Most of us China watchers have done it at some point. We see a bellicose, inflammatory or otherwise head-scratchingly strange editorial in the nationalistic Global Times newspaper, and we re-tweet it out of mockery or disbelief. Today we all had a good laugh when GT declared that the Scotland independence referendum is “a tremor shaking the whole Western system” and shows that “the tide of secessionism is rising in the West.” Sometimes we go even further than just sharing these stories. When GT called the U.S. a “mincing rascal” for its computer hacking claims against China, it was a gift for the many media outlets that were able to draw up entire articles about it. But we really need to stop, and here’s why:
Global Times gives incentives to troll
A few weeks ago on Twitter, a Global Times employee revealed that the company gives traffic-based bonuses and also “bonuses for mentions in foreign media, good or bad, and for comment volume, positive or negative.” This was later confirmed to me by other GT employees (Global Times itself responded to my email for comment, but never replied after I asked about its incentive schemes). By a long shot, the articles in Global Times that get re-shared and covered most frequently by foreign media are the ones that say the most absurd things.
It would appear this is something the paper has taken note of, as we seem to be seeing these editorials becoming crazier and more frequent. So in effect, whenever we share or write an article about one of these pieces, we’re playing right into Global Times’ hands. We’re encouraging trolls and taking opinions at face value that likely have financial incentives driving them.
Another thing people usually fail to account for is that the English editorials go through foreign editors. So when you see highly quotable and alliterative terms like “rampant rascality” or “prancing provocateurs” used, they may have come from a mischievous foreign editor rather than a Chinese ideologue. As a separate GT employee said, articles drawn up to flag these crazy statements are “essentially click bait feeding off click bait.”
The only way to kill a troll is to ignore it
These editorials routinely defame dissidents, report outright false information and rile up nationalism and racism. In most situations, it’s just not worth putting a megaphone in front of these messages.
Sometimes it’s inescapable, like when these editorials have real world effects. One particularly vitriolic editorial against Japan in September 2012 may have helped incite actual violence. In cases like that, media can’t help but quote GT.
However, most of these editorials are quoted or re-shared simply for their insanity.
I no longer bother flagging conspiracy mongering drivel from partisan talking heads in the US, even if only to debunk or mock them. I’ve come to realize that they only feed off that type of attention and make money from it. So I don’t know why I should treat pundits in China who do the same any differently. As media watcher Song Zhibiao put it, “The reason that the Global Times is difficult to defeat is not that it is truthful, but rather that it shows such contempt for the truth. The Global Times is hard to insult because it knows no shame. By tearing down the standards of what is right, it sets itself ‘free.’”
He added, “If we cannot stop it, we must then quarantine it. If we cannot quarantine the crowd, we can at least quarantine ourselves. That way, we will not become its carriers and unintended promulgators.”
Global Times does NOT represent the official Communist Party line.
Whenever the Communist Party is mum on an issue and journalists are scrambling to interpret Chinese leaders’ views on it, you’ll inevitably see “the state-owned newspaper Global Times” quoted…often from the English edition (which is pretty different from the Chinese). The implication is that it’s some sort of proxy for the official party line. But this isn’t really the case.
In some situations it is. When Global Times ran an editorial in January 2013 condemning the Southern Weekend stand and defending the government’s media censorship, newspapers across the country were ordered by propaganda authorities to reprint it. But this was a very rare event.
A Chinese media outlet being state-owned doesn’t mean every word it prints represents the party line. Global Times is owned by the Communist Party flagship People’s Daily, but that doesn’t mean they share the same editorial principles. One Tsinghua media professor I spoke with likened People’s Daily to a highly disciplined, but poor father and Global Times to his belligerent wealthy son. GT’s populist nationalism makes it one of the better selling newspapers in China, and thus, makes People’s Daily money.
I would liken GT more to what Glenn Beck is to the Republican Party, or what Michael Moore is to Democrats: It makes A LOT of money for itself, it’s mostly in agreement with the party platform and it’s fairly useful for the party among certain demographics, but it’s sensational, extreme, misleading and polarizing to the point that the party will usually keep it at arm’s length. From time to time, GT’s approach to the news is useful from the government standpoint, but for the most part, the bellicose editorials seem to be tolerated by the government rather than assigned by it. For instance, when Ai Weiwei was arrested in 2011, the official line was silence, and later that the arrest was simply for tax reasons. But GT basically acknowledged, and defended, that it was his politics that landed him in hot water. As one Global Times editor put it “Best to think of GT editorials as one end (usually) of the small range of permitted public opinions on a topic.”
I believe Global Times English does some good reporting in other sections (again, GT English is largely separate from GT Chinese). I have no qualms about linking to those stories (here, here, here, here, here, here and here for instance). But the editorials have rarely contributed any meaningful information or well-reasoned standpoints. On the contrary, they’ve routinely proven false and insidious. Unless these editorials have some influence on actual events, I see no reason to continue gifting them any extra attention.