Radical dissidents such as Ai Weiwei called Han's position "too close to that of the authorities" and the attitude "too acquiescent, almost predicated on flattery," which makes the essay "a good piece for Global Times to run." A great number of readers, on the other hand, sided with Han. Reader Miandiandajinshi wrote in a response that he agrees "the so-called problems of the government and the system" are in fact "problems originated from our nation's deep-rooted bad habits." Prominent historian and critic Yi Zhongtian also echoed Han's argument in his blog post: "When the qualities and understanding of our citizens are not high, we shouldn't have too high an expectation." Many others called Han Han "practical and clear-sighted." In this polarized debate, while the liberals firmly held their ground, they have found the strong support for Han's reformist view hard to dismiss.
The argument laid out by the Global Times editorial, though made far more provocatively than Han Han's, contains some parallels to this more moderate view on Chinese social and political reform, held by what appears to be a not-insignificant swathe of the Chinese middle class.
Global Times built its business model on selling nationalism and controversy.
As the debate raged on, though other official media outlets would have shunned it for its uncomfortable and sensitive nature, Global Times decided to stir it. Hu Xijin, the paper's editor-in-chief, reportedly demanded an apology from Tencent, the web portal that reposted the story with a more provocative title ("China Must Permit a Proper Level of Corruption. Citizens Should Understand"). Posting on his personal Weibo account, which has over two million followers, he urged greater public tolerance to diverse social opinions. "Global Times is trekking a new territory in Chinese media sphere," he wrote. "We can tolerate accusations and sneers and are willing to learn from harsh words. Hopefully all these conflicts and arguments will increase China's social tolerance."
He was at least right about the unique space his paper occupies in Chinese media. Unlike mother-ship publication People's Daily, the pages of which are filled with humdrum bureaucratese, and from other more liberal papers that carefully walk the censor's line, Global Times built its business model on selling nationalism and controversy. Its editorials and coverage on international events regularly feature such headlines as "The West is the Most Responsible Party for Syria's Chaos" and "A new U.S. Strategy to Attack China: Shooting Bullets While Extending an Olive Branch." Its domestic content ranges from muckraking investigations on corrupted officials to party-boosting editorials like this recent one. It has even touched on the taboo 1989 Tiananmen protest, alluding to it at anniversaries. (Here is this year's, on the way politics are discussed on Chinese college campuses.) With a daily print readership of over 2 million and web page view of over 60 million, the paper's business strategy is clearly not failing, while its controversial market positioning has won it the label "China's Fox News."
Is it possible that the entire passionate discussion on corruption and democracy wasn't accidental, but in fact carefully orchestrated by Global Times chief Hu and his editorial team, in line with their typical promotion strategy? Maybe, maybe not. Few on Weibo are asking this question. Yet Hu clearly relishes controversy, and the Chinese public would predictably seize such an opportunity to air its discontent, to level such unveiled criticism and mockery at an easy, government-approved target. (Xinhua, China's official news agency, also published an article berating the Global Times editorial.)
"Properly corrupt, what an engaging topic!" exclaimed Weibo user Hu Maoyin.
"When the editorial appeared online under Tencent's title, a great number of public intellectuals are forwarding it obsessively," Huijian reflects. "And what does that say about us?"