Breakfast With the Global Times

For a new generation of Indians, the most infamous Chinese newspaper is the Global Times. Owned by the People’s Daily and thus by the Chinese government, it has carved a niche for itself as the voice of ultranationalism. Some have argued that the paper modeled itself on Fox News. When asked about this, editor in chief Hu Xijin said, “I have been told this. But I had never heard of Fox News until I was asked this.”

Global Times editorials and often its op-ed pieces are among the most critical of the Indian government and, arguably, even more critical of countries like Japan and Vietnam when commenting on foreign policy issues. This has kicked up dust in India, where it is assumed that a state-owned newspaper must be reflecting the opinion of the Chinese Communist Party and government.

Global Times staffers argue otherwise, claiming they take a tough stance because that is their market niche — the paper’s readership is made up largely from security forces or young urbanites with a strong sense of nationalism. Hu himself, whom I met twice on his first visit to India last week, is circumspect when asked about how much direct control Beijing has on what his paper says. “The party put me in this job and they can take me away,” he notes. “Party control is getting weaker.”

In other words, I gathered, he has a fair amount of leeway on what Global Times says. The newspaper, which has both Chinese and English versions with different staff, is not an official government mouthpiece, but its responses are within the spectrum of acceptable stances as far as the party is concerned.

Hu, who came to our residence because he wanted to eat a traditional Indian meal at an Indian journalist’s home, was much more interested in the state of Indian media. He was suitably impressed at the number of Indian media outlets — 85,000 registered newspapers and magazines: “More than China. We have only 5,000.” He nodded sagely on hearing the wages of Indian journalists in the mainstream newspapers: “Similar, like ours.” And he was pleased to hear that the Hindustan Times staff includes only 48 women: “Our figure is much higher. There are many more women in Chinese journalism.” But he somewhat undermined this accomplishment by admitting that Chinese men were leaving the profession because they saw its wages and prospects stagnating.

Hu described a Chinese newspaper sector struggling with sluggish revenues and readers who had other things to do. This is surprising, given that China’s GDP is nearly four times India’s. But China is also a country where political debate is severely circumscribed, and, presumably, readers don’t see much point in spending a few yuan just to hear the government line. Global Times had carved a space for itself by commenting on a lot of international issues and taking a hard-nosed pro-China line on most of them.

Hu admitted he had come to India to get a better sense of why relations between the two Asian giants had been souring. He seemed suitably surprised by some of the reasons put forward by myself and others. One was the simple fact that Beijing has been deliberately obstructing any attempt by India to join key international groupings and fora like the Nuclear Suppliers Group and getting a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. “I don’t know the details of these foreign policy issues,” he said.

Hu argued that the two countries have an image problem and that media is responsible. He indirectly blamed the Indian media more than his own paper. He claimed the Global Times had attacked India on the basis of a Hindustan Times article describing a statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh which was later reported by the then Indian ambassador to China to be incorrect. I have heard this before from Global Times staffers: “The Indian and Chinese newspapers cause problems by arguing with each other.”

While there is no doubt that the rise of a neo-nationalist media in both countries has exacerbated tensions, there is also no doubt that the first mover in all this were specific Chinese policies that were seen as hostile to India: the verbal resurrection of territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh, the stapling of visas on the passports of Indian Kashmiris, and so on.

By chance, the bookshelf in my living room holds mostly books on China, and so Hu and the four other Global Times staffers who accompanied him were suitably impressed (or troubled) by my seeming obsession with things Chinese. But their visit, which included seeing slums in Mumbai and the Infosys campus in Bangalore, may have a moderating impact on Global Times‘s view of India. One of the younger journalists told me, “This is my first trip to India. I had expected much hostility towards China because of the articles we carry describing the arguments between the two countries. But people are quite friendly here.” He concluded that there was some misunderstanding between the two countries that required both sides to get a better understanding of the other side.

Sometimes there were surprising agreements between Indians and Chinese. I complained that the Chinese embassy normally declined to comment on even the most mundane of issues or clarifications. “They are like this with us too,” said the Global Times team. After quizzing my wife and I about our income, taxes, and even what our driver was paid — and inspecting the room of the live-in maid — Hu promptly posted much of this with photos on Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter). This, it seems, is the kind of information about India that Chinese young really want to know.

Copyright 2013 the Hindustan Times.

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