The editor of one of China’s most outspoken state media outlets has doubled down on accusations that the United States is instigating a revolution in Hong Kong, as increasingly violent protests enter their eleventh weekend.
“Unrest on the street needs spiritual support, incitement and encouragement – and that’s exactly what the US and the West are offering, in a very deliberate and intense way,” Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin told CNN on Thursday, in his first interview with foreign media since one of the newspaper’s reporters was assaulted by protesters in Hong Kong.
A former war correspondent for the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, 59-year-old Hu has a loyal following in China, where he posts daily commentaries in writing and videos to nearly 20 million fans on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. His presence on Twitter, which has long been blocked in China, is a more modest 75,400 followers.
The tabloid that Hu edits is known for its nationalistic coverage and bellicose opinions, which are frequently quoted by Western media. Like all state media outlets in China, it operates within a heavily censored environment that is tightly controlled by Communist authorities. Published in both Chinese and English, the Global Times boasts a daily circulation of two million copies, and every month its website attracts around 30 million unique visitors.
Where other state media outlets adopt a more measured tone, Hu’s paper takes a combative approach to covering international issues by calling out perceived threats and slights to China from across the world.
“(US politicians and officials) are telling Hong Kong society that you’ve become a model for democracy for the world,” Hu said, recalling his own experience as a student protester in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Hu’s decision to reference Tiananmen Square, the site of mass protests that ended when Chinese soldiers opened fire – killing hundreds, if not thousands of people – is surprising because the subject is still largely taboo for China’s state media.
“I was a student in the square and we listened to the Voice of America every day. It was immensely encouraging when we heard US leaders say such things,” he added. “How could you say that the US bears no responsibility for what’s happening in Hong Kong?”
Claims of a color revolution
Since early June, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have demonstrated against a controversial – and now-shelved – bill that would have allowed extradition from the city to mainland China.
Protesters say the freedoms that Beijing guaranteed to Hong Kong when Britain handed the former colony back to China in 1997 are being eroded, and they fear what will happen when the central government takes full control of the territory after the 50-year “one country, two systems” agreement ends in 2047.
Backed by Beijing, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has said the protests are pushing the city “to the brink of no return.” China has been unequivocal in its condemnation of the protests, with one official saying “radical demonstrators” had begun to show “signs of terrorism.”
Chinese officials – and Hu’s Global Times – have also compared the protests to the “color revolutions” of the 2000s that succeeded in toppling governments in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. The comparison suggests that the protesters’ aim is to overthrow the government, which is not among their stated goals.
The State Department has rejected suggestions that the US has played any role in the crisis, and has called on Beijing to exercise restraint.
“We categorically reject the false charge of foreign forces as the black hand behind the protests. The continued erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy puts at risk its long-established special status in international affairs,” the department said in a statement.
Violence at the airport
The Global Times assigned its own reporters to cover the Hong Kong protests, which in recent weeks have descended into running street battles between police armed with tear gas and protesters wearing hardhats and face masks.
Some of the worst violence occurred on Tuesday night, when throngs of protesters crammed the departure hall at Hong Kong International Airport, blocking passengers from reaching their flights and prompting authorities to shut down the international aviation hub.
Amid the melee, an angry group of protesters seized Beijing-based Global Times reporter Fu Guohao. They beat him, bound his wrists with zip-ties and held him captive on a luggage trolley, reportedly because he refused to identify himself while taking close-up photos of demonstrators’ faces.
He was eventually released and escorted from the airport by paramedics, but his brief detention has sparked outrage across mainland China. It’s also turned the 28-year-old journalist into a “hero” on Chinese social media, where commentators praised his bravery for standing up to what they called “thuggish mobsters.”
Hu denied suggestions that the government was using the incident to push its narrative that the protesters are unruly “rioters.” He said Fu’s detention had merely tapped into popular opinion in China that the protesters had turned extreme.
“Global Times hasn’t portrayed him as a hero, nor have I, in my social media posts, or in our editorials. His behavior echoed public sentiment in China, where many have thought the protesters in Hong Kong have gone too far and there is a lot of pent-up anger among Chinese,” Hu said, adding “no one’s guiding the public on this.”
Hu said Fu didn’t identify himself to protesters because many mainland journalists feel threatened in Hong Kong and “tend to be vague to avoid trouble.”
“It’s been a common strategy adopted by mainland journalists, not just Fu. He didn’t try to deceive anyone.”
Fu wasn’t the only man beaten at the airport – two others required medical attention after being singled out by the crowd. On Wednesday, small groups of protesters returned to the airport, holding signs saying “we’re deeply sorry.” A statement emailed to CNN by one group said, “We are frightened, angry and exhausted.. and would like to express our most sincere apologies.”
‘We say things out loud’
Founded in 1993, the Global Times is run by the People’s Daily, and its 800 staff work in several locations inside the publication’s headquarters in eastern Beijing.
From a seventh-floor newsroom that overlooks the futuristic skyline of Beijing’s Central Business District, Hu – whose soft-spoken style belies his fiery rhetoric – claims his paper best reflects the views of Chinese people to a global audience.
“We say things out loud,” he said. “You could call us radical or nationalistic, but we reflect true sentiments of Chinese society. You could learn the truth better through us. That’s our appeal and that’s why Western media like to quote us.”
Echoing the Beijing leadership’s increasingly hardened stance toward the Hong Kong protesters, Hu and his paper have been quick to publish threatening videos showing the massing of Chinese troops in the southern city of Shenzhen near the Hong Kong border.
However, Hu rejected suggestions the Global Times was helping Beijing to prepare the public for a potential military crackdown to end the protests.
“We are just reporting the news. We obtained the video and believed that the amassing of the People’s Armed Police soldiers was meant to send a strong signal,” Hu said. “It was obviously a clear warning to the perpetrators of violence in Hong Kong. That was our analysis. You would’ve drawn the same conclusion in my position. Could we call it just a regular exercise? That would be insincere. No one would believe us and we would lose credibility.”
On Wednesday, CNN teams in Shenzhen saw uniformed members of the People’s Armed Police Force (PAP) with riot shields and batons, as well as numerous semi-militarized vehicles, stationed at the city’s Bay Sports Center. The PAP is the 1.5 million-member paramilitary force the government regularly deploys to quell protests within its borders.
Observers say the use of PAP officers to end the Hong Kong protests is unlikely as it would severely undermine the city’s reputation as a safe international hub, backed by strong legal protections. However, Hu said Beijing’s first obligation was to the people of Hong Kong, not the international community.
“The US wants to see chaos in Hong Kong and use it to pressure China, but Beijing has a responsibility to ensure peace, stability and development in Hong Kong,” Hu said. “If there were no longer other options, then this (military) option would have to be used – and at that point, reactions from the US or the West would matter very little.”
If that makes him sound like a government spokesman, Hu doesn’t seem to mind. The savvy editor has even earned an unflattering nickname, “Frisbee Hu,” arising from a joke on his ability to retrieve whatever the government throws at him.
Hu has defended his paper’s coverage of the Hong Kong protests, brushing aside criticisms of its “one-sided” coverage and insisting that “we take a stand in our reporting” just like Western media.
“I think our level of support for the government is comparable to yours to the pro-democracy camp,” he said.
Calling the differentiation between news and propaganda a Western concept, Hu said his mission is clear in China’s one-party political system.
“We need to help the government and the people communicate with each other, instead of pitting them against each other,” he said. “Media outlets that pit the government against the people don’t have a future in China.”
“Some of my critics are a reflection of my debate with Western media and values,” he added, to the applause from underlings standing nearby.
“I want to promote progress in China and preserve China’s national interests – if I become a controversial figure because of this, so what?”
CNN’s Ben Westcott contributed to this report.