Combative China Editor Whose Tweets Moved Markets Retires
(Bloomberg) -- Hu Xijin has retired as editor-in-chief of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper, a perch he has used over the past 16 years to rattle markets and provide a Chinese response to Western critics.
“I have gone through the retirement formalities and no longer serve as the editor-in-chief of the Global Times,” Hu posted Thursday on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, saying that at age 61 it was time for “Old Hu” to step down. “I’ll continue to contribute to Global Times as a special commentator and do my best for the Communist Party’s media work,” he added, without saying who would fill his role.
Fan Zhengwei, former deputy director of the commentary department of Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, has taken on the newly created posts of Chairman and Head of the Global Times, according to state media. He was also appointed party secretary of the tabloid, China.com.cn reported, without citing sources.
Hu had edited the nationalist tabloid that serves up English-language articles and commentary to counter the Western-dominated narrative about China since 2005. In recent years, he became the most prominent Chinese figure to comment on topics usually handled with extreme sensitivity by state agencies and propaganda organs.
“He is definitely the symbolic figure of commercial nationalism in China,” said Fang Kecheng, a communications professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Although there is speculation that he represents the official voice, he is actually not a high ranking official in the party system. He navigated a way to please the party leaders and win the market.”
While Hu has been long known among China-watchers, his tweets came under closer scrutiny by investors during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war, after he began accurately forecasting retaliatory moves by Beijing. Hu acknowledged the ambiguity of his role in an interview with Bloomberg News in 2019, saying “I’m not sure if Chinese officials are deliberately passing on information to me.”
“The officials and I have a tacit understanding,” he said at the time.
Back then, Hu had fewer than 50,000 followers on Twitter. Now he has some 450,000. On the U.S. social media site that is banned in China, Hu often telegraphs the Chinese government’s message on issues he wouldn’t mention on his China-facing Weibo account, which has 24 million followers.
That was clear during the international uproar over tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared from public view after accusing a top party official of forcing her to have sex. Hu confirmed -- citing unspecified sources -- Peng was safe, posting videos and images of China’s former world doubles No. 1 to his feed, saying: “Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside.”
His Weibo account and English-language newspaper made no mention of the case that attracted condemnation from tennis greats including Serena Williams, the White House, and the United Nations, and saw the Women’s Tennis Association pull out of China. In one tweet, he accused the WTA of “coercing Peng Shuai to support the West’s attack on Chinese system.”
Hu’s aggressive rhetoric and high profile drew criticism from liberal-leaning internet users, some of who referred to him by derisive nicknames, such as “Hubian,” a play on his name and title meaning “to make things up.” Others refer to him as “Diaopan,” or “catching a Frisbee with one’s mouth,” suggesting that he nimbly grasps changing narratives handed down from Beijing.
As China’s public debate has grown more nationalistic during its confrontations with the U.S., Hu has found himself accused of being too passive. In May, Hu and some of his subordinates were labeled “traitors” by internet users after they criticized a photo -- published by the party’s top law enforcement body -- comparing China’s rocket launch to funeral pyres of Covid-19 victims in India.
The post Hu criticized and some of the others attacking him were later taken down.
“I am very interested in his next steps,” said Fang, the CUHK professor, “whether his posts will be censored given the fact that he is not a party official any more, whether he will fully embrace the market and become a full-time online influencer, whether he will be regarded as obsolete by the ultra-nationalists among the younger generation.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.