China has been blocking Twitter since 2009. So how and why is the editor of a leading pro-government newspaper active on the microblogging platform?
That’s the question many Twitter users were asking earlier this month when Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times, opened a new Chinese language account. “Hello everyone, I have come to test Chinese Twitter… If you consider yourself a son of the Yellow Emperor, tweet me,” he wrote. He said his main aim in opening his second Twitter account – he has had an English language one since 2014 – was to communicate with overseas Chinese.
Some 50 million ethnic Chinese live outside the Chinese mainland and some 800,000 go overseas to study every year, where they have access to social media such as Twitter which are blocked at home by the so-called Great Firewall. The only way to view these sites inside China is to use a virtual private network or VPN. But these services have been the subject of government crackdowns since last year.
Many of the 14,000 people who followed Hu’s new Twitter account were curious whether he was using a VPN to get onto the US site. “Does your Party Mama know you are playing over the Wall?” asked one.
“Aren’t VPNs illegal in China?” goaded another. (Last year most Chinese app stores, including Apple’s, removed all downloads for VPN services, and several people were detained for operating such services.)
Hu’s new Twitter account is also part of a soft-power push by China’s state media. Many Party-run mouthpieces now operate their own overseas social media accounts and spread their messages in foreign languages. The People’s Daily, for instance, has somehow accumulated more than 43 million Facebook fans.
Of course, some suspect many of these “fans” are either internet bots or members of the so-called “50 cents army” whom, according to the Washington Post, are paid by the Chinese government and generate nearly 450 million online comments every year.
To counter the ‘50 centers’ some internet users run parody accounts which pretend to be part of China’s propaganda machine. This is exactly why Hu needed to open an official Chinese Twitter account, because there are simply so many “shanzhai Hu Xijin’s” rampaging on the Chinese language version of the social media service.
Indeed, following Hu’s first tweet on his new account, many of his shanzhai impostors simply popped up and claimed that they were actually the real Hu. Then, after being pelted with abuse on his official account, Hu lashed out, tweeting “Chinese Twitter really stinks” – to which another tweeted in reply “the only smell here is you”.
Hu has been particularly targeted because of his outspoken nationalistic style. But he is not deterred. In the last two weeks he has posted essays about the need for stability in China, the longevity of the ruling Communist Party and the likely human suffering that would occur if there was a sudden change in the country’s political system…
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