Perhaps no other “media professional” in China has made as big a name for themselves within and outside the country as the recently retired editor-in-chief of Global Times, Hu Xijin.
Regarded as the most famous propagandist in Beijing, mid-way through his career, Hu became a prominent voice of Chinese nationalism. Everything from his rise to fame, to his provocative statements and tweets to the reasons behind his sudden retirement, is rife either with controversy, mystique, or speculation.
Who Is Hu Xijin?
Hu has long served as one of China’s chief spear carriers in the Western-language media. He specializes in using information and sharp words to gain control of the narrative and shape it in Beijing’s, or specifically, the Chinese Communist Party’s favor.
An extraordinarily good provocateur, Hu seemed to be leading China’s pack ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats who follow an aggressive, coercive style of diplomacy. Though he had no official role or title, he was seen as influential within policy circles.
However, Hu’s illustrious career had a relatively modest beginning, away from the lines of propaganda that he later took to. At 18, he joined the People’s Liberation Army and enrolled in its foreign-language college in Nanjing, majoring in Russian. He was still an officer in the military when he started his Master’s program in Russia in 1986.
Hu has claimed that he was amongst the pro-democracy protesters that occupied Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989; he was aged 29. Some believe that this claim is dubious. Either way, he has changed his stance on the protests, claiming he was misled by the “childish” and “impulsive” pro-democracy intellectuals.
Hu began his career as a foreign correspondent during the Bosnian War in the 1990s and was among the first reporters at the state-run People’s Daily newspaper. He was handed the post of chief editor for Global Times in 2005.
He oversaw the expansion of the tabloid’s English-language content and readership. Soon, the outlet and his editorials had become the most visible mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party of China.
In fact, Hu’s blunt articles have prompted his domestic critics to describe him as “the only person with freedom of speech” in mainland China. This liberty, however, seems to partly be a reflection of his adherence to the CCP line.
It might be in following these lines that Hu, in his articles, has frequently taken to threatening war with Taiwan. He has also been more than enthusiastic to give provocative quotes to US media outlets and added fuel to the flames of US-China tensions. He has been quoted by global media outlets such as the BBC, NPR, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, Reuters, etc.
Hu also has a strong presence on online forums. On Twitter, he picks up fights with commentators and mocks Western officials. On Weibo, a more closed and regulated Chinese equivalent of Twitter, he uses domestic sentiment as fodder and transforms it into belligerent editorials.
However, Hu’s work has also involved some moments in which he has revealed a subtle desire for more editorial freedom.
With China’s growing global prowess, President Xi Jinping has pushed his nation towards a more confident, aggressive posture. Hu’s journalism has become the premier voice of this combative nationalism.
The US issued the statement four years after the South China Sea ruling. Is Washington mentally retarded and slow in action? Who can’t see you want to instigate ASEAN-China clash and make ASEAN the cannon fodder of US’ strategy against China? Do you think other people are fools? pic.twitter.com/T0mNbfvqul
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) July 14, 2020
Not only has this prominent media personality hyped up the prospects of military confrontation between the US and China over Taiwan, but he has also resorted to name-calling and saying things like Britain will be treated like “a bitch” who is “asking for a beating” if it infringes Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea.
In a tweet in 2020, Hu asked if Washington was “mentally retarded and slow to action” after reports of the US rejecting China’s claims in the South China Sea.
During the presidential administration of Donald Trump, Hu would often post sharp replies to the US president’s tweets. Other Chinese diplomats and state media journalists followed his lead, often stirring up international controversy in the process.
You flatter yourself. Nobody in China will lose their job because of Lithuania, because you are not worth of it. After all, the independent Lithuania is a dropped sawdust when the US and Russia (Soviet Union) sharpened pencil. https://t.co/qHBcgKZ0qj
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) December 23, 2021
In his comments, Hu has also targeted India and Australia. He compared India to a “bandit” that has “barbarically robbed” Chinese companies and referred to Australia as chewing “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe.”
In one of his tweets, he called Australia the “No. 1 US Lackey.”
No.1 US lackey pic.twitter.com/F08JSm1yHc
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) December 8, 2021
Hu continued this slander through Twitter even after his retirement.
Due to such remarks, Hu’s critics within China have sometimes called him a “Frisbee fetcher,” implying that he is a party loyalist who jumps at the prompting of officials and bends the truth to mold sentiments within China.
Okinawa, here we come! pic.twitter.com/ejn2gCTSv5
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) January 3, 2022
In December last year, Hu said he would step down from his position. Some quarters view Hu’s ‘retirement’ as a reflection of a shift in China’s wider diplomatic stance.
His flair for verbal combat, in English and Chinese, set the tone for a new generation of Chinese diplomats, who have been lashing out at the country’s critics and rivals on social media.
However, changes in China’s wolf warrior diplomacy are visible. China’s ex-Washington envoy, Cui Tiankai, in a keynote speech delivered in Beijing in December, seemed to advise against the growing bellicosity of China’s diplomacy. He warned that such exchanges of anger and attrition were threatening China’s hard-won gains on the world stage.
At the Glasgow climate conference, China did not play the destructive role that many feared it would. Some view this as a foretaste of a more emollient Chinese foreign policy.
In an article for Nikkei, Dave Sharma noted that “it is possible that after a period when China thought it could bully its way to the top, it is coming to realize that global leadership is as much a product of legitimacy as it is of power. It cannot be taken, but must be earned.”
It could be that Hu’s ‘retirement’, and a less combative and antagonistic editorial line from the Global Times, is a sign of such a shift underway. It could also be a way to discipline the perceived “loose cannons” in China’s state-run media.