Inside the Beijing newspaper fuelling Australia-China conflict
Twelve months ago the average Australian might not have heard much about Chinese publication the Global Times.
But now, after a torrid 2020 for Sino-Australian relations, the notorious tabloid, a renowned mouthpiece for Beijing, has forced its way into the public eye in Australia.
The Global Times has been at the forefront of the narrative surrounding the two countries, repeatedly taking aim at the Morrison government and taking no prisoners in the process.
Led by its charismatic and unconditionally nationalistic editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, the publication went as far as to label Australia as the "gum stuck to the soles of China's shoes" while accusing it of being part of an "axis of white supremacy" with its allies.
The publication, through a series of scathing editorials, has routinely lambasted Canberra over a host of matters from Xinjiang to 5G, regularly delivering daunting threats and ultimatums while appearing to speak on behalf of the nation.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade became so incensed with the blistering coverage, a clear-the-air-meeting was arranged for the Australian Ambassador to China, Graham Fletcher, to meet with Hu.
“Australia rejects the inaccurate and inflammatory coverage of Australia by the Global Times,” a DFAT spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia in December.
The meeting came at a time when it was highly publicised that then trade minister Simon Birmingham was struggling to get Chinese counterparts on the phone to talk through a raft of trade sanctions slapped on Australian produce.
The meeting in Beijing was perceived as the closest Canberra had come to constructive negotiations with China in months.
Global Times 'much closer' to Beijing than ever before
But while it is widely reported state-run publications such as the Global Times are an indirect voice of Beijing, how closely are they actually aligned?
China's Deputy Head of Mission to Australia Wang Xining told ABC foreign affairs reporter Stephen Dziedzic in December it was wrong to assume the Communist Party of China was behind the ongoing attacks in state media.
"There's always a wrong conception here [in Australia] that our media has been manipulated or controlled by the government," he said.
However, James Palmer, the former opinions editor at the Global Times, says the "intensely more aggressive and nationalistic" coverage from the Global Times has come as a direct order from Beijing.
"It's gotten much closer to the government," he told Yahoo News Australia.
"It used to be that there was a genuine gulf between Global Times editorials and the actual position of the party or the ministry of foreign affairs, but now it seems much more as though the Global Times is being used to test or highlight policies before they're officially launched, particularly when it comes to foreign actions."
Palmer, who worked at the Global Times for six years until 2015, said a threatening warning to Canberra from Hu, who has become a minor celebrity in his home nation, must be taken far more seriously now than in previous years.
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"Four or five years ago I would have said this was [Hu] being opportunistic, but now given the tightness of the media environment and the privileged position the Global Times appears to have it seems much more like direct messaging to me," he said.
And Palmer said it was no coincidence a similarly aggressive approach from China's Foreign Ministry has followed Hu's lead.
Such a shift was most notable in Australia when Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian infamously shocked Prime Minister Scott Morrison in November when he tweeted a provocative digital artwork of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child, in the wake of the Brereton Report which found Australian soldiers had unlawfully killed Afghan civilians.
Mr Morrison condemned the image as "truly repugnant".
It is a popular cartoon that condemns the Australian Special Forces ’s brutal murder of 39 Afghan civilians. On what ground does Morrison feel angry over the use of this cartoon by the spokesperson of Chinese FM? It’s ridiculous and shameless that he demanded China to apologize. pic.twitter.com/QkBSXyf1uY
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) November 30, 2020
Palmer said Mr Zhao's appointment to the position following a history of "wolf warrior" diplomacy – a term coined after a Chinese action movie franchise where nationalistic heroes defend China's interests – was a clear indication of the direction the CPC was taking.
"Because of his record of trolling and nastiness on Twitter that was a big signal in itself that this was the kind of thing the superiors wanted to see," he said.
Palmer notes a sense of frustration with "smaller nations" from Beijing, particularly with Australia as the Morrison government fails to kowtow to demands, with the frustration reflected in Chinese media coverage.
"There's a real feeling they should be able to coerce and bully these countries and I think there's almost a disappointment that they haven't. I think they thought they had it sewn up and they hadn't," he said.
Dynamic of the Global Times newsroom
Palmer estimates there are about a dozen foreigners currently working out of the Global Times' Beijing office.
He says he has seen an exodus of its reputable and quality foreign Western journalists as the reputation of the Global Times deteriorated and the control over them was tightened.
"Around 2012 most people went on to jobs at non-governmental organisations, at the US government, in the media but that would be a much harder transition nowadays," he said.
The majority of the foreign journalists are now made up of employees from outside the traditional West, according to Palmer.
Richard Burger, who was one of the inaugural editors at the Global Times in 2009, told Yahoo News Australia one example of the control over foreigners and the content produced overall was the presence of the CPC physically inside the newsroom.
"There were four censors sitting in a corner of the newsroom and everything had to be approved by them," he said.
"When I was there the editors took pride in the fact that the paper was allowing multiple viewpoints on certain subjects, though never on hot-button issues like Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. From what I can see, they have become increasingly close-minded and less open to opposing views.
"In the case of Australia it’s clear Hu is toeing the party line as he always does."
"There were four censors sitting in a corner of the newsroom and everything had to be approved by them."
Palmer revealed there was also a level of segregation from Chinese staff.
"Hu would come in and give talks to the staff that foreigners weren't allowed to go to," he said.
Hu Xijin – the man behind China's Global Times mouthpiece
Despite his growing reputation as a villain in the eyes of Canberra, Palmer said Hu on a personal level was enjoyable to be around.
"He's quite funny and personally can be quite charming," he said.
As he appears in his regular video series Hu Says, which is shared across multiple platforms including his Weibo page, he is regularly dressed casually – a way he can show off his power, Palmer says.
"You see it often with Chinese bosses, the more confident you are in your position and the more everyone has to obey you, the more you can dress like you're a farmer standing around the village at 2pm on a weekday chewing wheat," he said.
That confidence can be witnessed via his Twitter page where he brazenly goes on the attack most days defending China's interests.
"It’s ironic that he expresses his criticism of Australia on Twitter, which is banned in China," Burger noted.
Yet he thrives off controversy and triggering governments and other media outlets around the world is a way of marking success, whether it be individually or as the Global Times.
"'It pays to provoke’ seems to be [the Global Times’s] motto,” former editor Shastri Ramachandaran previously told Foreign Policy, a publication Palmer is now deputy editor of.
“This is to troll for clicks and media mentions. It has paid off... Foreign media revels in picking up these articles."
Such enjoyment is gained from mentions in foreign media, one editor confirmed a list pinned to a corkboard lists all mentions in foreign media monthly.
Both Palmer and Burger note his perceived role as a nationalistic trailblazer is far less concrete than it may appear at first glance, with Palmer recalling one of their first meetings where Hu told him everyone in China wanted democracy and it would be achieved “quietly and slowly”.
"I think that was genuinely to some degree his view at the time," Palmer noted.
Burger added: "Hu Xilin likes to fancy himself as a bold reformer but he’s just another lackey for the Party."
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