Chest thumping nationalism has become popular in many countries over the past decade. Whilst such nationalism becomes headline news when it shows up in democracies, even in one-party states like China, such nationalism has had a critical role to play over the past decade. Why? Because of the rise of social media and the space that social media creates for dissent. In such a world, every assertive Government wants an attack dog. This piece of superb journalism from The Guardian is about the Chinese Government’s attack dog in the media, Hu Xijin, “China’s most famous propagandist…Hu is the editor of the Global Times, a chest-thumpingly nationalistic tabloid sometimes described as “China’s Fox News”. In recent years, he has become the most influential Chinese propagandist in the west – a constant presence on Twitter and in the international media, always on hand to defend the Communist party line, no matter the topic.
The Guardian cites a recent episode which underscores Hu Xijin’s utility: “On 2 November, the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted a long message on the social media site Weibo, accusing China’s former vice-premier, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault. As soon as the post went live, it became the highest-profile #MeToo case in China…It wasn’t long before Hu Xijin stepped into the story.
On 19 November, he tweeted to his 450,000 followers that he had confirmed through his own sources – he didn’t say who they were – that Peng was alive and well. Over the next two days, he posted videos of Peng at a restaurant and signing autographs in Beijing.”
Hu’s impact in China is accentuated by the “great firewall” which ensures that people living in China cannot access the internet outside China. That leaves Hu to take on foreigners who are impugning China’s honour: ““My English is almost all self-taught,” Hu once said in a video on Weibo, “and in English, I’m most skilful at picking a fight.” He has hyped up the prospects of military confrontation between the US and China over Taiwan. He has warned that if Britain infringes Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea then it will be treated like “a bitch” who is “asking for a beating”. He has compared India to a “bandit” that has “barbarically robbed” Chinese companies. He has referred to Australia as nothing more than “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe”. He recently concluded an article with the question: “In the face of such an irrational Australia, shouldn’t China be prepared with an iron fist and to punch it hard when needed, teaching it a thorough lesson?”
When he picks a fight with foreign officials on Twitter, Hu likes to take screenshots of the tweets and post them on Weibo, just to show his 24 million followers – most of whom are blocked from Twitter by the great firewall – that he’s out there, defending China’s honour. “The most important thing about Hu is that he has constructed a whole style of authoritarian, nationalistic rhetoric,” Xiao Qiang, an expert in Chinese media at Berkeley’s School of Information, told me. “His readers go around repeating the same things and spreading the same sentiments.” Hu’s combative approach has been taken up by a number of Chinese diplomats and spokespeople – often called “Wolf Warriors”, in reference to a jingoistic Chinese blockbuster movie – who promote a “China first” philosophy and use social media to trash anyone they see as opposing Chinese interests.”
Hu’s unique status – he’s not an official spokesperson for the Chinese Government but seems to enjoy some degree of Government backing – puts him in a powerful position: “In 2016, President Xi visited the Beijing headquarters of the People’s Daily, the largest newspaper group in China, which is run by the Communist party and publishes Hu’s Global Times. On his tour of the offices, as he passed through the exhibition hall, Xi pointed approvingly to a display copy of the Global Times and declared himself a reader. Hu, it seemed, was successfully pursuing the propaganda strategy that Xi had laid out early in his presidency.”
The Guardian piece says that people like Hu are not created by accident – Big Brother applies his mind to create people like Hu: “Starting in the early 2010s, and particularly from 2012, with the rise of Xi, this more liberal approach to public discourse was gradually reversed. “When Xi Jinping became president [in 2013], he was not interested in the voices on the internet,” Xiao, the UC Berkeley professor, told me. “Instead, he perceived such voices as a threat to his power, and recognised that it was time for a complete crackdown.” Posts on social media, such as Weibo, became increasingly monitored and censored. It became more common for web users to receive an “invitation to tea”, a euphemism for a phone call instructing you to visit your local police station to answer questions about your online activities. From 2013, a growing number of citizens were suspended or banned from online platforms, detained or sentenced to prison. Drawing on media reports and court documents, an online database recorded more than 2,000 cases in which people had been punished or prosecuted for their online speech since 2013. The total number is almost certainly much higher.
In 2013, at the same time the party was tightening its grip on public discourse, Xi called a conference with propaganda officials from across the country, urging them to “tell the China story well”. That meant covering China in a way that was positive, engaging and harnessed new digital platforms. It meant proudly celebrating China’s achievements, rather than focusing on its imperfections.
Hu adapted fluidly to China’s new media environment, which was at once very online, obedient to the party line and international-facing. In his articles, social media interventions and interviews, he played the role of both dutiful defence attorney”
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