Tiananmen marcher now 'public voice' of Xi's govt

As the top editor of The Global Times, Mr Hu Xijin leads a popular tabloid controlled by China’s ruling Communist Party.
As the top editor of The Global Times, Mr Hu Xijin leads a popular tabloid controlled by China’s ruling Communist Party.PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING • Inside a bustling 700-strong newsroom in downtown Beijing, Mr Hu Xijin leads a 24-hour propaganda machine that some media scholars call China's Fox News.

Mr Hu was one of the first to defend China's vast detention of Muslims against international criticism. His newspaper, The Global Times, has described US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as crazy.

Thirty years ago, he marched with students at Tiananmen Square demanding democracy in China, but now, he is a leading critic of protesters in Hong Kong who have been resisting Chinese rule.

China is rife with nationalist voices. But Mr Hu stands out because of his position as top editor of The Global Times, a popular tabloid controlled by the ruling Communist Party, and his flair for verbal warfare against the US and the Trump administration.

He was once dismissed as a commentator whose self-satisfied broadsides did not always reflect China's official views. But Mr Hu is now increasingly seen as a combative public voice of President Xi Jinping's administration in an era of more open rivalry with the US.

"There is a sense of crisis," Mr Hu, 59, said during a recent interview at the paper's headquarters in Beijing, where he often works late so he can respond to US President Donald Trump's tweets. "America can't suppress China's rise."

Mr Hu's critics in China call him a "Frisbee fetcher", a party loyalist who retrieves whatever the government throws at him. Western diplomats and commentators regularly accuse him of bending the truth to inflame nationalist instincts.

Mr Hu, who is one of China's longest-serving newspaper editors - he took the job in 2005 - says he wants to promote stability at home and improve the world's understanding of China.

"China's ability to explain itself to the world is inadequate," he said.

With its mix of lively editorials and news articles, The Global Times is now one of China's most widely read publications, with more than two million readers in print and 30 million unique visitors per month online.

Mr Hu has more than 19 million followers on Chinese social media sites. Investors, diplomats and political pundits in China and the US scour his posts for hints of what China's famously secretive leaders might be thinking.

Growing up in Beijing, Mr Hu was not always a model of party loyalty.

In the spring of 1989, as pro-democracy protests erupted across China, Mr Hu, then a graduate student in Beijing specialising in Russian literature who had served in the People's Liberation Army, joined the crowd gathered at Tiananmen Square.

"It was like a flow of emotion," he said during the interview. "I felt full of hope that we could turn into a democratic country like the United States." He left the protests before the government's bloody crackdown on June 4.

In the interview, he distanced himself from his time at Tiananmen, saying he had been misled by pro-democracy intellectuals who held what he described as impulsive and childish ideas about China's future.

He set out to be a journalist, and People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, dispatched him to Yugo-slavia to cover the conflict tearing apart that former socialist state. The experience fortified his belief that the party had to maintain control for China to prosper.

Mr Hu returned to Beijing in 1996 and soon became a deputy editor at The Global Times, a subsidiary of People's Daily. The Global Times sets itself apart from other state media by appealing to a plain-speaking Chinese audience.

In 2009, Mr Hu began an English-language edition, hoping to bring his indignant takedowns of Western liberalism to international readers.

But even in China's tightly controlled media environment, he has thrived. He remains a loyal party cadre, even as he occasionally levels criticism at the government over excessive social control.

Mr Hu's loyalty to the party has been on display in recent weeks as Beijing has sought to undermine protests against mainland Chinese rule in Hong Kong. He has published dozens of editorials and social media posts about the unrest, denouncing some of the protesters as "fanatical" and a threat to Hong Kong's future.

In the interview, Mr Hu said he could relate to the protesters because of his time at Tiananmen but that they were acting impulsively.

He is optimistic about China's prospects for prevailing in the US-China trade dispute, saying the public is girded for a long-running battle. He brushes aside criticism that he is exacerbating tensions between China and the US by promoting nationalistic views. He blames US officials for the friction, likening their efforts to restrict Chinese technology companies to a form of warfare.

Asked if he foresees military conflict between the two countries, he said the "possibility cannot be ruled out".

Mr Hu then reconsidered his answer, worried that his words might be perceived as too forceful. He offered a new assessment: "The danger is greater than before."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2019, with the headline 'Tiananmen marcher now 'public voice' of Xi's govt'. Print Edition | Subscribe