To Serve People: Ai Weiwei vs. Global Times Reveals Propaganda Can Be A Fickle Mistress

A weekly column in which Chinese media is taken to the stocks.

By TAR Nation

On Tuesday night, the Global Times published an article damning Elton John for dedicating his performance to Ai Weiwei and encouraging Chinese people to boo future similar performers off the stage. On the same day, GT published “‘Top thinkers’ list a reflection of US values,” a scathing indictment of Foreign Policy’s list, which features, among others, Ai Weiwei.

It seems that GT will do just about anything it can to insult, discredit and destroy Ai Weiwei.

But it was not always so.


Once upon a time, Ai was a common feature in the Global Times English-language edition. Collaborator on the Bird’s Nest Stadium, world-renowned artist, troublemaker with just enough sense to stay inside the lines, Ai Weiwei.

There was once optimism at the ludicrously nationalistic propaganda rag, confidence that it wouldn’t just be another party-line tool. No one really knows what happened to make GT’s English-language site become an embarrassment to both China and the government for which it plays pitbull. The columns from He-Hu-Shall-Not-Be-Named got more hateful and violent. The toadying slowly rose to nausea-inducing levels. And anyone who had any idealism got fired, quit or paid enough not to mind.

But back in 2009, there was hope that GT could be relevant, and Ai, just bad-boy enough to make it into the papers, was a bread-and-butter play.

In November 2009, Ai was cited in a feature called “Rage inside the machine,” an article so-called for observations in his blog. In the same month, Ai was mentioned in “2009 in features,” noting a New York Times piece “about some of the more disquieting aspects of his life and work.” In September of that same year, Ai was lauded in “Ai Weiwei’s World Map,” a puff piece featuring his gallery opening in 798. Quote: “Commenting on the socio-political and economic climate of contemporary China, Ai uses metaphoric references, humor, pun and political irony to redefine and reconsider the meaning of traditions.”

GT also acknowledged, without foaming at the mouth, his earthquake work:

As an internationally recognized contemporary Chinese artist, Ai found himself under the spotlight again in December when he started an investigation into the student casualties in the Sichuan earthquake last May.

“Artist,” not dissident or traitor or Western stooge or liberal. “Artist.”

It wasn’t just the Global Times, either. No one really had an excuse to hunt the bearded media-savvy artiste. Xinhua was all aflutter over his being chosen by the Danish government to design a replacement for their “The Little Mermaid,” which was going to be at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, a story reported earlier in May 2009. Under the People’s Daily wide umbrella, The Market News (市场报) praised him in 2005. In Global People (环球人物) and in the overseas edition of People’s Daily, Ai got the celebrity treatment. And Economic Weekly (中国经济周刊) fawned over him in 2009 (see above CMP link for more info).

In the Global Times Forum, GT published Ai’s blog post, “Why Barack Obama should talk about human rights.” In December of the same year, Ai got himself a massive feature, “Making waves,” which celebrated and rejoiced in his kitschy grassroots investigation into the earthquake and artwork. Also, in 2009, GT published this picture:

That is Ai Weiwei’s 9,000 backpacks spelling out “She led a happy life in this world for seven years” in memory of Yang Xiaowan, who died in the Sichuan earthquake. The article was a call to arms for brilliant bloggers, opening with, “Reports of the death of blogging appear greatly exaggerated.”

2010 was not much different. Wen Tao, the greatest reporter you’ll never meet, published “Ai Weiwei takes on ministry” in March 2010. From “A bit of Beijing in Berlin” to “Artist share moving stories,” he was China’s premier artist and lovable eccentric. GT seemingly took his side on the demolition of Fake, and they even published Ai’s personal photos of a protest.

Here is a photo of Ai Weiwei actually IN the Global Times building on Guanghualu in Beijing having his photo taken with staff in early 2011, about three months before GT branded him a “tool of the West.”

The important thing to remember is that, at this time, not one editorial from Hu Xijin or Shan Renping said a word about Ai Weiwei. It just wasn’t in their wheelhouse.

Then he “touched the red line,” as Hu Xijin put it.


Everything changed on April 6, 2011, after Ai’s arrest for “tax evasion.” Global Times turned on him with a coordinated character assault. The following is an excerpt from “The law will not be twisted for mavericks” (Chinese edition translation, all praise be unto CMP).

Ai Weiwei, who has been called an “avant-garde artist,” was reportedly “led away” by Chinese police recently, and a number of Western governments and “human rights organizations” quickly stepped out to interfere, demanding that China immediately release Ai Weiwei. They also elevated this matter as a “worsening of human rights” in China, and called Ai Weiwei a “champion of human rights in China.”

Ai Weiwei is a “performance artist” who has been quite active in recent years, and he is often called an “avant-garde artist.” He is a maverick standing on his own. He goes against artistic tradition, and he loves “shocking others with words” (惊人之语) and “shocking others with actions” (惊人之举). He also enjoys moving at the “fringes of the law”, doing things “the legality or illegality of which” ordinary people can’t quite grasp.

As Ai Weiwei loves doing things his way, he often does things “others don’t dare to do.” Moreover, he is surrounded by people of similar ilk. He is probably quite clear himself that he is often not very far from the red line of Chinese law.

This is how fast the whole of China’s propaganda machine can turn on anyone, with vicious and injudicious use of quotation marks.

The Chinese newspapers have done this with every dissident to get a headline, asserting that they sold out their country for fame and glory in the West. They did it with Liu Xiaobo, Liao Yiwu, Chen Guangcheng, ad infinitum. So, in the end, it wasn’t Ai Weiwei that did wrong. It was his defenders, and his defenders came from artists and advocates in pretty much every country on earth with an Internet connection. This means one thing in China: the West.

But Ai Weiwei didn’t just fall from grace. He was pushed.

From that point forward, he was referred to as a dissident or a Western pawn, never again as an “award-winning Chinese artist.” His name became “sensitive,” support of him became harmonized and he was relegated to the scapegoat cabinet of Chinese media. These efforts were, and continue to be, spearheaded by the nationalistic shame that is Global Times. People’s Daily largely stays out of it, but when they do wade into those waters, they reprint from GT. Xinhua does the same. Due to Ai’s general charisma and the fact that he hasn’t really done anything wrong, the Chinese media (and GT in particular) had but one stick left to beat him with: “the West.” And, man, have they worn out that stick.

Here is a smattering of what happened when the worm turned:

Ai Weiweis will be washed away by history,” November 16, 2011, by Shan Renping:

Artist Ai Weiwei told foreign media recently that some 30,000 people lent him in total 8.8 million yuan ($1.4 million) to pay the tax bill and fine… Is 30,000 a big number, compared to China’s population of 1.3 billion? Even weibo has more than 100 million users. [...]

Ai is a symbol of those dissidents that win full support from the West. Chinese people who have interest in politics all know him. But for those who don’t know him or cannot remember him, are not interested in his game of political confrontation.

The West has supported many dissidents in China. The Western media once regarded Wei Jingsheng, imprisoned in 1978 for 15 years, as “the father of Chinese democracy.” That “father” is now in some little corner of the US and journalists don’t even bother to report on him. [...]

We must say that without the support of the West, Ai is literally nothing. [...]

Their prospects are closely connected with China’s misfortune… Then let’s hope their luck is not so good. Their appearance could serve to keep a prosperous China vigilant.

West’s support of Ai Weiwei abnormal,” April 16, 2011 (a year after Ai is initially arrested), by an unnamed editor:

Since early April, the arrest of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been used by some Western media as a stick with which to bash China’s human rights situation.

As a Chinese citizen, Ai undoubtedly enjoys favorable treatment from the West, which constitutes an intrusion of China’s legal system. The Western bias toward Ai results from his confrontational attitude to the government. [...]

The belief that there is political persecution in China is a fallacy.  Instead, the country is witnessing the unfolding of democracy. At the same time, that does not mean the people mentioned above can do whatever they want in the name of democracy, nor does the West have the right to set up a roadmap and timetable for China.

It is abnormal to hype up Ai’s case – the West seeks to refute China’s basic political system by paralyzing its legal system. The West will undoubtedly oppose any future verdict on Ai Weiwei, as it aims to put down Chinese values.

Take note of grass-roots opposition to dissidents,” June 18, 2012, by Yu Jincui:

Ai Weiwei and the Dalai group have both been rejected by the mainstream of Chinese society but are portrayed in a noble light by the West. They have been granted high status by a few Western politicians and political forces. This high recognition abroad, however, is not acknowledged among the majority of Chinese. [...]

At the most, people are often puzzled as to why activists and separatists are given so much attention by the West. The Chinese public values more rational approaches to moving this huge country forward. But this simple feeling is often ignored by the West, thus putting itself at odds with Chinese mainstream society.

There are many more, including this week’s “Elton John’s outburst met with indifference” by the “man” himself, Hu Xijin. (Note: Five unsolicited responses have come forward to tell me that Elton’s “outburst” was met with a reaction, and that it was positive.)

Obviously, John’s [yes, he calls him John] unexpected action was disrespectful to the audience and the contract that he signed with the Chinese side. He forcibly added political content to the concert, which should have been nothing more than an entertaining performance. If they had known that this concert would be dedicated to Ai Weiwei, many in the audience would not have come to see this concert. [...]

Western society is seriously biased against China. When US magazine Foreign Policy compiled a list of 100 global thinkers from around the world, the first Chinese on that list was blind activist Chen Guangcheng, and the second was Ai Weiwei. Even to Chinese people who have sympathy for these two people, this list may seem ridiculous. [...]

The selection of Chen and Ai makes people wonder whether the word “thinker” in Chinese and English have different meanings. We can just say that some Westerners are increasingly unable to contain themselves over China’s rise. They cannot control China through normal means and they are more likely to rush their fences.


It’s important to mention that Ai didn’t take all this lying down. In November 2011, he fought back by releasing the personal phone number of Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times who pens GT’s editorials and is, as it happens, one of the worst living “human beings.” I have no particular love for Ai Weiwei — art is, let’s be honest, a bit poncey — but everyone is a huge fan of screwing with bullies and getting away with it.

Hu Xijin, a consummate professional, took the fight to his state-funded Communist Party propaganda rag for fair and balanced coverage. We have confirmation that he penned this himself:

So, the man who was detained, extra-judicially, for 81 days (along with his completely innocent staff) caused the propaganda monsters to “suffer” from prank phone calls.

Other gems in this piece include:

The staff of Global Times have no personal grudge against Ai. Global Times has published several commentaries concerning Ai’s case since April but has made no personal attacks against him.

He must have missed the “Ai is literally nothing” bit.

Besides, these comments were conducted against the background of Western media and foreign governments meddling in Ai’s case. Global Times’ response is normal work for a newspaper.

It isn’t. It’s the “normal work” of a childish bully with the full financial and political backing of a brutal autocracy. Also, please refrain from calling the Global Times a newspaper. It tends to make people retch.

Take Ai Weiwei, he should be cautious about his behavior, by invading the privacy of his criticizers because of criticism against him, he negated the expectations of those around him.

My grammar check in MSword brings up three green lines in that sentence. So, assuming it can be made grammatically correct, it’s incorrect. Those around Ai seemed to be in full support; some even went to prison for him, all while GT spewed editorials from its ears about how he is a pawn of the “West.”

The Chinese government should take measures to regulate the online order and curb the increasingly rampant violations on personal rights, including invasion of privacy and death threats. The relevant authorities should take actions to crack down on these illegal acts while safeguarding the freedom of speech.

Ai Weiwei did his thing on Twitter, so… wish granted. You can’t crack down on things you’ve already banned.


That is what happens when propaganda turns on you, and it is not an isolated case. Similar things have happened with politicians like Bo Xilai, nations like Myanmar and even websites like Google. The moment something stops being convenient, the dogs are released and the floor is covered in blood.

In the end, the lesson here is that China has invented enemies, and you can become one in a second if you overplay your hand while in the public eye. It just takes one spotty editor in one rolly-chair to decide that you are detrimental to “society.” From then on, you are an assumed dissident and a plank for China to beat its imaginary enemies just because they may or may not have tried to stand up for you.

That is, unless, you wade through it all, wade through the hate-filled commentaries, the government bullying, the arrests of the people you love and respect, the alienation, the jail time and official condemnations of your talents; then maybe, just maybe, you get to be a rock star whose Gangnam Style video garners worldwide attention.

Worth it.

|To Serve People Archives|

    44 Responses to “To Serve People: Ai Weiwei vs. Global Times Reveals Propaganda Can Be A Fickle Mistress”

    1. Jonathan Alpart

      Who honestly expects the Chinese government – any government – to take lightly being given the finger? By an invited and honored guest, no less? I figured someone who has been knighted would’ve had a bit more class!

      C’mon TAR, you don’t think Elton John acted like a twit? It’s easy for him to make some fashionable political statement about a person and a country that he probably doesn’t understand, then fly home the next day to his millions of dollars and adoring fans, having nothing to do with the mess left behind him.

      Certainly his dedication will do little to no good for the people of China, but will screw over a lot of well-intentioned artists, both Chinese and foreign, looking to perform in and outside of China, respectively.

      I don’t think the Global Times was all wrong, either, although of course half of what they said was laughable. To their credit, why exactly are people like Chen and Ai topping the lists of global intellectuals? What average person actually knows a thing about them, their ideas, or what they stand for? It’s simply because taking “a stand” against China is a cool thing to do.

      Any Chinese dissident is automatically revered in the West, even without having any understanding of what he/she is about – it’s true. Liu Xiaobo could be a Muslim anarcho-abortionist for all most people know but he’s labeled a hero because he was jailed. Of course, it follows now that a popular musician can drop their name and feel like a hero, too.

      What if Wang Lihom dedicated a concert in Madison Square Garden to Bradley Manning? Or to the American teenager murdered by a drone strike in Pakistan? That would be a hell of a concert.

      Besides, Ai is a hypocrite and a fraud. Surely you saw the video of him attacking without provocation the scholar that was in the middle of being jumped in Chaoyang Park not too long ago?

      “unless, you wade through it all, wade through the hate-filled commentaries, the government bullying…”

      Ai and his journalist friends demonstrated that they are no better.

      Love from the Web Dept!

      • RhZ

        Wow. John. Wow. You know your comment is like kryptonite, and not in a good way. Few will dare to engage someone as far gone as you seem to be.

        Ok so first, brutal autocratic government acts like brutal autocratic government, punishes someone without any legal basis. John shrugs.

        Second, do you think, just possibly, that Elton John might know what he is talking about and actually care about human rights and justice? No no, its just a fashionable statement, he obviously is just showing off.

        Third, if Elton John’s actions lead to less concerts, its all Elton’s fault that many Chinese and foreign artists suffer. Not the repressive Chinese government, no no.

        The rest I can’t touch, it is to laugh. Yes of course every Chinese dissident is automatically revered in the West, its obvious!

        Better trolls, pls.

      • Leon

        Contract at CRI coming up, John? What an ass kisser. Elton John can say whatever he wants and do whatever he wants’ cause he’s in a free country. Why are you sticking up for the persecution of a man by an ENTIRE government. Also, people in the west insult their governments and leaders ALL THE TIME. Western newspapers are nothing but damnation of the governments. Jesus, wake up.

        • Jonathan Alpart

          Where did I once say that I support China’s persecution of AWW? I just said I think he is overrated and a hypocrite, and that foreigners eat these kinds of stories up too easily.

          Sure, Elton John is free to say what he pleases, just as I am free to say I think his behavior was irresponsible and disrespectful. Just as Global Times is free to get butthurt about it. Does that offend you?

          By the way, what Western newspapers are you reading? Of course the Western press is waaaay better than Global Times, but come on:

          “Western newspapers are nothing but damnation of the governments.”

          Really? Are you naked and draped in the Constitution right now, too?

          • Leon

            I don’t think you actually read western papers. Just look at CNN’s political section, it’s all determental to the government. Don’t even get me started on Fox news, who downright lie about the government. If you haven’t noticed this, you aren’t paying attention.

            I also don’t think you realize that in the west people who speak out against the government are also revered. Look at Michael Moore, Jane Fonda, Bill Hicks…etc. Ai Wei Wei is no more put on a pedestal than these people.

            Part of the patheticness of China is that it complains it is being picked on and wants to be treated equal. In reality it IS being treated equally and wants to be treated better. It wants to be immune to criticism. And people like you fall for it with hollow arguments of “respect” and other nonsense.

            Kanye West once stood up and said at a Charity function “George Bush hates black people.” NO ONE questioned his right to say it. It happens all the time. Only western governments don’t moan like little bitches when someone calls them on their shit.

            Too bad you’re too thick to see it.

            • Jonathan Alpart

              That’s funny you bring up Kanye West, because I happen to remember another infamous “disruption” of his at a certain award ceremony that everyone HATED him for.

              Michael Moore, Bill Hicks, etc – despite the fact that some people really despise these figures, Moore especially, you are ignoring my point that the majority of Westerners actually know what these people stand for and are familiar with their personalities and ideas. I challenge you to find an average “supporter” of Ai Weiwei in America who actually knows who he is and what he is about. Chances are you’ll hear “well, he wants democracy, and…um, fuck China! They’re bad!”

              I agree with you that China wants to be immune to criticism, but so does any government: Why else is Obama going after whistleblowers? Why else does Bill O’Reilly tell people to “shut up”? Why else was Zuccotti Park made un-occupiable? Why else does the NSA monitor ALL internet data? Should I go on?

              It’s hard to take you seriously when you speak in total hyperbole regarding your deification of Western governments/media. You ignore all of their own faults to highlight the faults of China to make your point.

            • Leon

              Give me a break people know what these people stand for, how many morons have you seen wearing Che Guevarez T-shirts?

              Pop culture takes in people ALL THE TIME and holds them up as saviours of causes. Some people know what’s up, some don’t. Frankly Ai Wei Wei has a big mouth, but the guy isn’t wrong.

              It also doesn’t matter that no one liked what Kanye Said, the point is no one said he disrespected and entire nation because he said it.

              I don’t think you know what hyperbole means. I told you to watch CNN and fox news and you will see plenty of talk that slams the government and country. I’m not going sit here and list specific examples for you because there are too many. ALso, if I did, your argument would then be that I was cherry picking incidents.

              And, btw, I’m not ignoring all the faults of western media – I’m sticking to the topic at hand. Should I start off on some tangent about sensationalist news compromising the true purpose of the news instead of talking about your point about western media being hard on China? No, I shouldn’t. It’s called a fucking focus.

              But you keep on that typical propagandist path of getting upset for all the things I didn’t say instead of addressing what I did say. Jesus, talk about lazy.

            • Leon

              I know what yours are like. A bunch of mooks sitting around a table disappointed about their slow son.

      • Alinear

        What if Wang Lihom dedicated a concert in Madison Square Garden to Bradley Manning? Or to the American teenager murdered by a drone strike in Pakistan? That would be a hell of a concert.

        It would go mostly unremarked, even by those in the audience. (Quote my sister, “Bradley who?”) WLH doesn’t exactly have a US following besides.

        • Leon

          He could easily do it if he wanted. He’d probably be cheered on by the crowd. Either way, the press would not say he insulted an entire country by doing it. And, for the millionth time, THAT’S THE POINT

          • Jonathan Alpart

            You’re insane. Fox News would have his head. The liberal media probably, too. He’d be called an enemy of freedom, a meddler, a Chinese spy, ungrateful of his invitation, it would go on and on. People would call for his ban to ever perform again. Wal-Mart would stop selling his records (assuming they do).

            • Leon

              Well, has the irony escaped you that people are calling for such a ban on him in China right now? You talk a great game but don’t seem to hold China to the same standards as the us.

            • Leon

              No, I’ve said many times China is worse because it seems to piss and moan about “hurt feelings” when this happens. They say people “shouldn’t” say things, they don’t just let them say it and allow people to form their own opinion.

    2. RhZ

      TAR you have outdone yourself, this is the definitive post of the about-face that GT did to Ai.

      Seriously, excellent work.

    3. King Baeksu

      So if Ai Weiwei is so irrelevant to most Chinese, why the fuck does Global Times care what Elton John or Foreign Policy have to say about him?

      Too bored to wade through their crap to deconstruct the rest of it. I’ll just paraphrase Voltaire instead: If Ai Weiwei did not exist, Global Times would have to invent him.

    4. Jess

      Consider: When did Western media outlets stop referring to Ai Weiwei as a “princeling”?
      Post-detention, Ai went from outspoken, privileged brat to underdog, renegade hero. China is surprisingly adept at making martyrs out of molehills.

    5. wil wang

      Great article. And, while i’m personally all about Ai Weiwei, i can take Jonathan’s point that nobody should be surprised about the CN govt (and the media it controls) getting all huffy about it. i think it’s great when anybody raises human rights issues in or outside of China, ’cause i live here and am also totally dissatisfied w/ the stuff going down here. But really, there’s lots of countries with lots of human rights issues, and it’s the ones in China that are always in the spotlight.

    6. Justin Mitchell

      As the only foreign running dog lackey doing PR for the PRC who knows both Jonathan and TAR Nation and who has met Elton John (Sept 1992, Denver) and Ai Weiwei (GT, Beijing, January 2011) I can say both Sir Elton and Mssr Ai are…

      Bloated dicks.

      Albeit very engaging bloated dicks.

      But when I met the Johnster back in the day he was backstage coked to the gills and ranting like a rabid queen about the tacky flowers in his hotel and dressing room. I guess he’s done the rehab thing by now and whether or not he chooses to dedicate a concert to Ai Weiwei is indeed his business.

      TAR Nation’s point is made well, here, though. I was at GT when Ai Weiwei did his “tour” of the office under the guidance of a lickspittle managing editor. It was surreal. Ai even made a point of praising GT’s “courageous” Chinese staff to me as they studiously ignored his presence. It was only lackey foreigners like myself who made a point of giving him a shout-out.

      Then the wind changed and it’s been ugly ever since. Witness this shit storm. Well, at least three of us, none a so-called “best-selling” author, have the guts to use our real names.

      • Leon

        It took ten minutes to do some internet searching to find out the “Four best sellers” guy must be Scott Burgeson. His “four best sellers” are best sellers in Korea. I wouldn’t have posted his name except that I seemed to find countless posts on expat forums in Korea with him bragging about his “four best sellers” as well as going on about how Chosun and others love him. I can’t stand expats who think they’re something special and get cocky cause they’ve done well in a nation in which they speak a minority language. He needs to be taken down a peg.

        Scott, head back home and, if you can make it as a journalist there, you can start prancing around like Hemingway. Until then stop talking about your four books, it’s unbecoming. As it stands now, your “zine” in Seoul, colum for Chosun and books don’t even outrank work experience at a small daily in Iowa as far as bragging rights go.

          • King Baeksu

            Lol, what is wrong with you? Where have I ever said in this thread that people love me? I merely sought to counter the suggestion that I was an unproductive slacker.

            Oh, and I was a professional newspaper critic in the SF Bay Area for several years before coming to Asia. And the Chosun Ilbo is the largest newspaper in South Korea, with a readership of millions.

            Try to be a bit better informed before making such a fool of yourself. You sound bitter. And jealous. And who knows, probably a certain someone’s sock puppet.

            • Leon

              I’m none of those things. I just think you have a big mouth and not much to back it up with. Oh, you were a “critic” eh? Uh, let me guess community paper arts? Yeah, sorry. No.

              I know all about Chosun, I don’t care. But it’s funny you called me uninformed because I wasn’t impressed by your resume.

              Newspapers all over Asia give columns and such to expats all the time, doesn’t matter what they do. There’s a bunch of real doozies working in China’s media and only total muppets let it go to their heads.

              I don’t think and never said you are a slacker, you actually seem to be fairly hard working. I just think you have an inflated ego.

    7. King Baeksu

      “I just think you have a big mouth and not much to back it up with.”

      Esteemed blog administrators:

      I humbly request that you delete all of my above comments, for I am apparently guilty of the charge of “shameless self-promotion.”

      It seems that some people ’round here have such a fragile self-identity that they cannot bear to read of others’ accomplishments, however fleeting, and find that it utterly ruins their day.

      I, for one, have no desire to inflict such misery upon the lives of others. Mea culpa! Forgive me comrades, for I have sinned!

      What time is my next self-criticism session? Long live the Revolution!

    8. Captainchimp

      It’s too bad Sir John forgot to give a shout out to his fellow countryman Neil Heywood. Typical I suppose. “Hey Beijing, I just want dedicate my performance to my good friend and multi-millionaire artist who helped design the stadium you’re in now, let’s give it up for Ai Wei Wei! Who gives a shit about the unknown the kids who died in a trash bin last week or the hundred or so other kids who have died on busses while going to school. I hope you enjoy the show!”


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