In early April, when famed mainland artist Ai Weiwei went missing at Beijing airport, China's official media was silent - except for one publication. Global Times, a daily tabloid that is an arm of People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, did not run the news on its front page, but rather on page 14 as a commentary on its 'opinion' pages. The article was published in Chinese on April 6, three days after Ai was last seen being stopped by police as he boarded a flight to Hong Kong. 'Ai Weiwei does as he pleases and often does what others dare not,' the editorial said of the artist, who is also the son of the late Ai Qing , a noted Chinese poet. 'He himself probably realised that he was never far away from the red line of Chinese law ... The law will not bend or make concessions for 'people with special status' just because of Western criticism.' Why was Global Times the first media outlet to touch on the politically sensitive topic of Ai's disappearance? The answer is simple, says Hu Xijin, the tabloid's editor-in-chief. 'We noticed no other media reported it.' Initially 'we were also anxious about reporting this matter'. As a unit of the official mouthpiece, Global Times operates in a nebulous area, says Ding Dong, a prominent Chinese historian and former scholar at the Academy of Social Sciences in Shanxi province. An article published in People's Daily is indisputably the government's voice. But one published in a subsidiary paper can take more licence with a subject because while it 'echoes the mainstream' thinking, Ding says, 'it is not 100 per cent the official position'. 'If People's Daily carries such an editorial, then the matter is hugely serious,' adds an editor at the China Youth Daily, the official publication of the Communist Party's younger set, the Youth League. 'By publishing the story in Global Times, the authorities are free to advance or retreat, maintaining some flexibility' on the issue. People's Daily was established in 1948, just ahead of the founding of the People's Republic of China in October 1949. The paper's international division decided to launch the Chinese-language tabloid Global Times in 1993. 'The birth of the Chinese version of Global Times is a product of Deng Xiaoping's trip to southern China', where the former Chinese leader delivered a game-changing speech in Shenzhen in 1992 to speed up the country's economic overhaul, says Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Setting up the tabloid gave the People's Daily 'a new propaganda platform and at the same time a way to make money', Zhan says. In the beginning, Global Times was a 'digest paper' that picked up and translated summaries of articles from the global press in addition to having its own articles. The content later evolved to cater more to its readers, says Hu, who spent 11 years with the People's Liberation Army before becoming editor-in-chief of both the Chinese and English editions. He also serves as a senior editor on People's Daily. The timing was right to launch an English version of Global Times in 2009, says Hu, describing it as a 'strategic investment' coinciding with 'China's rise in the world'. While the two editions - published Monday to Saturday - share a common characteristic of reporting on foreign affairs, they have separate editorial staffs and their content differs. The Chinese version appeals to readers eager to read about such things as China's military expansion, while the English edition is tamer. One recent day, the front page of the English version carried an article about the rescue of some dogs; the Chinese version displayed an article about Libya's besieged leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. 'Global Times has always been seen as 'stirring up Chinese nationalism',' says the editor at China Youth Daily. To that, Global Times' Hu retorts: critics 'think the Chinese shouldn't express their real thinking'. Hu, 51, has been Global Times' editor since 2005. He says the Chinese version sells 1.5 million copies and the English-language version circulates less than 100,000, with some copies provided for free. 'The American embassy subscribes to dozens of copies,' Hu says. Richard Buangan, a US embassy spokesman, confirms the embassy subscribes to both the English and Chinese-language editions, and an embassy insider says the public affairs division receives 12 copies a day. Global Times is also available online in both Chinese and English. 'Within academic circles the [Chinese edition] Global Times has a poor reputation,' says Qiao Mu, director of the Centre for International Communications Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, adding that the difference in content between the Chinese and English editions is 'like a person with schizophrenia'. The paper appears to have no shortage of critics. In February, Hu wrote his first post on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, saying Global Times hopes to tackle sensitive subjects and describing himself as 'a reporter of a complicated China'. Within a day he gained 5,000 followers and his post drew hundreds of comments - almost all of them critical. The paper's commentary on Ai Weiwei - which also appeared in the English-language edition - wasn't the first time Global Times has waded into potentially controversial waters. In 2009, shortly after the English-language version was launched, the paper was the sole Chinese media outlet to report on the hot-button topic of the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. 'The Chinese media are moving forward little by little,' says Hu. 'These days we can express real feelings, which was impossible several years ago.' Now Hu wants the paper to live up to its name - and go global. The paper will 'definitely expand into the foreign market', he says. The how and the when are still under discussion. But, Hu says, the why is clear: 'We media people can feel the world's increasing interest in China and an ever stronger desire to listen to China's voice.'