The longtime editor of one of China’s most outspoken and nationalistic state media outlets says he’s stepping down.
Hu Xijin said Thursday that he has retired and is no longer serving as the editor-in-chief of the Global Times, according to a post on his verified Weibo account.
He added that he will continue as a “special commentator” for the tabloid, and will “continue to contribute to the development of the Global Times and continue to do my best for the [Chinese Communist Party’s] news and public opinion work.”
“I sincerely thank you for your continued support and attention to the Global Times, and thank you for your encouragement and criticism,” Hu wrote.
A former war correspondent for the People’s Daily, the Party’s official newspaper, Hu, who turns 62 next year, has spent years building a loyal following — becoming one of the most recognizable media personalities in China.
He posts regular commentaries in writing and videos to his more than 24 million followers on the Twitter-like Weibo service. He’s also amassed a following of more than 450,000 followers on Twitter, where his English-language tweets reflect the nationalistic and confrontational nature of the tabloid he edits — and are frequently cited in Western media.
Hu has been the top editor at the Global Times since 2005, and spearheaded the launch of its English edition in 2009.
Like all state media outlets in China, it operates within a heavily censored environment that is tightly controlled by Communist authorities. Where other state media outlets adopt a more measured tone, the Global Times takes a combative approach to covering international issues by calling out perceived threats and slights to China from across the world.
Speaking to CNN in 2019, Hu claimed paper best reflects the views of the Chinese people to a global audience.
“We say things out loud,” he said at the time. “You could call us radical or nationalistic, but we reflect true sentiments of Chinese society. You could learn the truth better through us. That’s our appeal and that’s why Western media like to quote us.”
To experts who have long monitored and analyzed China’s propaganda apparatus, however, Hu and the Global Times don’t capture the full spectrum of public sentiment in China, nor do they necessarily represent the official government stance.
“He’s always been the kind of firebrand, the hawk, and he’s been quoted in [Western] media as representing state media — as even representing a Chinese official view,” David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project told CNN during a previous interview.
“As a media analyst, I look at this and say, well now, the Global Times is not that central. They’re a spin-off of the People’s Daily. The administrative structures matter in China, in terms of who outranks whom.”
Still, Hu, along with his bellicose opinions and incendiary remarks, has played an outsized role in China’s external propaganda.
“Hu, hated or loved, has indeed loomed large as a voice from the nationalistic fringes of China’s official Party-state press, and as a global provocateur constantly bickering with China’s critics,” Bandurski wrote Thursday, following Hu’s announcement of his retirement.
Most recently, Hu acted as a de-facto messenger of Chinese government sentiment on Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex. References to Peng were broadly censored in state media, but Hu frequently mentioned her on his Twitter account (Twitter is blocked in China and is inaccessible without the use specialist software).
“Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside,” Hu tweeted at one point, alongside a clip of Peng making a public appearance at a junior tennis match in Beijing. Peng had largely disappeared from public view after she made the allegation, sparking questions about her whereabouts.
Earlier this month, Hu became the first Chinese state employee to challenge the Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA’s) decision to pull out of China over Peng.
“WTA is coercing Peng Shuai to support the West’s attack on Chinese system,” he tweeted. “They are depriving Peng Shuai’s freedom of expression, demanding that her description of her current situation must meet their expectation.”
In his 2019 interview with CNN, Hu surprisingly recalled his own experience as a student protester in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. That mass student-led pro-democracy movement ended in a bloody crackdown, with Chinese soldiers opening fire on protesters — killing hundreds, if not thousands of people. It remains politically taboo in China today.
“I was a student in the square and we listened to the Voice of America every day. It was immensely encouraging when we heard US leaders say such things,” he told CNN, arguing that the United States was deploying the same playbook to incite pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019.
Hu also said that his mission was clear in China’s one-party political system.
“We need to help the government and the people communicate with each other, instead of pitting them against each other,” he said. “Media outlets that pit the government against the people don’t have a future in China.”
“Some of my critics are a reflection of my debate with Western media and values,” he added, to the applause from underlings standing nearby.
“I want to promote progress in China and preserve China’s national interests — if I become a controversial figure because of this, so what?”
Within China, Hu has never been short of critics, especially among the country’s liberal-leaning circles.
But in recent years, as the nationalist sentiment the Global Times helped ferment surged to new heights, Hu has increasingly found himself the target of online attacks from nationalist trolls.
In May, when a Weibo account linked to the Chinese Communist Party took an opportunity to mock India’s handling of the pandemic — by showing an image of a rocket launch in China alongside a photo of the bodies of Covid victims being cremated in India — Hu spoke up and criticized the post.
“I don’t think it’s proper for social media accounts of certain Chinese official institutions or other influential forces to mock India at present,” he wrote, calling for Chinese people to “hold high the banner of humanitarianism” and “show sympathy for India.”
Hu was met with a firestorm of attacks from ultranationalists who accused him of “betraying” China.
On Weibo, Hu’s post announcing his retirement garnered more than 40,000 “likes” and 6,000 comments in a matter of hours.
The top comment reads: “I hope after retiring, [you] are no longer confined by the role of editor-in-chief, and can begin firing on full power!”
— CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed to this report.
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