Why We Need to Stop Sharing Global Times Editorials

Posted: September 19, 2014 in media

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.

  1. foarp says:

    “I believe Global Times English does some good reporting in other sections”

    Here’s where I’ve got to stop you. The ‘good’ (i.e., average or slightly better for an expat-rag) stuff serves exactly the same purpose as the click-bait you flag up here – it’s to get eyeballs onto government-controlled media and it’s propaganda. It is not there for purposes of informing its readership any more than those T&A-laden photos they publish. The difference is that the click-bit serves to discredit the paper, whilst the “good” stuff lends it an undeserved air of authenticity.

    • sinostand says:

      Yes FOARP, I’m well aware of your stance on this. And perhaps you’re right. This is something I’ve certainly wrestled with in my mind. But the way I tend to look at it is this:

      While I agree that the good stuff probably does serve as a component of a greater agenda for the paper, I’m not prepared to completely write-off good reporting from good journalists…no matter where it is. While I was at Economic Observer, I saw a few good reporters, who very much wanted to stay there at a good paper, get pushed out because of the reasons I laid out in my last post. Then they were left with little choice but to go to state media like Global Times or just give up on journalism (which could be crippling for them financially, and perhaps even emotionally). Or it’s the only outlet with the money to bankroll expensive reporting trips for the extended periods of time it takes to get the story. Chinese journalists in the current environment don’t necessarily have the same luxury that we do that would allow them to take a principled stand like we would ideally like to see. So if they end up at Global Times for whatever reason, I’m not going to trash good objective reporting that’s willing to challenge the party line just because of where it’s printed. I seem them more as taming a wild irrational beast than feeding it. It’s like Buzzfeed–I despise what it’s done to real journalism and believe the outlet has an overall insidious effect on society, but every so often they’ll have a really good investigative piece, and I retweet it. If it took crappy sensational listicles to underwrite those costly investigations, well at least something of value came from them.

      From a more pragmatic standpoint, I doubt many people see a good report in Global Times and says “Gee, the rest of the paper must be correct and worth my attention too!” Global Times isn’t going away, so the best we can hope for is that the good honest reporting gets enough attention that it encourages them to deploy more resources in that direction as opposed to the insidious click-bait. This would hopefully have somewhat of a neutralizing effect on the crazy editorials they see in the same paper. And it’s rather naive to think that any media outlet in the world prints good stories in order to altruistically “inform its readership.” They’re all after views. Some get them by appealing to rational readers that value objectivity and truth, some get them by appealing to nationalist emotion. When GT prints stuff that appeals to the former group, that’s “click-bait” that’s far preferable I think.

  2. marinasparrow says:

    Sorry, maybe this is off-topic, but when I saw the quote above about “contempt for truth” I couldn’t help but think of what Russian media turned into this year. So many things here in China are all too familiar to someone with a Soviet background. The audience in Russia is so happy to support that position that when confronted with proof of obvious lies they don’t deny it but say that the Western media also distort information, so it really doesn’t matter. It’s sad that people who only read in Russian language have no standard against which they could judge the quality of reporting. I haven’t been in China long enough to really know but I suspect it’s also the case here. And what makes me even more sad is that the Russians haven’t learned much during the 10 years of media freedom that they had in 1990s. I guess it takes a lot more than that.

    • foarp says:

      To be fair, RT and other sources have always be propaganda outlets, though mixed with legit news (as Eric Fish encourages GT to be). It’s just that this only became painfully obvious this year.

      Actually, RT is the perfect example of why encouraging legitimate journalists to work for a propaganda outlet is a bad idea. Initially, RT was regarded as having some credibility because of the work they had done on Occupy.

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  4. justrecently says:

    I think I’ve seen a much more nationalistic and anger-inciting GT a few years ago, than now – if we are talking about the Chinese edition. My impression of it now is that it still caters to a rather nationalistic share of the reading public, but trying to impart a “healthy” self-awareness, in terms of national feelings. In my view, that’s pretty much the party line. Obviously, there’s autonomy in covering the news within the boundaries of some input requirements, some censorship, and (I suppose) self-censorship.

    I don’t read a GT article (English) very often, maybe twice a month. But I don’t think anyone needs to stop reading or sharing – if people want to know how Chinese overseas propaganda works, boycotting it would actually be a bad idea.

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