Before “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy in China, there was Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the staunchly nationalistic Global Times.
His erudite approach to foreign affairs in the English-language edition of the state-run tabloid has set the mood music of triumphalism, which now holds sway in Beijing.
Yet his often confrontational approach predates the hawks and their hard power rhetoric after President Xi Jinping’s government shed its dovish diplomacy image in 2019.
“The emergence of pro-Beijing key opinion leaders on the internet, many of who are editors and anchors of the state media, seems to be driven by individual media outlets in China as the legacy media learn to incorporate new media components into their business,” Chris Fei Shen, an associate professor in the department of media and communication at the City University of Hong Kong, told Asia Times.
“Of course, the party and the propaganda [department] welcome this form of more direct communication through these KOLS [key opinion leaders],” he said.
Hu has been at the forefront of this new message with Chinese characteristics. He has also become a central character in the propaganda push as China and the United States descend into a New Cold War.
To do that, he has ironically embraced the techniques of the flag-waving Fox News network in the US.
“Yes, he has taken a lot of cues from Fox News. He’s learned how to prod his readership, to rally them,” one foreign editor at Global Times, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was quoted as saying by X Index, a London-based organization campaigning for freedom of expression.
Laced with sarcasm, Hu’s trademark tweets are often full of venom and black humor. His editorials are peppered with jingoistic tabloid prose and shock jock headlines, such as “Pompeo an enemy to world peace” or “Hooliganism infects US judiciary” and “Sick US trumpets attacks against China.”
But it is his ripostes on Twitter, which is banned in the world’s second-largest economy, that has propelled him onto the global media stage.
He has described “the US government as stupid” and Trade Adviser “Peter Navarro a vivid representative of the dumb team.” He has also warned that the “pandemic will tightly grip the US like a python” after blaming the White House for record American job losses in April by failing to “control the epidemic.”
His greatest hits continued in May when he joked distastefully about virus victims in the US and the United Kingdom: “The US is the first and [the] UK the second in the Covid-19 death toll tally in the world. These two countries are proving their special relationship in this way.”
On the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, Hu then joined the social media backlash following the death of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. A police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes despite Floyd’s pleas of “I can’t breathe.” Hu reproduced a cartoon of a star-spangled lighthouse crushing people with the tweet: “I have a dream, but I can’t breathe.”
At home, he has more than 22 million followers on Weibo, a heavily censored Twitter-style app. His mix of brash soundbites, tongue-in-cheek remarks and blue-collar nationalism plays well to a domestic audience, while towing the Party line.
“When intellectuals attack Hu’s pro-Beijing stance, they [ignore his] knack of selling the Communist Party’s ideology in a language that [will] resonate with the people and explain its values,” a senior academic with Peking University, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Asia Times.
So, who is 60-year-old Hu? Interview requests by Asia Times were buried in a maze of Global Times protocols. But this is what we know.
Despite his larger-than-life public image, he has managed to keep his private life under wraps.
In his 2013 biography, Hu Xijin on a Complicated China, he briefly delved into his family background. His grandfather practiced traditional medicine in the “backwater village” of Huzhuang in the central province of Henan.
His father, Hu Kexian, was born in 1929 and grew up during the turmoil of 1930s China that erupted into the bloody conflict with Japan. “Most of [my] relatives were Christians from a backwater village,” he told his legion of followers on Weibo last month in a eulogy to his father, who died on May 1.
Yet as a 20-year-old in 1949, Hu Kexian enlisted in Mao Zedong’s Red Army during the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s ruling nationalist, or Koumintang government, and was part of the communist forces which swept into Beijing.
After the Communist Party’s victory, he decided to stay in the capital to pursue his career at a high-security rocket research institute affiliated to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Hu’s three sisters would eventually work there as well.
Over time, speculation has increased about his father’s contacts within the PLA and the broader Party, and how they would prove crucial for Hu, who was born in 1960 amid Mao’s failed Great Leap Forward policy. But this is where fact and fiction blur.
“My father was a quiet man but he was just an accountant who had no ambitions in politics,” Hu said on Weibo, dismissing earlier reports about his father’s professional background as an engineer and his connections or guanxi.
His early childhood was shaped by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a lost decade of chaos between 1966 and 1976. Rampaging gangs of students, known as Red Guards, looted his parents home in a factory distinct of Beijing because of his grandfather’s “bourgeoisie” business before the civil war.
“He had employed a few people in Henan prior to 1949 and therefore [had to be] categorized as a ‘counterrevolutionary landlord’ … [He had to be] denounced. This was the most traumatizing memory of [my] childhood,” Hu told Phoenix New Media, a Chinese-language group, last month.
Following high school, he graduated in 1982 from the influential National University of Defense Technology, a military academy with strong links to the PLA.
By then, he was already a member of the Communist Party and had joined the armed forces as part of the college entry process. He would later resign to complete a master’s degree in Russian literature at the prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square student protests and the bloody crackdown that followed.
At first, Hu was sympathetic to their cause and even flirted with the notion of a democratic China when he mingled with the demonstrators before the PLA moved in, an old colleague revealed.
“He joined the student sit-in, talked with student leaders and discussed liberty and freedom with them day in and day out,” a former People’s Daily journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Asia Times.
Maybe he was intoxicated by the idea of “freedom and liberty” after the violence he witnessed from Mao’s Red Guards more than 20 years earlier? If he was, it faded quickly, the journalist pointed out.
“Perhaps someone suddenly tipped him the wink. He left right before the massacre when the PLA was sent in on June 4,” the former colleague said.
While the protest leaders were arrested or fled to Hong Kong then a British territory, Hu escaped the crackdown and started work at the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
In hindsight, he would describe the students’ movement as being “naive” and the military clampdown a “tragedy.” But his brief flirtation with democracy was finally shattered when he became a foreign correspondent.
Sent to Moscow by the People’s Daily in the 1990s, he witnessed the transition from communism to a Western-style capitalist system. Soaring prices after the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged vast numbers of Russians into poverty, while national assets, such as oil and gas, were sold off for a song.
His views were reinforced when he covered the Bosnian War during a three-year stint in the Balkans between 1993 and 1996. He saw first hand how the break up of communist-ruled Yugoslavia had triggered a rise in ethnic conflicts on the road to democracy. People power, he concluded, was no substitute for a strong one-party state.
Returning to Beijing, he was brought in to revamp the Chinese-language newspaper Global Times after it had been launched three years earlier in 1993. The “accidental” bombing of Beijing’s Belgrade embassy by US-led NATO forces in 1999 proved a catalyst not only for Hu but his brand of tabloid journalism.
With blanket coverage and bellicose editorials, he called for “revenge” and “a boycott of American products,” whipping up a media storm. He was now a major media player, as was Global Times.
Ten years later, an English-language version was rolled out by now Editor-in-Chief Hu as part of a 45 billion yuan (US$6.6 billion) media expansion program, which included state-controlled parent company People’s Daily, CCTV and the Xinhua News Agency. The aim was to promote China’s rising role as an economic powerhouse in the new world order.
The money was well spent. Last year, daily circulation for both editions hovered around the two-million mark, according to official figures. The website, meanwhile, attracted around 30 million unique visitors every month.
“All newspapers in China must go along the official line, and this is especially true for Global Times, as we are under the People’s Daily umbrella. But that does not mean you cannot tell people intriguing stories and then make them more patriotic,” Hu said during an interview with Southern People’s Weekly in Guangzhou.
Married with a grown-up daughter, Hu’s creation has been labeled “China’s Fox News,” while its fiercely patriotic tone is more than an octave above the staid state-run English-language rival, China Daily.
Leading the chorus with the loudest voice in the room has become his trademark among former staff. Some have even, ironically, compared him to Charles Foster Kane, the fictional character loosely based on the 1920s American media magnate and anti-communist campaigner William Randolph Hearst, portrayed in Orson Wells’ classic film Citizen Kane.
Others have painted a different picture with brushstrokes of primary color humor. One story circulating around the newsroom involved an alleged nickname of “Frisbee Hu.” The joke was that he retrieved everything the government threw at him. But that hardly does justice to a complex and contradictory figure.
“He has a vision. He knows what he’s doing and he knows his audience. I think he wants to make Chinese journalism relevant and that’s why he is inflammatory on purpose. It really is saber-rattling,” the same foreign editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was quoted as saying by X Index.
But it was the two-year trade war with the US, the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in 2019 and the Covid-19 catastrophe that catapulted Hu into the global spotlight. As Beijing ramped up its propaganda machine, he was there to oil the wheels.
Even “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, named after two Chinese action movies, is straight out of Hu’s hardline playbook. During the trade dispute, he went head-to-head with President Donald Trump’s administration and warned that “China would not cave to US pressure.”
When it came to Hong Kong, he blamed “foreign interference” for stoking up violence after a fleeting visit to the city last summer during the height of the pro-democracy demonstrations.
“Unrest on the street needs spiritual support, incitement and encouragement – and that’s exactly what the US and the West are offering, in a very deliberate and intense way,” Hu told CNN news network in August after Global Times reporter Fu Guohao was attacked, tied and bound to a luggage trolley by protesters at Hong Kong’s international airport.
His cutting comments have also heralded a seismic shift in the government’s diplomatic policy. The Covid-19 outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of last year accelerated the process.
As the epidemic turned into a pandemic infecting at least seven million people and killing more than 402,000 worldwide, Beijing became embroiled in a row about the origins of the virus.
The pressure mounted as Covid-19 spread across the planet with Australia leading a global campaign for an independent inquiry into Beijing’s handling of the crisis. Hu’s reaction was swift and scathing, comparing the country to “chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes.”
“With his rank, fame and a nod from the leadership of the top, Hu appears to have a great deal of discretion when it comes to the direction and the language he uses on social media and in Global Times,” a senior academic at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies told Asia Times.
Safely ensconced in the sleek new headquarters of the People’s Daily in uptown Beijing, the sultan of spin is widely seen as the master of all he surveys when it comes to the published word.
“The fact that he has been running the paper for 15 years, which is way longer than the average term of office of the party’s propaganda chief, is proof that he is in the good graces of the top leadership,” the academic from the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies said.
How long that will last is open to debate and his willingness to carry on working into his 60s. But for now, this crafty media wolf not only leads the pack – he has outrun it.