Hu Xijin was among the students protesting in Beijing for a more democratic system in China in 1989. If he hadn’t left Tiananmen Square before June 4, he may never have gone on to head one of China’s most influential state newspapers.
Hu, 56, editor-in-chief of the Global Times since 2005, is a controversial figure. Under his charge, the Global Times is best known for its hyper-nationalistic view, which sparks both praise and criticism inside China and out. Hu oversees the tabloid’s editorials himself, and is often cited by foreign media parsing China’s policy-making.
After leaving the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, he became a war correspondent in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He is now a true believer that China’s Communist Party should rule the country, but remains critical of the government. Among other issues, he has pushed for more free speech and less censorship.
Hu recently sat down with Quartz at the Global Times’ Beijing office to talk about his little-known past, the love-hate relationship between China and the US, and how the state news outlet fits into Beijing’s global propaganda efforts. A lightly edited transcript follows.
First of all, is it correct to call the Global Times a Communist Party media outlet, or official Chinese state media outlet?
I think not. Party media or official media are not accurate. They can’t describe China’s media situation. Southern Weekly [an influential liberal-leaning newspaper based in Guangzhou] is also a party media outlet. But are we the same? We run under the same system. Both of us are “party media” and “official media.” But we hold different values.
People’s Daily and Xinhua are party media and official media. You can’t understand our paper from this perspective. We are market-driven media. This phrase is more accurate to China. We rely on the market, not state finances or anything else. The Global Times has responsibility for its own profit and loss. Our profit mainly comes from distribution and advertisement.
So you have two bosses—one is the government, the other is the market. Which boss is more important to you?
As to today, this one specific day, the government is more important. Because if it is against us, it will sanction us.
In the long run, the two are equally important. If we lose the support of ordinary people and lose our influence, the government won’t care about us anymore. Without ordinary people, our paper will die.
The Global Times has attracted a lot of attention from foreign media. Do you think that’s because of your editorial policy?
High-end readers care about editorials. So do foreign media. Ordinary readers still read our stories. Many read our big stories on the front pages. But, yes, the Global Times’ influence mainly comes from its commentaries, especially its editorials.
Some ex-employees say you like it when the Global Times is quoted by foreign media, no matter whether the coverage is positive or negative.
In general attracting attention is a good thing. But we don’t live for foreign media. First and foremost we have to survive. To do that, we must have influence in China. The recognition of our paper inside China, and the transmission of our voice in the country—those are the things I care the most about.
Many foreign news outlets assume your editorials and op-eds can be interpreted as the Communist Party’s official voice. Is that a misunderstanding?
It’s hard to give a simple answer to this question. I’m appointed by the Communist Party, so it can influence me. My tone is in line with the Communist Party. I will never turn against the party. We live in the same system. We have many similar understandings, sentiments and values.
As a market-driven news outlet, we have more freedom of reportage. We can say all kinds of stuff, while party media or official media can’t. The stuff we say is probably the same as some officials are thinking in many cases.
But it’s like this: We say these words, and the officials probably think the same, but turning them into policies is another thing. Sometimes there’s a big gap between an idea and a policy. Some ideas might never be turned into policies. Not to mention that I don’t dare to say my ideas are always the same as that of officials. There are some officials who don’t like me. For example the late ambassador Wu Jianmin, he openly criticized me.
How do you know what the party officials are thinking?
I’m a party member too. I worked for the army. I have so many friends in the foreign ministry and the security department. We gather together and talk quite often. We share the same sentiment and the same values. Our thinking is the same in general.
But they need to lay down and carry out policies, so they are more cautious. They can’t speak willfully, but I can. Some of my words are in line with their thinking, but it won’t necessarily become state policy.
Foreign media sometimes interpret us as China’s official newspaper. This is neither entirely wrong nor entirely right. Does the New York Times represent Barack Obama or the White House? No. Do we represent the Chinese government? No. Our relations with the foreign ministry and the national defense ministry is probably just like the New York Times’ relations with the White House and the State Council.
Because both are market-driven media?
Yes, more or less.
Have government officials ever ordered the Global Times to write an editorial, or write one in a certain way?
I can’t say never. But rarely.
In what cases?
I don’t want to say. It’s rare. You know there are always some orders in China’s system. But we are treated differently from People’s Daily. I can’t say it never happened. But I can tell you it’s quite rare. The New York Times probably does the same. The State Council might ask them to write on something through their relationship, secretly.
Can the Global Times reflect mainstream Chinese opinions?
I can’t represent everyone. I can only represent our newsroom. But I’m really close to the mainstream opinions, because I’m defending state interests. The state interests are the fundamental interests of the public—the greatest common divisor of everyone’s interests.
Do government interests sometimes conflict with the people’s interests?
In terms of policies, yes. For example when the party raises a specific policy which the ordinary people can’t accept, there will be small conflicts. But I believe the Communist Party’s fundamental interests are consistent with ordinary people’s interests. Otherwise it is already dead.
If you see a conflict between the people’s interests and the government’s, who will you stand for?
I’ll see who’s right. If ordinary people are right, I’ll stand their ground. But I’ll be tactful in criticizing the government. I can’t be too harsh because I need to maintain a good relation with them. If I feel the government is right, and the public’s opposing voices are populist, I’ll stand the government’s ground to persuade ordinary people. I don’t provoke opposition between the authorities and the public. I hope they can communicate with each other.
Have you ever been punished by the government for your editorials?
It happens. We have a media management system under which I’ll be criticized.
In April, an opinion poll on your website asked whether China should take over Taiwan by force “in three to five years time.” Media reports say that the Global Times was warned by the cyberspace watchdog for this?
It’s true. These kinds of things happen quite often. It’s nothing. I’m still sitting here, right? A news outlet is a practical institution, not a theoretical one. I need to make some judgements. Sometimes they might conflict with a policy, and I’ll be criticized. When they criticize us, we’ll improve our work. It’s not a big deal. It won’t kill my enthusiasm. It’s normal under the system.
Since you became the editor-in-chief 11 years ago, do you feel the system is opening or tightening up?
It’s like waves. In general it’s much more open than 11 years ago. Nowadays the internet has broken through many things. Your ship goes up with the water.
What do you mean by waves?
Sometimes in a period it’s more open, but it needs to tighten up when some problems happen. After a while, it will open up again. That’s because our country is lacking experience on a free press. We need to experiment and probe again and again. In general I think China’s system wants to open up. It’s clear judging from the greater trend.
Are we at the high end or the low end right now?
It’s more important to judge the greater trend rather than looking its position at one specific moment.
Media was invented by the West, appeared in the West. After entering China, they need to adapt to China. China has freedom of the press and freedom of speech, as written in the constitution.
How do we achieve press freedom? We must adhere to press freedom and the party’s leadership at the same time. How do we combine those? We must keep trying.
In fact, our country is trying to promote a Chinese-style, healthy and long-lasting freedom of speech that is both acceptable to the society and endurable to the system. We must keep trying: Open up a bit, and then tighten up a bit. It’s always like that.
Beijing recently said that the Chinese media “must be surnamed party,” and engage in a “public opinion struggle.” Is this tightening up?
I don’t think so. [The party] just wanted the media to turn around a bit. In the period when Weibo was the hottest, I feel Chinese media were too over-the-top. Because they were overdone, they had to make some adjustments. So the government emphasized that media must be “surnamed party” and keep their fighting power [against western ideology].
Let’s talk about the US presidential election. Who do you support, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?
How can I support anyone? It’s the US’s business.
Are both threats to China? Clinton raised the “pivot to Asia” strategy and Trump has been China-bashing.
I see the election as a show. I can’t tell whose victory is more favorable to China. But I believe one thing, that is the greater trend of China-US relations is beyond one’s power. Such a big system of interests is not at Clinton or Trump’s will to turn around.
I believe that China-US relations must have some coherence. Of course the relations are a bit tense now. That’s because of a structural conflict—the US is concerned about China’s rise, and the Asia-Pacific region is being rebalanced. But the conflict has its own pattern. A single person’s influence is limited.
One of your editorials said Trump shows the problems in Western democracy, yes?
Sure. He speaks extreme words. It gets him to the position (of being the presidential candidate) and everyone welcomes him. Isn’t that a problem? The US itself thinks the same. Even the Republicans oppose him. Western democracy has its problems. China’s system has its problems, too. When we have problems, we will reform. But the West doesn’t. They think everything [they do] is right.
Does China need democracy?
Of course. We have been promoting democracy for many years. It’s on the rise, including on the grassroots level. The Global Times needs to vote every year to decide if I can stay [as the chief editor.] If I’m unwelcome, I’ll be in trouble.
So China needs democracy, but not Western democracy?
Right. I don’t think Western democracy will work for China. For example “one person one vote” is definitely not okay in China.
China needs a consociational democracy, a substantial democracy, in which ordinary people’s opinions are taken seriously, and the authorities work for ordinary people’s interests. Now most ordinary [Chinese] people’s opinions will immediately be reflected in policy. Democracy is real stuff in Chinese people’s lives.
If we are engaged in an American-style, cutthroat competition where everyone votes, if China follows the US’s way of running an election, I believe China will have unrest immediately. The country will be doomed. Definitely not.
Your editorial about Trump says: “The US had better watch itself so it does not become a source of destructive forces against world peace, rather than pointing fingers at other countries for their so-called nationalism and tyranny.” Such logic seems to appear in the Global Times quite often: The West has problems, so it shouldn’t meddle in other people’s business.
This is not my logic. I have never written like that. That’s just your impression. But I do think the West shouldn’t interfere with other countries’ affairs. That view of mine always stands. Secondly, the West has its own systemic problems, which should be solved by reform. But I have never linked the two things.
On China’s detention of human rights lawyers, you wrote: “US police repeatedly killed black people in the streets…there are obviously problems with human rights and justice in the US. And the US still has the mood and energy to disrupt law and order in China—the West is so self-satisfied, it makes one marvel.”
It’s okay. That’s not my only logic. I just marvelled that the US doesn’t do well in the rule of law, but it judges ours. I feel it’s interesting. If such an incident [like the Dallas shooting] happened in China, and at the same time the US had an issue [with human rights,] we would not feel comfortable commenting on that.
But aren’t you saying if you have some problems, then don’t judge other people?
I might make that argument, but that’s not my main point. The US has its own problems, so it shouldn’t criticize China—that’s not my main logic.
But sometimes I do feel like this: You are not good enough, so why do you still criticize me? This is normal. You can say this in certain contexts, but you shouldn’t follow that as your only principle. Otherwise no one can criticize anyone else in the world.
Do you think the West’s criticism of China is always ill-intentioned?
Not always ill-intentioned. But they are biased for sure. Interests, values, and bias make the West lose some objectivity. Their criticism is mixed with their sentiment. As to whether it is ill-intentioned or not, we can only judge it case by case. The West struggles with China’s ideology. Such a struggle has developed into a habit, a conditioned reflex.
Does the Global Times’ criticism of the West have some of the same problems?
I believe we have some, too. When there’s an opposition between the two sides, it happens sometimes.
Some say you sell “patriotic conspiracy theories,” do you agree?
No. It’s just like the quarrel between China and the West. They challenge us, and we criticize them. Both sides will inevitably make some inappropriate remarks.
In general the West’s criticism of China, including the pressures put on China’s human rights [development], is constructive. In the long run, the West’s criticism will promote the development of China’s human rights. But it doesn’t mean that we’ll accept whatever they say. It’s just like a heated argument between two people. When someone is picking on specific things about you, it makes you do better. But when it comes to a specific case, you need to fight with him, like you always do. ((I just don’t understand what he’s saying in this sentence – looked at the Chinese too, doesn’t make sense)) We can never let the West set the agenda, roadmap and timetable for China’s human rights development. Otherwise, human rights will become the West’s political leverage over China.
You developed a theory of “Complex China” that says the country is too complicated to criticize. Some say it’s an excuse to ignore calls for reform, because any country is complex, no?
I insist on my point. China is more complicated than other countries. China’s political system is different from other countries’. We have to be able to examine the legitimacy of our political system whenever the need arises. The US doesn’t need to. Neither does India. Because the world is like that. When they do something wrong, no one will link it to their political systems.
The US and the West think many of China’s problems are rooted in the political system. It has influenced some Chinese people. It’s not like that. Many problems only happen in some stages. But everyone links them to China’s political system. It’s like [they think] as long as China has democracy and elections, the problems will be solved. Is that true? Indonesia, India, and Russia all have elections. But they are corrupt.
Second, China is going through transitions: from a planned economy to a market economy, from a traditional society to a modern society. But we are in the midst of the internet era, a global era. In the past when we did something wrong, few people would know. We could correct ourselves gradually. Now as such a big society, any problem on the grassroots level can develop into a national problem. Western countries have finished these transitions, but China ran into the internet during the process.
You participated in the June 4 protests in 1989, right? What was the scene like?
You can watch videos. I was at the [Tiananmen] square at the time. I was very radical.
Did you get filmed?
No, I suppose. I was a military man. So I was more cautious.
Did you go on hunger strike?
No, I was not in the group. Because at the time, I was a student, as well as a military man. We had strict military rules. They would have caught me if they discovered I was there. I was in plain clothes at school, but I was more cautious than ordinary students.
You left before the clearance, right? Otherwise you couldn’t graduate and then work for People’s Daily?
I don’t want to talk about the details. Anyway I left before the clearance.
You were the People’s Daily’s correspondent in Yugoslavia for three years during the war. What was that like?
I witnessed a great country was broken into pieces by war. I met a senior US journalist there. He told me the Communist Party is China’s cohesion. Its leadership should never be weakened. He said that to me with sincerity.
What publication did he work for?
I don’t want to say. He’s an experienced and famous journalist. We were good friends. Yugoslavia was a communist country. It was dissolved and became several countries because of the war. So [China’s] Communist Party should never lose its leadership, the journalist told me.
Didn’t you realize that before you went there?
I went to the Soviet Union shortly after June 4. During that period, the Soviet Union broke up. Everyone was shocked. I studied Russian. The Soviet Union was such a great country, once a paradise in my heart. But after the dissolution, it was so poor and was at the edge of starvation, even worse than China. Then I left the Soviet Union for Yugoslavia. The country was broken by war. I was really shocked.
I realized we were idealists in the past, but the reality is different from our ideals. Two or three years ago, when I was in Ukraine, I asked an advisor to Ukraine’s president to draw some conclusions about governing. He thought for a while and told me: During a country’s transition, the government should never lose control of the reforms.
Have you ever been concerned that China will lose control?
Yes. I’ll always be concerned about this. China is such a big country. Some day it might lose control all of a sudden. Many people have never seen what losing control is like, but I know. I have gone through June 4. I was a passionate young man. The objective we pursued ended up just like that.
I saw the changes in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Then I saw China’s development. It changed my mind. China is my homeland. I don’t have foreign nationality. I have nothing but renminbi [yuan]. My house is here. If China is in turmoil, where shall we escape?
You get a lot of criticism online, including from others in the journalism industry in China. But you’ve said you don’t care.
Those who swear at me online include some journalism peers who are liberal. They often criticize me. It’s okay. It’s very common. China’s society is breaking up, and people’s values are breaking up. Active figures in the media industry will always receive praise and more criticism. The clearer your viewpoints are, the more support as well as opposition you get.
Do more people in China support you or oppose you?
Judging from my Weibo, there are many who oppose me. My Weibo has been targeted by a group of people.
The Global Times’ Weibo is really good. It has many supporters. They are very active.
But I believe the majority of people support me. Otherwise the Global Times won’t have such a big market, and I won’t be that popular when giving lectures in universities around the country. The aisles [of those lecture halls] are seated with students.
You’ve said publicly China’s Great Firewall is not good for the country over the long run?
Of course I think so. I still think the same now.
You also encouraged the government to allow more freedom of speech, and to endure negative remarks, even if they aren’t constructive?
Aren’t I accepting those [remarks]? So many people swear at me—and I take those remarks. I hope the government could also accept some.
I think the Great Firewall is useful. There can’t be no Great Firewall in China for now. But the country can’t rely on the Great Firewall. It’s a temporary measure. When China gradually becomes stronger from the inside, the Great Firewall will be useless.
At that time other people will need to defend themselves from us. In return they might build a Great Firewall in the future.
Do you think Global Times tells its readers about the real world, given China’s censorship?
For those who are interested in the world, they can see everything from the internet.
As to us, we try our best to. I can’t do that 100%. First, we are not that high-level. Second, working in an environment like this, we will possibly be influenced by that environment. Our information selection might not be comprehensive. I think there are some problems. But we are really sincere and hardworking in trying to tell everyone about the real world.
What image of China do you think the Global Times is conveying to the world? When foreign media does quote you, it is often to criticize.
I think it’s a real image, instead of a shiny, model image. I just follow my heart to speak the truth. We are also part of China’s image. Chinese society has our rationality, sentiment, and even vanity. We never disguise ourselves. Other people shouldn’t misjudge us.
If the outside world wants to criticize us, just do it. We are defending China’s state interests in the way we think is right. Those who criticize us usually also criticize the Communist Party and China at the same time. If China is being criticized, are we suppose to leave ourselves out of it? Our country has suffered so many unrighted wrongs. So what is it for me and Global Times to be wronged?
Have you ever considered trying to convey a more positive image of China to the world?
I think a real image is a more positive image. I can’t fake it. I’m loyal to my country, and I serve the country and the people. Currently, there are many geopolitical competitions and conflicts. We have to respond to those naturally. How am I supposed to change that?
I’m afraid it is only some powers among the Western countries that are opposing us. Many people say the West is the international community and the world. They are shortsighted. The world is more diverse than the West. I can’t please those conservative elites in the US and Japan and those Hong Kongers who are in favor of the US and Japan. I can’t give up my principles to please them.
There are two kinds of competition between China and the US. One is ideological, the other is geopolitical. The ideological competition is less important now. China has never thought of competing against the US ideologically. The US promotes their ideologies and we promote ours. We are not supposed to interfere with each other.
But geopolitical competition is unavoidable. The US is packaging the geopolitical competition as an ideological one. Many Chinese people are cheated by that.
The US wants to push out China because China’s rise has threatened the US’s dominance in the world. If India had developed further and China was weaker, the US would compete against India, and possibly team up with China to deal with India.
The South China Sea arbitration is a typical geopolitical issue. Beijing’s official position is that China will “not accept nor recognize” the arbitration. Chinese media have been repeating this all the time. Has this been an effective communication strategy?
Some might have different opinions on strategies. But in general Chinese society and the government have a consistent attitude: We can’t lose these islands, and we can’t retreat. Of course, some might say we should have fought against the ruling [in court]. That could have had better effects. But this is just one among many different opinions.
Do you think the official media should have reported that opinion too?
This is the problem of our media. Personally, I hope those voices can be disseminated more widely too. But Chinese media didn’t do that. I think it shows that our entire society is not flexible enough. I think we are supposed to allow more different voices.
What will the Chinese media landscape look like in the next ten years?
There are several factors. The biggest one is technology, the number one driving force in the future. The second one is politics. Our country is probing new management strategies. The state also hopes the entire society is flexible. It’s not good to lose flexibility.
Technology development and globalization tell us that Chinese society needs to remain open. How to keep it open? This is what the state should keep on probing. If China can have better relations with the West, it will be good for China’s openness. If relations with the West are tense, and there is some unrest in the country, then the conditions will be bad.
China has been trying to convey its own values, like the Chinese Dream, to the world. Has that been successful?
When it comes to telling China stories to the outside world, I think there’s still room for improvement. It’s not just a matter for the propaganda department. It’s complicated. Action is also an effective way of telling. If China-US relations were better, there would be more room for communication.
In the past few years there have been some problems in the relations between China and the US, and China and Japan. Will they listen to what we are saying? However, our communication to third world countries has been very successful.