It is tempting to want to ignore the Global Times. The Chinese tabloid publishes content that is rude, crass and often skinny on facts.
But in the crowded and cutthroat scene of China’s media, it stands out for its success and popularity, built on the back of nationalistic coverage that at times borders on warmongering.
Sometimes, it reads like a daily newspaper edited by a bunch of Chinese Donald Trumps.
Yet, its value rests precisely in its loutish ways. It offers the outside world a glimpse of what the Chinese government is actually thinking, but unable or unwilling to say, at least not in such insulting ways.
And given the growing importance of Beijing, this peek into the dark side is precious.
The paper’s long-time editor-in-chief Hu Xijin said in an interview last month he was close to the security and diplomatic circles of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They shared his paper’s editorial stance, he claimed.
“They can’t speak wilfully, but I can,” he said.
It pays to take Global Times, which is published by the CCP’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, seriously.
Its ongoing spat with the Singapore government is instructive.
On September 21, the newspaper carried an article saying that Singapore had raised the issue of the disputed South China Sea at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit held in Venezuela on September 18.
Global Times added that Singapore wanted to include an international tribunal’s ruling on the waterway, which was in favour of the Philippines, in the summit’s final document.
Singapore’s ambassador to China, Stanley Loh, rejected the tabloid’s report in an open letter, saying it was “false and unfounded”.
Within hours, Hu came out to stand by his paper’s report. Then, the Chinese government came out in support of Global Times.
When a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman was asked at a regular media briefing about the tiff between Global Times and Singapore, he blamed an unspecified “individual nation” for insisting on including South China Sea issues in the NAM document.
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Clearly, Hu’s boast of being the voice of the Chinese government was not an empty one.
Global Times may be the bad and hawkish cop, but its messages are a transmission from within the heart of CCP power.
The choice of Global Times as its vehicle usually comes down to two reasons, domestic and foreign.
First, and most importantly, the newspaper’s popularity allows the CCP’s message to reach as many Chinese as possible.
The paper’s Chinese-language website reaches 15 million visitors daily. That is almost three times the size of Singapore’s population.
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The belligerent tone of the paper appeals to a growing home base of young nationalists, which are referred to as xiao fen hong or little pinks.
This plays into the nationalist posture of the CCP, a position that has gained greater prominence since the financial crisis of 2008 and even more so since Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) took over the party in 2012.
The concept of the China Dream rests on restoring China to its deserved place at the top of the world and Global Times gives vent to such aspirations.
Very often, this means mocking, scolding and insulting other countries. Which brings us to the second reason.
The Global Times is noticed around the world. While the paper is often lampooned overseas, foreign media pay close attention to its stories.
For the CCP, it is no use blasting other countries unless the recipient gets the message.
In that way, Global Times can be, in a sense, fair. It directs its vitriol at almost every country and territory. The top three are usually the United States, Japan and the pro-independence camp of Taiwan.
Next up, the rest of the world takes turns to feel the brunt of Beijing’s wrath. Last month, for instance, an editorial lambasted Australia for its support of The Hague tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea.
“If Australia steps into the South China Sea waters, it will be an ideal target for China to warn and strike,” the Global Times threatened.
Late last year, the newspaper referred to Australia’s air operations in Southeast Asia and said “it would be a shame if one day a plane fell from the sky and it happened to be Australian”.
For Singapore, the current dispute is not the first time it has been on the receiving end of Global Times’ fire.
In 2009, former leader Lee Kuan Yew asked the US to increase its presence in Asia so as “to strike a balance”. The Chinese tabloid, citing netizens, criticised Lee as a political animal who was ungrateful to China.
Through these news stories, Beijing aims to influence, scare and bully foreign states into submission.
Such are the intentions of the latest Global Times’ reports. They are designed to frighten Singapore into, at the very least, silence on the South China Sea.
As Singapore is the country coordinator of Asean-China dialogue until mid-2018, it can expect such Chinese pressure to continue, led more often than not, by Global Times.
The writer is author of ‘When the Party Ends: China’s Leaps and Stumbles after the Beijing Olympics’, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016. He was the former China bureau chief for The Straits Times