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Hu Xijin is photographed in Beijing on June 21, 2019.Giulia Marchi/The New York Times News Service

One of China’s most well-known newspaper editors, who helped popularize a forceful, often belligerent online nationalism long before “wolf warrior” was even a phrase, is retiring.

On Weibo, Hu Xijin said he will step down as editor of Global Times, becoming a “special commentator” for the paper, which is published under the auspices of the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP.

“Old Hu will be 62 years old after the new year, and it is time for him to retire,” he wrote in characteristic third-person style, adding that as a commentator, he would “continue to do my best for the party’s news and public opinion work.”

Yang Sheng, a journalist at the paper, responded to Mr. Hu’s post by describing him as “the most combative, responsible, humorous journalist in China,” while others praised his willingness to show his “human side” and said the paper would be more boring without him.

Not everyone was complimentary, however. “In the history of China, there are two people who have held special positions in Chinese public opinion,” wrote the popular blogger Ouzhoujinxue. “One is Lu Xun, he was loved and courted by both sides. The second is Old Hu, both China’s left and right hate him and want to beat him up.”

The retirement age for men in China is 60, but despite Mr. Hu’s cheery announcement, his departure from the paper he helmed for more than 15 years may not have been as voluntary as he makes out.

This week, there were multiple reports Mr. Hu’s ouster was imminent. According to Sing Tao Daily, a Hong Kong publication close to the Communist Party, a new leadership was being brought in to Global Times to strengthen the paper’s “political orientation.” This reportedly includes Fan Zhengwei, deputy director of the People’s Daily commentary department, and Wu Qimin, a senior editor at the same paper.

While the People’s Daily has not shied in recent years from publishing provocative commentary, particularly in English, the paper is generally far more staid than Global Times, and none of its columnists or editors have anywhere near the public profile of Mr. Hu.

With 24 million followers on Weibo, and another 500,000 on Twitter, Mr. Hu has an outsized influence both inside China and internationally. Some Chinese critics have joked he is “the only person with freedom of speech” in the country, given his willingness – and ability – to write about sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 without punishment. (That Mr. Hu regards the protests as a mistake and claims students were egged on and misled by the U.S. probably helps.)

Indeed, Mr. Hu’s influence can be seen in a new generation of state media journalists who often ape his style on Twitter, sparring with Western commentators and politicians, and then posting screenshots for followers on Chinese social media behind the Great Firewall. Global Times, too, can be seen as presaging a more stridently nationalist, defensive tone in state media at large, particularly publications which are foreign-facing.

“Hu Xijin was a pioneer, he was a wolf warrior before there ever were wolf warriors,” said Manoj Kewalramani, author of the Tracking People’s Daily newsletter and a China expert at the Bangalore-based Takshashila Institution. “The approach that he first adopted has permeated across the propaganda system.”

The role of Mr. Hu and Global Times has often gone far beyond mere provocation, however, serving as a key part of the wider Chinese official messaging apparatus. When Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared this year, soon after accusing former premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault, it was Mr. Hu who first posted videos of her on his Twitter account.

“Can any girl fake such sunny smile under pressure?” he wrote in a post accompanying one video. “Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside. There must be many many forced political performances in their countries.”

During the Two Michaels saga, it was Global Times that provided what little information is available about the government’s case against Canadian Michael Spavor, citing unnamed sources accusing the businessman of taking photos of Chinese military equipment and “illegally provid[ing] some of those photos to people outside China.”

The paper’s influence can sometimes be overstated, with some foreign media occasionally crediting op-eds in its pages to “Beijing,” as if Global Times represents an official voice. Over the years, Mr. Hu has been clear that this is not the case, though he also emphasizes his own closeness to top officials, particularly in the Foreign Ministry and military, and that he sometimes acts as a conduit for senior voices within the party.

“They can’t speak willfully, but I can,” he said in a 2016 interview.

Perhaps no longer. Writing after Mr. Hu’s retirement was announced, David Bandurski, director of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project, said while the circumstances remain unclear, “it might be that CCP leaders feel the Global Times is due for more ‘party spirit’ and a bit less Hu Xijin spirit.”

Mr. Kewalramani said that it was likely Mr. Hu’s domestic commentary, rather than international, which tripped him up, pointing to a recent post he wrote on Weibo, later deleted, complaining about the shrinking space for journalism in China, particularly at the local level.

This may have been read as an “implicit criticism of Xi Jinping, who has consolidated significant control over local governance,” he said. “It points to this need, going into 2022, to have no voices that are critical, at least domestically.”

At a Communist Party Congress toward the end of next year, Mr. Xi is expected to begin an unprecedented third term as leader, and has been shoring up his absolute control both of the CCP and the country at large in the run-up to this.

Mr. Hu’s rumoured replacement at the head of Global Times also suggests the decision is domestic-facing. According to multiple reports, Mr. Fan is a contributor to the “Ren Zhongping” byline, which is used for commentaries in the People’s Daily that set the official line for other media on a given subject.

“If he’s contributing to [that byline], you know he’s very closely linked to the central leadership, to Xi Jinping, when it comes to the direction of domestic policy and setting that narrative,” Mr. Kewalramani said.

According to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency, Mr. Fan was one of a small group of staff who met personally with Mr. Xi when the Chinese leader visited the paper in 2016 and exhorted all media to “love the party, protect the party and serve the party.”

With a report from Alexandra Li

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