A theory for how China’s state newspaper got ‘fooled’ by The Onion

November 28, 2012

A screenshot of the English site for the People's Daily newspaper, trumpeting The Onion's award of "world's sexiest man" to Kim Jong Un.

Not long after the satirical U.S. outlet The Onion named North Korean dictator Kim Jong Eun its "sexiest man alive for 2012," the only non-North Korean newspaper in the world that loves Kim more picked up the story: the People's Daily, or its English-language online edition, at least. The official outlet of the Chinese Communist Party seemed to miss the satire, though, trumpeting The Onion's award and attaching it to a 50-plus-photo slideshow of Dear Leader. 

Is it possible there was something more at play here than just a misguided People's Daily editor failing to recognize American satire? Adam Minter, a terrific Shanghai-based journalist and a columnist for Bloomberg Views, thinks so. Afterall, China has satire of its own, often quite sophisticated and subtle.

Minter has two theories for the Chinese outlet's apparent goof. One, not exclusive to Communist Party-run media, is that the People's Daily simply loves slideshows, particularly well-performing Kim Jong Eun slideshows, and will take just about any excuse. The second is a bit more Orwellian: that it's precisely because Kim is so reviled internationally, something that reflects poorly on China given its sponsorship of his regime, that the paper is willing to take just about any excuse to praise him, no matter how absurd. Here's Adam:

This editorial trend dates back many years. For example, after the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, and accusations that China played a leading role in that breakdown, the paper ran an article with the headline, “World media reports praise China’s contribution to Copenhagen Climate Talks.” Likewise, in 2010, after a now-annual deluge of overseas articles criticizing China’s pressure-filled college entrance examinations, the paper ran a piece entitled “British media praise China’s college entrance compositions.” Obviously, Kim Jong-Un is not Chinese. But he does run a Chinese client-state about which the Chinese leadership has serious misgivings. Thus, foreign praise for him -- even his looks -- is likely very welcome in places where, no doubt, his handlers are keenly aware that his image reflects at least in part on China’s.

Silly and mockable though the story may be, it's a throwback to an era in China when information was not quite so free, when criticism of Chinese allies was not so easy to make, and when double-talking propaganda outlets enforced falsehoods that served the party. Flipping the truth on its head only looks ridiculous now because the truth, in China, is accessible and non-threatening in a way that it wasn't half a century ago.

The time of Mao Zedong's China is long over, but these faint echoes remain. It's funny now, but it wouldn't have been 40 or 50 years ago when the People's Daily wielded enormous power in China, much less 60 years ago, when Chinese troops crossed Korea's northern border to help push out United Nations troops and divide the peninsula into what it is today.

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Anup Kaphle | November 28, 2012