China‘s leadership transition has seen an explosion in the art of Pekingology, the Soviet-inspired art of trying to figure out the intentions of the country’s rulers despite a shortage of key facts. Will new Communist Party Secretary General Xi Jinping push political reform? Is former leader Jiang Zemin’s power on the rise? Is outgoing President Hu Jintao‘s clout fading?
Now another puzzle of Pekingology has emerged, provoked by the English version of the People’s Daily Online, the website of the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party. It ran an article and 55-image slideshow Tuesday based on a story from U.S. parody news outlet the Onion declaring North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un its “Sexiest Man Alive” for 2012. So was the People’s Daily in on the joke?
In this case the answer appears to be no. After a day of generating widespread delight and disbelief, the People’s Daily removed most of the item from its site. “We saw the news on the Onion website and so we just reported the article objectively,” the editor of the item, who declined to give his name, told TIME in a brief phone interview. “We have no other intentions.” The Associated Press, which called the People’s Daily snafu “a case of telephone, or Chinese whispers, in the digital age,” described how the story was translated and republished by a series of Chinese news outlets, losing a line that described the Onion as a “satirical news organization” along the way.
The print edition of the People’s Daily is the driest of official media, filled with reports of speeches and photos of leaders visiting the masses. But online China’s state-run press opens up. The websites of the People’s Daily, China Daily and the Xinhua News Service are filled with photo galleries of titillating images like “Sexy sides of gorgeous Chinese female stars.” The Beijing-based media watching website Danwei dubbed the phenomenon “Skinhua” and traces it back to at least 2005.
The English language state media outlets, which are aimed at foreign audiences, are perhaps the most freewheeling. Expatriate editors have been known to slip in jokes an innuendo. The most infamous example was the “Ask Alessandro” column that ran briefly in 2010 in the English-language edition of the Global Times, which is part of the People’s Daily group. The column, purportedly by an Italian actor, offered risque and occasionally offensive relationship advice. It was quickly killed after the Wall Street Journal complained that the column “manages to fit in plenty of xenophobic stereotypes, sexism, nonsense and foul language, seemingly intent on offending almost everyone in under 400 words.”
Richard Burger, American author of the book “Behind the Red Door: Sex in China,” worked as an editor for the Global Times in 2009. He says that only a foreigner would have done an Alessandro-style parody. “A Chinese journalist would never have submitted anything like that,” he said by email. Burger suspects that the People’s Daily Kim Jong Un item was, unlike the short-lived Alessandro column, not an attempt at parody. He notes that it discussed North Korea, a longtime Chinese ally, and included a lengthy photo gallery, which would also have been seen as pushing the envelope.
“I would be stunned if the People’s Daily intentionally played a prank by citing the Onion story,” Burger says. “Those who sit in the senior editors’ offices take their work very seriously and know every comma in their stories is being scrutinized. Yes, you might see a playful story here and there, but nothing that makes fun of the media itself. The media is the government, and you don’t play practical jokes on the Chinese government.”
—with reporting by Gu Yongqiang/Beijing