Illustration by Noodleshoop.

Who is Hu Xijin ?

Everything you need to know about the former Chief Editor of the Global Times.

Background

Hu Xijin (胡锡进, Hú Xījìn) is the former Chief Editor of the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid newspaper in the People's Republic of China. He retired December 16, 2021 and is now a special commentator for the news outlet.

Chided by China’s intellectuals for his perennial war-mongering and inflammatory remarks, Hu Xijin has been nicknamed “Frisbee Hu,” characterizing him as a mindless Party mouthpiece who relentlessly pushes the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) latest line.

Nonetheless, his readership numbers don’t lie. With a daily circulation of roughly 1.5 million, many in China lend their ears to Hu’s relentless saber-rattling. Thanks to an English-language edition of the Global Times launched in 2009, Hu has expanded his outreach even further, spreading propagandistic misinformation and derogatory commentary to audiences on a global scale. However, despite Hu’s grinding patriotism and total devotion to the Party, the Global Times is far more than a Party mouthpiece. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the government or Party.

Skip to Hu's full background.

In 1989, Hu joined the People’s Daily as a reporter within the International Department. From 1993 to 1996, he was dispatched to Yugoslavia to monitor the Bosnian War.

After returning to Beijing from the Balkans in 1996, Hu became deputy editor of Global Times, a subsidiary of the state-owned media outlet People’s Daily, which was founded three years prior in 1993.

In 2005, Hu was appointed editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a position he has held since then.

In 1978, Hu attended the Nanjing Military International Relations University, an institution that cultivated future generations of military diplomats.

After graduating, Hu attended the Beijing Foreign Studies University where he received his M.A. in Russian Literature and Language in 1989.

Timeline

1960
Birth Year
Hu Xijin is born.

Hu is born in Beijing, the capital city of the People's Republic of China.

1982
Education
Hu graduates university.

Hu graduates from Nanjing Military International Relations University. Later, Hu attended Beijing Foreign Studies University where he received his M.A. in Russian Literature and Language in 1989. 

1989
Work History
Hu joins the People's Daily.

Hu joins the International Department of the People’s Daily, where he is eventually dispatched to Yugoslavia to report on the Bosnian War.

1996
Personal History
Hu is promoted at the People's Daily.

In 1996, Hu is appointed deputy editor of the People’s Daily.

2005-present
Work History
Hu becomes editor-in-chief of the Global Times

Hu becomes editor-in-chief of the Global Times, the position he is best known for today.

Hu Xijin: the Firebrand ‘Frisbee Hu’

In September of 2020, the Global Times Twitter account triggered a maelstrom of activity online. This time, it was in response to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s dinner meeting with a U.S. State Department official. The tabloid’s Tweet issued a blatant threat: “If any act of her provacation [sic] violates the Anti-Secession Law of China, a war will be set off and Tsai will be wiped out.” Eager to disseminate the latest example of unwarranted ‘Chinese aggression,’ media news outlets worldwide immediately reported on the threatening remark. Bloomberg referred to it as “China’s Threats of War.’ Headlines on Yahoo News warned of China’s “Death Threat” to Taiwan. But to those familiar with Global Times, they shrugged off what seemed to be a blatant call to arms. 

The Global Times may carry the moniker of Chinese state-owned media outlet, yet it adopts a brazen tone that the Party wouldn’t dare replicate. Nor does the paper speak for the Chinese government. In fact, the aim of the paper is simple: to be as provocative as possible. The staff readily embraces the mantra of ‘any attention is good attention,’ improving viewership through fiery opinion pieces, jingoistic editorials, and sensational headlines. Clippings from foreign newspapers that quote the Global Times’ nationalistic articles are pinned to the office’s walls, motivating employees to continue their pugnacious commentary. In spite of the paper’s radical, anti-Western commentary, it acts as the Party’s guard dog with a bark that is far worse than its bite. Still, the paper has amassed a following of millions in China, and the mastermind behind it all, editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, is a man whose past is as dynamic as the paper he runs. 

Who is the editor behind the Global Times?

A Champion of Chinese Nationalism

The son of poor migrant workers from Henan, Hu Xijin was born in Beijing in 1960. Given his family background, he was able to escape the tumult of the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed. In 1978, Hu attended the Nanjing Military International Relations University, an institution that cultivated future generations of military diplomats. Steeped in the university’s militaristic and patriotic culture, it was there that Hu felt compelled to “journalistically defend the nation.” During this time, Hu also developed a fascination with Russian literature (according to Hu, he was so enamored with Russian novels that he finished the entire four-year Russian literature curriculum during his first year). After graduating, Hu attended the Beijing Foreign Studies University where he received his M.A. in Russian Literature and Language in 1989.

In 1978, Hu attended the Nanjing Military International Relations University, an institution that cultivated future generations of military diplomats. Steeped in the university’s militaristic and patriotic culture, it was there that Hu felt compelled to “journalistically defend the nation.”

However, even Hu, a Party member since 1986 and PLA soldier, has admitted that his devotion to the Party once wavered during his youth. In the spring of 1989, Hu was so enamoured with the possibility of Chinese democracy that he participated in the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. “It was like a flow of emotion,” Hu said as he recalled the protest. “I felt full of hope that we could turn into a democratic country like the United States.” Hu would ultimately leave before the violent crackdowns ensued, and has subsequently blamed the “childish” ideas of China’s pro-democracy intellectuals for leading him astray. Still, for someone who claims complete devotion to the Party, Hu’s participation in the Tiananmen protests has certainly raised eyebrows. 

In 1989, Hu joined the People’s Daily as a reporter within the International Department. From 1993 to 1996, he was dispatched to Yugoslavia to monitor the Bosnian War. Despite witnessing the pain and destruction of war firsthand, Hu still looks back on his time in Bosnia and Herzegovina fondly, remarking that it was a “thrilling” experience. It is there that Hu claims to have developed a newfound appreciation for the CCP, spurred by a discussion with an unnamed U.S. journalist. Recalling their conversation, Hu stated: “He told me the Communist Party is China’s cohesion. Its leadership should never be weakened. He said that to me with sincerity.” Given China’s sheer size and communist roots, Hu himself has expressed concerns that China will suffer the same fate as Yugoslavia. But rather than turn to democratization, Hu believes strong Party leadership is the key to safeguarding the nation’s future. 

After returning to Beijing from the Balkans in 1996, Hu became deputy editor of Global Times, a subsidiary of the state-owned media outlet People’s Daily, which was founded three years prior in 1993. Considering China’s historically inward-looking approach to global affairs, the Global Times initially struggled to garner much domestic attention. However, according to Michael Anti, a well-known Chinese journalist, “ [The] Global Times has been increasingly relevant since 1999…since the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia.” After the infamous accident by U.S. forces, which placed U.S.-China relations under enormous strain, many Chinese audiences naturally turned their gaze outward. With rising domestic demand for international news, Global Times, as the name suggests, supplied a steady stream of commentary on foreign affairs and international relations ever since. In 2005, Hu was appointed editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a position he has held since then.

Hu and the Legacy of Global Times

Notoriously controversial, and dripping with nationalism, the Global Times grew under Hu’s leadership from a small subsidiary of the People’s Daily to an international phenomenon. Today, the tabloid occupies a unique space in China’s journalistic scene, balancing the needs of the Party and the demands of the market. Reflecting on this niche, Hu argues that while his tone is in line with the Party, Global Times is “market-driven, with responsibility to our readers, and thus we reflect both official opinion and grassroots opinion.” 

As argued by David Burdanski, director of China Media Project, in a SupChina article, Global Times is “a bit like China’s id — its primitive, instinctual voice that can amplify its deeper resentments, its wounded sense of glory.” Monetizing this approach through sensationalist articles, Hu remains in the Party’s good graces while ensuring that Global Times continues to grow. 

"Global Times is “a bit like China’s id — its primitive, instinctual voice that can amplify its deeper resentments, its wounded sense of glory.”

David Burdanski

In China, both Hu and Global Times boast impressive followings. Hu’s Weibo account, China’s version of Twitter, has over 24 million followers. The Global Times account is even more formidable, amassing a total following of 30 million users. According to Hu, the Global Times Chinese-language website attracts 15 million visitors daily. The tabloid’s English-edition, launched in 2009, is considerably less prominent. Nonetheless, with a daily printed circulation of 200,000 in English and 1.5 million in Chinese, Hu commands attention on a global scale. As Shastri Ramachandaran, a former editor of the Global Times’ English-edition, explained to Foreign Policy, “The stance, tone, language, and topic are calculated with an eye on attention abroad…This is to troll for clicks and media mentions.” 

With clickbait headlines and needlessly provocative narratives, the Global Times’ is also a gold mine for reporters on China, particularly those eager to bolster traffic on their own sites. “As reporters in Beijing, we all loved the Global Times because they said a lot of wacky [things] and gave us something to quote,” explained Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick during her interview with Foreign Policy. “If you were lazy, you could always get a good quote from them.” With a daily slew of hard-hitting articles coupled with rising fears of Chinese strength, Global Times has filled a void by providing Western audiences with limitless content. 

When Foreign Policy asked why the Global Times is so popular in China, an employee once said, “The liberals say it is because GT promotes and sells Chinese nationalism. The others say it is because GT is very sharp and we dare to touch the sensitive issues.” But, in Hu Xijin’s case, ‘popular’ is highly subjective. 

In fact, “Frisbee Hu” has received a fair amount of criticism throughout his career, particularly among China’s elites and academics. Tsinghua University professor Sun Liping called Hu a “traitor” devoid of “human dignity.” Former Chinese ambassador to France Wu Jianmin stated that Hu’s take on foreign affairs “made a mess” of the world. Furthermore, Senior Journalist Chen Jibing once wrote, “The more popular the Global Times is, the more distorted Chinese people’s understanding of the society and the world is.” 

A deleted Weibo Post from 2012, now on the Chinese media project website, titled “China’s Most Horrid People of 2012” ranked Hu in the top ten. As written in a SupChina article, “Some Weibo posts riff on the Chinese name for Global Times (环球日报 Huánqiú Shíbào) to call it “Muddled Shit Times” (混球屎报 Hùnqiú Shïbào).” Swinging wildly from preaching “mutual respect” between countries to peddling conspiracy theories that suggest COVID-19 originated from the United States, many regard Hu’s narrative and inherent inconsistencies as little more than inflammatory babble.

Negotiating between Expression and Loyalty

Employed by the state and a firm believer in safeguarding Party rule, Hu’s connections to the government run deep. Hu has devoted his life to the Chinese Communist Party, from his PLA background to the Global Times’ rabid-like defense of Chinese policy. “My tone is in line with the Communist Party. I will never turn against the party,” Hu remarked flatly during an interview with Quartz. Still, Hu’s party membership does not imply that he fully subscribes to their beliefs. Unlike cadres who must constantly tow the Party line, Hu is granted more leeway than China’s bureaucrats. As such, he displays a bold outspokenness on Chinese taboos and domestic issues that expose his true motives: supporting China’s national interests and promoting individual freedoms within reason, even if it risks upsetting his superiors.

A long-standing advocate for China’s democratization and free speech, few are bold enough to argue for the reforms that Hu champions. At the Global Times office, a plaque that hangs in their office reads, “Don’t just strive to pioneer, but also to remain extremely safe” – a warning to those whose unfiltered remarks and radical ideas might attract undue attention from the CCP. 

Yet, in spite of their state affiliation and proximity to the Party, Hu and his team frequently push boundaries, delving into topics that other state-owned newspapers often avoid. For instance, under Hu, the Global Times broke protocol by publishing articles that discuss the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In April of 2011, the Global Times published an investigative report exposing the corrupt spending habits of Lu Guangyu, a general manager of China’s state-owned petroleum company Sinopec. On Weibo, Hu has written posts criticizing the Great Firewall and state censorship. When several cities in China witnessed a noticeable increase in smog, Hu demanded that the Chinese government “publish truthful environmental data to the public. Let society participate in the process of solving the problem.” 

Nevertheless, Hu still is very much at the mercy of the Party. In 2016, he and his team were reprimanded by the Cyberspace Administration of China for publishing a poll that asked if the People’s Republic of China should forcefully annex Taiwan “in three to five years time”. While Hu may yearn for free speech and greater freedoms in his native China, it remains a distant aspiration under Xi Jinping. Considering Hu’s highly vocal and defiant nature, it certainly won’t be the last time he flies too close to the sun. Still, Hu’s relentless defiance of preconceived boundaries and pursuit of greater freedoms places him on a short list of those bold enough to challenge Party mandates. 

Infamous abroad and divisive at home, Hu Xijin helped transform the Global Times from an obscure state-sponsored tabloid to an international lightning rod. Through its nationalistic editorials and clickbait journalism, Hu and the Global Times have attracted a substantial following in China and abroad. Still, the two are not without their fair share of critics; many condemn their narrow-minded belligerence, gratuitous pandering to the Party, and ignorance of foreign affairs. As Hu’s platform expands, so does his ability to shape public opinion through propaganda and misinformation. Amidst rising tensions between the U.S. and China, it is incontrovertible that Hu contributes to a media environment inimical to a healthy U.S.-China relationship. A CCP-backed pot-stirrer, Hu is ultimately a key opinion leader on U.S.-China relations, one who delights in stoking anti-Western sentiments while defending China’s wounded sense of glory.

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