BEIJING – On most mornings, the senior editorial staffers at China's hyper-nationalistic Global Times newspaper flash their identification badges at the uniformed guard outside their compound in eastern Beijing and roll into the office between 9 and 10 a.m. They leave around midnight. In the hectic intervening 14 hours, they commission and edit articles and editorials on topics ranging from asserting China's unassailable claims to the South China Sea to the United States' nefarious role in the global financial crisis to the mind-boggling liquor bills of China's state-owned enterprises, to assemble a slim, 16-page tabloid with a crimson banner and eye-popping headlines. In the late afternoon, staffers propose topics for the all-important lead editorial to editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, who makes all final decisions and has an instinct for the jugular.
Take last Tuesday's saber-rattling editorial, printed with only slight variations in the Chinese and English editions, which duly unnerved many overseas readers. "Recently, both the Philippines and South Korean authorities have detained fishing boats from China, and some of those boats haven't been returned," the editorial fumed. "If these countries don't want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons." The war-mongering language was meant to attract attention, and that it did, with Reuters, Manila Times, Jakarta Globe, The West Australian, Taipei Times, and other overseas media referencing it in news articles. The bellicose editorial was certainly newsworthy, assuming that the paper on some level is a mouthpiece for China's rulers. But whose views, exactly, does Global Times really represent?
Its offices are located within the sprawling Haiwaiban campus of the People's Daily, the stodgy old organ of the Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1948. The People's Daily is renowned for its mastery of bore-you-to-tears bureaucratese; its turgid official profiles induce slumber in general audiences but nonetheless signal, to those in the know, whose career is on the make and whose will soon be in tatters. But while the People's Daily is the parent publishing organization of Global Times, the two newspapers have remarkably different missions. Global Times is unequivocally a state-owned paper subject to the same censorship regime, but since its founding in 1993 it has evolved a more populist function -- a mandate to attract and actually engage readers, rather than to telegraph coded intentions of the Foreign Ministry or the Organization Department, which determines all senior personnel appointments.
The dress code at the office is casual, even bedraggled; there's an air of anti-authoritarianism reminiscent of a college newspaper. The conference room is bare of decoration but for an overly ornate chandelier collecting dust. There's a feeling of chaotic energy, quite distinct from most of China's state-run newspapers, which seem indistinguishable from sleepy and polished government offices.
No one embodies the difference more than the man in charge. At 51, Hu wears his longish hair brushed forward in a vaguely hipster look; he is wiry and frenetic.
When a large group is assembled, he does most of the talking. He speaks quickly, emphatically, and chooses his words like daggers. "We call a spade as a spade," he told me when I visited recently as part of a delegation of American editors and academics. "And we are not afraid to upset you."