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ByJanice K. Merrill

Aug 1, 2022

Political commentator Hu Xijin was an influential online voice in the days surrounding Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The president of China’s Rabbit blog account lashed out at Hu, saying he misled public opinion at a time when his statements should have matched the official position.

OOn August 3, a day after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Chinese blogger Chairman Rabbit (兔主席) posted a long text on Weibo scolding political commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进) for his overdosed warmongering claims leading up to the controversial visit. from Pelosi.

Following the message from President Rabbit, grandson of a former CCP leader, Chinese social media saw much discussion and an outpouring of criticism against Hu and his overly aggressive stance.

In his since-deleted post, President Rabbit demanded stricter regulation of Hu’s public statements because of his alleged ties to the Chinese government.

Hu Xijin is a Chinese journalist and the former editor and party secretary of world timesa Chinese and English language media under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party official People’s Daily newspaper.

Although he has retired, Hu is still a very active commentator on political affairs via social media. With nearly 25 million fans on Weibo and more than half a million followers on Twitter, his messages and statements often trend and influence public opinion.

President Rabbit argued that Hu had built a credible reputation in his field, both in China and abroad, where he is generally seen as having some authority to speak on China’s political affairs – some media foreigners almost consider him as a kind of spokesperson for the Chinese government. Meanwhile, according to Chairman Rabbit, Hu is using this credibility to promote his own personal views.

“He was too loud. It would make people believe that [China’s] actions are not enough, resulting in disappointment and mistrust. It hurts the morale of the people and the credibility of the government,” President Rabbit wrote.

Two political commentators “Protect China’s national interests”

Chairman Rabbit is the pseudonym of Ren Yi (任意), a Harvard-educated Chinese blogger who currently has more than 1.8 million followers on Weibo, where he calls himself a “history blogger”. He is also the grandson of former Chinese politician Ren Zhongyi (任仲夷), who has been a leader of the reform period in China since the late 1970s. “Chairman Rabbit” is known as a nationalist political commentator and curator who often comments on US-related issues and current affairs (for more on his background, check out this article by Tianyi Xu).

The Chinese blogger’s post came after a week in which Hu Xijin has regularly been in the limelight for his strong condemnation of a possible visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Pelosi.

Hu suggested that a visit by Pelosi to Taiwan would be a clear provocation by China, giving the PLA a “good reason” to “wage war”. One of Hu’s tweets, in which he expressed the view that US military planes escorting Pelosi to Taiwan could potentially be shot down, was deleted by Twitter on July 30. Subsequently, Hu reiterated his views on Weibo and criticized Western censorship.

Tweet by Hu Xijin that was deleted by Twitter on July 30.

President Rabbit wrote of Hu:

“(..) as we can see time and time again, he lacks judgment and accurate sources of information on some major issues (..), and he only represents his personal opinions, which may be misdirected. If his opinions were seen as purely personal, they wouldn’t receive as much attention – his status as an “authority figure” is key to everything, and he is seen as having a special channel to represent the authorities.

In the message, President Rabbit accuses Hu of using his status to promote his own views and influence public debate and China’s international outlook to gain influence.

Hu Xijin himself responded to the post on his Weibo account, suggesting he felt betrayed and “deeply bewildered” at being attacked by someone he considered a “friend who worked together”. [with me] to defend China’s national interests,” writing, “I originally saw them as allies, but in the heat of the moment I was surprised to find that they suddenly turned their guns on them. point at me.

In the same article, Hu always defended his own remarks, saying that despite his “limited power”, he always does what he can to “protect China’s national interests”.

Frisbee Hu

The Chairman Rabbit vs. Hu Xijin dispute has caught the attention of Chinese netizens, including liberals and conservatives on Chinese social media.

With his heavy-handed language, Hu has seemingly regained popularity among diehard nationalists on Weibo after long being suspected of being a “gongzhi(公知), a pejorative use of the term “public intellectual”. The latest controversy shows that the interests of online nationalists do not always align with official government positions.

It also shows a divide between populist nationalists and more elite or “establishment” nationalists on Chinese social media. The former operate independently and are prepared to pressure the government for a more hostile foreign policy, while the latter follow and respond to government decisions.

Hu is known for commenting on political issues and listening to official narratives, which has even led to him being nicknamed “Frisbee Hu” (胡叼盘), suggesting that he can catch “frisbees” thrown by the Communist Party like a dog grabs his toy. .

However, it looks like he didn’t catch their “frisbee” this time. For the CCP, it would probably not be a wise choice to engage in any military conflict at this time, knowing the unpredictable societal changes it could bring to its regime, especially before the candidacy of Xi Jinping for a third term at the 20th Party Congress later this year.

Authorities have stressed that China will not “stand idly by” if Pelosi travels to Taiwan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned the United States on August 1 that if the US House Speaker visits Taipei, “the Chinese side will react resolutely and take countermeasures. vigorous measures to defend our sovereignty and our territorial integrity”.

But the aggressiveness of Hu Xijin’s posts may go beyond what the authorities had in mind. According to President Rabbit, Hu “influenced public opinion, as well as China’s international image. What he finally got was traffic for his own account.

Instruments for governing the public sphere

On social media, Hu still received a lot of support while others agreed with Chairman Rabbit that Hu was looking for clout and his words had consequences. While that’s not necessarily bad – as its influence can mobilize and channel public anger in a time of strict Covid measures and a declining economy – it can also backfire and negatively affect government when it fails to meet public expectations.

Chairman Rabbit suggests that it might be best for Hu to put a disclaimer and clarification at the top of any statement to make it clear that his views are personal and do not represent official opinion.

This is not the first time that Hu has been caught in a clash between Chinese populists and establishment nationalists. In 2021, Hu had a public argument with Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University. When Shen Yi defended a controversial article from the CCP’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission that put an image of the Chinese rocket launch in addition to that of a mass cremation in India, Hu argued that the accounts Officials should not ridicule India’s Covid deaths, but “express sympathy for India, and place Chinese society firmly on moral high ground” (read here).

At that time, however, Hu sided with so-called ‘establishment nationalists’ who advocated more decent public expressions from an official government account at a time when their neighboring country was mourning the victims. of their Covid epidemic.

Disputes such as “Hu vs. Shen” and “Hu vs. President Rabbit” could be seen as instruments to rule the public sphere, shifting the focus of attention amid online storms. The ‘Hu vs Shen’ public debate shifted the topic from whether it is moral to ridicule a neighboring country for its tragedy to whether it is good for an official government account to ridicule a neighboring country for its tragedy.

Similarly, the “Hu vs. President Rabbit” dispute shifted the topic from whether it is moral to wage war against Pelosi’s visit to whether it would be in China’s national interest to wage war and to the influence of online public commentators in this context. question.

President Rabbit issued a second lengthy message regarding the dispute on August 4, in which he again reiterated his position that Hu Xijin’s tone on social media did not match the official position, and that Hu, with limited diplomatic and military knowledge, miscalculated his response to the Pelosi affair and steered public opinion in the wrong direction.

The row between the two influential commentators has sparked discussions, with some bloggers wondering when the next round of bickering will take place. In doing so, President Rabbit also helped channel nationalist sentiments and create some calm after the online storm that followed Pelosi’s visit.

“I think the propaganda department should take responsibility, because they have tacitly accepted Hu Xijin’s influence on public opinion. They can no longer blame it all on someone who is already retired,” a popular comment read: “Those in charge should take responsibility! Our propaganda has always encountered problems, both internal and external.

Other commentators believe that Hu Xijin receives too much credit for being held responsible for changing public opinion. “My friends don’t even know who Hu Xijin is, but they also changed direction to prepare for war,” one Weibo user wrote, while another person added, “He’s just saying out loud what I already thought. If everyone said it, it could be blocked, but he can speak for us.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” others say, “And we might need hawkish expressions like those posted by Hu. I still support him.

By Xiuyu Lian and Manya Koetse

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