HONG KONG—U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is comparable to Joseph Goebbels. Harvard University is a “third-rate intelligence agency dedicated to politics,” because academics at the institution tried to pin down when the coronavirus may have first appeared in China. And the Black Lives Matter Movement? It has been infiltrated and appropriated by protesters from Hong Kong.
These are cracks by Hu Xijin, the chief editor of Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s most devoted cheerleader within China’s state media network. He calls it his “sarcasm,” as he said during an interview with Hong Kong’s public broadcaster last week, smirking as he tried to explain the joke.
But nobody else is laughing.
Have no doubt: there is a propaganda war being waged in cyberspace as self-important public figures blast away at each other, their salvos delivered 280 characters at a time.
On this side of the Pacific, Hu’s missives are part of a campaign that, depending on how you squint, either provides insight about how the CCP processes world events, or gives momentum to conspiratorial ideas that travel fast in the digital ether.
There are the “wolf warrior” diplomats, so named after a movie franchise in which soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army Special Operations Forces save the day. These include the spokespersons for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who take a page from Donald J. Trump and spam our screens with lies, like how the coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic was introduced to China by the U.S. Army.
And there are Chinese ambassadors stationed around the world who echo some of the more extreme views shared by their colleagues in Beijing, functioning as loudspeakers for the CCP’s tweet-form agitprop.
(Occasionally, the CCP even dreams up fantastical scenarios that are impossible to look away from, like sending 100,000 “duck troops” to Pakistan to consume locust swarms that are the size of cities. Never mind that this wouldn’t work, as a scientist at China Agricultural University explained to reporters in February, shortly after state media reported the plan. Now, four months later, new swarms are still forming, devastating fields in the Horn of Africa and South Asia, and the ducks recently resurfaced—on Twitter.)
Together, these diplomats and accounts run by personnel from Chinese state-run media outlets sent out 90,000 tweets in English, Chinese, and other languages between the beginning of April and mid-May—specifically to wage a propaganda campaign regarding COVID-19.
This escalation could be a response to the frequent, unhinged tweet storms that Trump whips up as slimy, rhetorical sleight of hand to distract, misdirect, or simply evade responsibility. But when Hu spouts off, he’s doing so as a member of state media, not as a representative of China’s diplomacy, which gives the country’s officials cover to put a little distance between Hu and themselves.
On Twitter, which has been blocked in China since 2009, Hu has a mere 315,000 followers—a mixture of people accessing the site from China through VPNs, members of the Chinese diaspora, China-focused think tankers and researchers, and tankies who are his genuine die-hard fans.
It is within the Great Firewall where he wields incredible influence—he speaks to nearly 23 million followers through his Weibo account, the dominant platform for microblogging in his home country, and reaches multiples more through reposts by people who read his words or watch his videos.
Not merely the CCP’s most high-profile propagandist, Hu oversees the operations of a newsroom of 700 people in the Chinese capital. He is a walking nexus of information that bubbles up from all corners of the country or funnels down through the Chinese Communist Party’s hierarchy. Whether you recognize him as an oracle or a mouthpiece, tweets by Hu can move markets—much like the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Indeed, the Global Times chief is a lens through which outsiders may view the CCP’s stance on the trade war, its tech race with the United States, the world’s view of China as nations recover from the pandemic’s first wave, and just about every other matter of global importance. Last year, Hu told Bloomberg in an interview that if he adds the phrase “based on what I know” to what he posts, then it’s “definitely true.”
Yet between what Hu frames as levity in his eyebrow-raising comments and certainty about the party’s collective head space, serious moral breaches have surfaced. He is a vocal defender of the detention and “transformation” of Uyghur Muslims in indoctrination camps, and has called for Hong Kong’s police force to deploy snipers to kill the city’s protesters.
Hu’s fanaticism toeing the party line is in stark contrast with his own life experiences.
HU'S LONG MARCH FROM TIANANMEN
His path to editorship at Global Times began when he joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1986, the year he turned 26 and started studying Russian at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. The Tiananmen Square demonstrations broke out in April 1989, and he joined the many people who gathered daily in central Beijing. A fast, harsh military crackdown came in June. Many died. He made it out.
Five months later, Hu joined People’s Daily, the most widely circulated newspaper in China. Eventually, he was dispatched to Yugoslavia in the 1990s as a war correspondent. Hu spent three years covering the civil war, and cites this experience watching the blood-drenched breakup of Yugoslavia as the impetus behind his devotion to the stabilizing power and uniformity of the Chinese Communist Party.
In 1996, Hu was back in Beijing, and in the next year rotated to become the assistant chief editor of Global Times, an ultra-nationalistic rag that employs extreme language typically not found in People’s Daily. In 2003, he embedded himself in a conflict zone again, this time covering the war in Iraq. Two years later, he was promoted to editor in chief, and has been in charge of setting the Global Times’ tone since then.
Even within the CCP, Hu is a polarizing figure. Although his loyalty to the party is unquestionable, there are elements within the Cyberspace Administration of China that believe he takes things too far, eliciting scrutiny by Western media, governments, and other entities.
He is one of the few figures within China who has chronicled the country’s breakneck changes in the past three decades, all of them set against his abandoned passion for Chinese democracy.
Last year, in the late summer, Hu visited Hong Kong to see the city’s anti-government protests up close for himself.
By his recent account, the city “has been in chaos for the past year.” Last September, donning a high-vis vest, Hu observed the black bloc in action, watching them build roadblocks and face off with riot police.
There was the smell of Molotov cocktails—gasoline vapors that gave away where they were stockpiled, then the hot sting of torched asphalt after the makeshift bombs were smashed to feed flames. Electricity shot through a crowd working toward a common, far-fetched goal. Broken teeth and skin were left on the street after beatings.
If Hu had encountered any of these things, they wouldn’t have been alien to him after stints in places where conflicts were far more destructive—or where similar struggles once took place, in his hometown of Beijing.
There are survivors of the Tiananmen Massacre who draw parallels between their protest movement in 1989 and Hong Kong’s current series of demonstrations. They see the same spirit unifying two events that happened three decades apart from each other.
During Beijing’s summer of optimism in 1989, Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” was painted on banners, in six Chinese characters, and hoisted by many young people in the crowd. The same line is invoked frequently in Hong Kong now.
There was a point in time when Hu saw the hope and ambition that is embodied in that quotation, and he even had the courage to join a million of his compatriots in a public square to demand political reforms, some degree of democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and an end to corruption within the Chinese Communist Party.
Yet more than 30 years later, those aspirations have eroded completely. Today, Hu follows CCP leader Xi Jinping’s diktat for state media to “tell China stories well” and to “hold the family name of the party.” In other words, the CCP’s media organs must function like Pravda in the USSR to show the party’s will and make true the party’s pronouncements, at least in people’s minds.
Last week, on June 4, when Hong Kong marked 31 years since the Chinese army cleared Beijing’s streets with tanks, Hu said, “The Tiananmen incident gave Chinese society a political vaccine shot.” The disease? Democracy. He followed up by juxtaposing videos of NYPD vehicles driving into a group of people blocking a road against the recognizable scene of a column of tanks stopped by a man in Beijing, in an attempt to suggest that American authorities are committing to a crackdown that is harsher than the CCP’s in Tiananmen Square, where many hundreds of people were killed.
With the American response to the pandemic lagging far behind much of the world, turmoil intensifying on the streets as a conduit for rage against systemic injustice, and Trump’s threats to mobilize the military, there is now plenty of material for Beijing’s party loyalists and propagandists to hijack, reinterpret, and recontextualize. Their message, no matter what issue it rides on, is uniform—that the American way, even its most meaningful ideals, are inferior to the superficial stability brought about by the CCP’s strictures on free thought and expression.
It may be easy to dismiss CCP shills’ presence on Twitter, but their message shows up in reputable American publications, too. According to our calculations based on documents filed by China Daily with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (PDF), The Washington Post has been paid more than $4.6 million by China Daily to run sponsored content, while The Wall Street Journal took nearly $6 million from Chinese state media. The Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times, The Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune have all received payments from the CCP’s state media.
Has Beijing’s paid-for propaganda about Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative or China’s take on the trade war in American outlets had much of an impact on public opinion? The answer, it seems, is no. Outside of the Great Firewall, other opinions count too, and some of Hu Xijin’s abandoned ideals still matter to the rest of the world.