How seriously should we take China's Global Times? This always interesting question is particularly pertinent after the nationalist tabloid took aim at Australia on Saturday, referring to Australia as a 'paper cat', and promising revenge for Australia's position on the South China Sea dispute. 

As many foreign readers of the Global Times are already aware, it is a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, the principal propaganda publication of the Chinese Communist Party. While this implies a degree of official sanction, it is difficult to measure the extent to which Global Times represents the official position of the Chinese government.

It does appear, however, that the Global Times has a special license to push positions and voice sentiments that other state media operations are reluctant to air openly. The publication's bellicose editorials do echo from time to time Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy stance. And it was noteworthy that when the Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the People’s Daily in February, he said his office subscribes to the Global Times.

The publication started as a weekly international supplement to the People’s Daily. One former editor-in-chief said the goal was to bring Chinese readers more international news and generate some additional revenue to help pay the wages of hundreds of overseas correspondents. The supplement's commercial success was followed by its own masthead. In 1997, it became the Global Times that started publishing daily in 2011.

The Global Times specialises in provoking and agitating and its tone and use of language is in marked contrast to the rather stolid People's Daily. Global Time's editors appear to have discovered channelling and amplifying the country’s growing nationalist sentiment is good for business. It certainly has reach with a daily print circulation of 2 million and more than 10 million hits on its online version each day.

The newspaper's editor-in-chief Hu Xijing is a polarising figure in China. Nationalists see him as a flag bearer of their cause while liberals decry him as the ugly face of Chinese chauvinism. Hu has the background to match his hardline editorial stance with military training at one of the People’s Liberation Army’s academies and experience as a war correspondent during the Balkan civil war and the Middle East conflicts.

The Interpreter spoke to several senior Chinese editors and reporters about the influence of Global Times. One experienced reporter at a major state-owned media operations said Global Times is 'a thermometer of public opinion' for Chinese leaders on foreign policy issues; while it does not officially represent the government's position. it provides a channel for Beijing to voice its displeasure and let off some nationalist steam. The reporter says one of the KPIs for Global Times is how many times it gets cited in foreign press, so editors often use colourful and outrageous language to attract foreign media’s attention.

That observation reminded me of a media conference at the University of Melbourne in 2012, when a deputy editor-in-chief of the Global Times cited how many times his publication had been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Guardian and other influential international media outlets.

Another reporter from one of the three major state-owned media outlets says editorials from The People’s Daily and Xinhua more or less represent the Chinese government’s official position. In contrast, while Global Times is in line with more hawkish elements within the party, its boisterous editorials don’t necessarily represent Beijing’s official line.

It is understood that the Chinese Foreign Ministry representatives made a similar point to their Korean counterparts in Seoul after the Global Times launched a series of tirade against South Koreans.

Within China’s more liberally oriented media circle, many editors and reporters are dismissive of Global Times and say while it has a great deal of latitude to express its views, often those views are different from the central government’s position.
 
A foreign editor from one the popular current affairs magazines said simply: 'Global Times is rubbish and its editors are a bunch of opportunists'.
 
It is clear that Global Times’ editorials don’t carry the same weight as those of the People’s Daily or Xinhua. However, it does enjoy a special degree of sanction from the country’s powerful censors to publish incendiary editorials on foreign policy issues. It is a gauge for public opinions both at home and abroad.

We should object to insulting editorials from the Global Times. But we should also be aware that any discussion of editorial positions which, in the end, lack real substance and are not the voice of government, also plays into the hands of the newspaper which prides itself on its ability to rile foreigners.

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