A Provocateur on the Front Lines of China’s War of Words With the U.S.

BEIJING — Inside a bustling, 700-person newsroom in downtown Beijing, Hu Xijin leads a 24-hour propaganda machine that some media scholars call China’s Fox News.

Mr. Hu was one of the first to defend China’s vast detention of Muslims against international criticism. His newspaper has described Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as crazy. Thirty years ago, he marched with students on Tiananmen Square demanding democracy in China, but now he is a leading critic of protesters in Hong Kong who have been resisting Chinese rule.

China is rife with nationalist voices. But Mr. Hu stands out because of his position as the top editor of the Global Times, a popular tabloid controlled by the ruling Communist Party, and his flair for verbal warfare against the United States and the Trump administration. To Mr. Hu, virtually every criticism of China is an opportunity to launch a counterattack about what he derides as the hypocrisy of Beijing’s critics.

As the trade war between China and the United States has escalated, Mr. Hu has played a critical role in the party’s mission to tell the world that China will not back down. He was once dismissed by many as a commentator whose self-satisfied broadsides did not always reflect China’s official views. But Mr. Hu is now increasingly seen as a combative public voice of the administration of President Xi Jinping in an era of more open rivalry with the United States.

“There is a sense of crisis,” Mr. Hu, 59, said during a recent interview at the paper’s headquarters in Beijing, where he often works late so he can respond to President Trump’s tweets. “America can’t suppress China’s rise.”

Mr. Hu’s critics in China call him a “Frisbee fetcher,” a party loyalist who retrieves whatever the government throws at him. Western diplomats and commentators regularly accuse him of bending the truth to inflame nationalist instincts.

Mr. Hu, who is one of China’s longest-serving newspaper editors — he took the job in 2005 — says he wants to promote stability at home and improve the world’s understanding of China.

“China’s ability to explain itself to the world is inadequate,” he said.

With its mix of lively editorials and news articles, Global Times is now one of China’s most widely read publications, with more than two million readers in print and 30 million unique visitors per month online.

“Like it or not, they shape public opinion,” said Yik Chan Chin, a lecturer in media and communication studies at the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China. “They are more outspoken and radical than the others.”

Mr. Hu now has more than 19 million followers on Chinese social media sites, and investors, diplomats and political pundits in China and the United States scour his posts for hints of what China’s famously secretive leaders might be thinking. Opinions vary over whether the paper’s belligerent editorials truly represent the leadership’s positions.

Mr. Hu, a former war correspondent with a fondness for Tolstoy and polo shirts, says he is surprised by the attention. But he acknowledges that he has special access and lives “in the same system” as Chinese officials.

Growing up in Beijing, Mr. Hu was not always a model of party loyalty.

In the spring of 1989, as pro-democracy protests erupted across China, Mr. Hu, then a graduate student in Beijing specializing in Russian literature who had served in the People’s Liberation Army, joined the crowd of students and workers gathered at Tiananmen Square. He chanted slogans, joined in renditions of protest anthems like “L’Internationale” and grew excited as he heard American radio broadcasts declare that democracy might come to China.

“It was like a flow of emotion,” he said during the interview. “I felt full of hope that we could turn into a democratic country like the United States.”

Mr. Hu left the protests before the government’s bloody crackdown on June 4. In the interview, he distanced himself from his time at Tiananmen, saying he had been misled by pro-democracy intellectuals who held what he described as impulsive and childish ideas about China’s future.

He set out to be a journalist, and the People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, dispatched him to Yugoslavia to cover the conflict tearing apart the former socialist state. The experience fortified his belief that the party had to maintain control for China to prosper.

“I became aware of the fragility of a country,” he said in a 2016 interview with a state-run news outlet, referring to his stint in Yugoslavia. “Once unrest breaks out, it is simply not something we as individuals can control.”

Mr. Hu returned to Beijing in 1996 and soon became a deputy editor at Global Times, a subsidiary of People’s Daily. Global Times set itself apart from other state media by appealing to a plain-speaking Chinese audience.

In 2009, Mr. Hu began an English-language edition, hoping to bring his indignant takedowns of Western liberalism to international readers.

Even in China’s tightly controlled media environment, where newspaper editors are fired for pushing the boundaries, Mr. Hu has thrived. He remains a loyal party cadre, even as he occasionally levels criticism at the government over excessive social control.

His philosophy is summed up in a slogan that hangs inside the paper’s offices: “Don’t just strive to pioneer, but also to remain extremely safe.”

Zhan Jiang, a retired professor of journalism in Beijing, said he worried that Mr. Hu was “ingeniously” stoking nationalism in Chinese society. Mr. Hu has managed to stay in his position because he is nimble at anticipating changes in political winds, Mr. Zhan said.

“Sometimes, he has small criticisms of the government,” Mr. Zhan said. “But at the crucial moments, he will be there to help the officials.”

Mr. Hu’s loyalty to the party has been on display in recent weeks as Beijing has sought to undermine protests against mainland Chinese rule in Hong Kong. Mr. Hu has published dozens of editorials and social media posts about the unrest, denouncing some of the protesters as “fanatical” and a threat to Hong Kong’s future.

In the interview, Mr. Hu said that he could relate to the protesters because of his time at Tiananmen but said they were acting impulsively. He accused the West of helping to fuel instability in Hong Kong, though he acknowledged he did not have any evidence of that.

These days, Mr. Hu works through the night on editorials about the trade war, North Korea and other topics. He travels with an aide wherever he goes so that he can dictate editorials — punctuation included — as soon as an idea strikes him. He keeps a close eye on Mr. Trump’s Twitter account and on Fox News.

On a recent day, Mr. Hu published an editorial defending a Chinese diplomat who was criticized by Susan E. Rice, the American former national security adviser, for making racist comments. The editorial reprised one of Mr. Hu’s favorite themes: that the West is intent on “demonizing” China while ignoring its own “pride and prejudice.”

Mr. Hu is optimistic about China’s prospects for prevailing in the trade dispute, saying that the public is girded for a long-running battle.

As trade talks continue, the party has seemed to find it useful to amplify Mr. Hu’s hawkish views, featuring his editorials about Mr. Pompeo, for example, on the evening news.

Mr. Hu brushes aside criticism that he is exacerbating tensions between China and the United States by promoting nationalistic views. He blames American officials for the friction, likening their efforts to restrict Chinese technology companies to a form of warfare. Asked if he foresees military conflict between the two countries, Mr. Hu said the “possibility cannot be ruled out.”

Mr. Hu then reconsidered his answer, worried his words might be perceived as too forceful. He offered a new assessment: “The danger is greater than before.”

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