining in Beijing after her #MeToo accusation against a top official.Credit…Hu Xijin/Twitter, via Reuters

During the presidential administration of Donald J. Trump, Mr. Hu would often work late, firing off rejoinders at the U.S. president’s tweets. Other Chinese diplomats and state media journalists followed, taking to American social media platforms blocked in China to hit back at Beijing’s critics. In the process, they have at times stirred international controversy and inflamed relations with other countries.

Growing up in Beijing, Mr. Hu was not always the picture of party loyalty. As a Russian literature graduate student in 1989, he joined the crowds of pro-democracy protesters who gathered in Tiananmen Square. He has since distanced himself from the demonstrations, saying that he was misled by pro-democracy intellectuals, whom he has called childish and impulsive.

Taking over the Global Times in 2005, he thrived, even as China has repeatedly cracked down on media freedoms, jailing journalists and shuttering independent media. His occasional criticisms of the government have been balanced by patriotic salvos on Twitter, which he often reposted on Chinese social media, as if to show he was defending the country internationally.

Understand U.S.-China Relations

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A tense era in U.S.-China ties. The two powers are profoundly at odds as they jockey for influence beyond their own shores, compete in technology and maneuver for military advantages. Here’s what to know about the main fronts in U.S.-China relations:

Pacific dominance. As China has built up its military presence, the U.S. has sought to widen its alliances in the region. A major potential flash point is Taiwan, the democratic island that the Communist Party regards as Chinese territory. Should the U.S. intervene there, it could reshape the regional order.

Trade. The trade war started by the Trump administration is technically on pause. But the Biden administration has continued to protest China’s economic policies and impose tariffs on Chinese goods, signaling no thaw in trade relations.

Technology. Internet giants have mostly been shut out of China, but plenty of U.S. tech companies still do big business there, raising cybersecurity concerns in Washington. Mr. Xi has said China needs to achieve technological “self-reliance.”

Human rights. Under Mr. Xi, China’s confrontations with the U.S. over values and freedoms have become more frequent, including standoffs over Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and mass detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang.

World leadership. China’s leaders see signs of American decline everywhere and they want a bigger voice in global leadership, seeking a greater role in Western-dominated institutions and courting allies that share their frustration with the West.

That conduct helped him retain his status as a trusted party stalwart and conduit for the outlook of Beijing’s buttoned-up top leadership. Investors, diplomats and political pundits in China and the United States alike often scoured his posts for hints of what Chinese leaders might be thinking, though opinions vary over how much the tabloid’s bellicose editorials represented Beijing’s attitudes.

In recent years, Mr. Hu has occasionally found himself on the wrong side of the nationalism he helped to inculcate. This year, as India struggled to deal with a coronavirus outbreak, Chinese state media mocked the tragedy, posting an image of a Chinese rocket about to launch next to one of mass cremations with the title: “Chinese ignition versus Indian ignition.”

When Mr. Hu condemned the meme for damaging China’s reputation in India, another nationalist pundit pushed back, suggesting China should not worry about flexing its political muscles and deriding critics who worried about the image with a coarse term that is roughly equivalent to “pearl clutchers.”

On Chinese social media, many lauded Mr. Hu for his years of social media combat, calling it a loss to the country’s propaganda efforts and expressing wishes he will continue to speak out. Many gave him credit for helping the world better understand China.

One popular Weibo commentator, known as Chairman Tu, wrote that Mr. Hu’s departure marked the end of an era: “Thanks to Old Hu for his contribution. In the new era, China still needs more voices.”

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