Is it fair to mock China Daily for “falling for” an Onion article calling Kim Jong Un the sexiest man alive?

As the Associated Press and the New York Times blog The Lede (though theyweren’t alone; the piece, aided by AP memberships, got wide distribution) reported today, China Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, ran a short piece on its web site, in both English and Chinese, reporting that The Onion—which we in the U.S. know to be a satirical newspaper—had declared North Korean leader Kim Jong Un its “sexiest man alive.”

As the Times piece points out, this, on its face, is true. The Onion did make such a declaration (now updated to link to the China Daily piece). But the pieces—and those who are tweeting links to them today—are taking a clear “isn’t it silly that China Daily doesn’t understand that The Onion isn’t real” tone. As did I when I first retweeted links.

And posted them on Facebook.

That’s where I got into a discussion with Simon Zhang, who is the person closest to me who is completely fluent in both American and Chinese culture. And through our discussion I came to complicate my views of the matter. I believe that there are three possible interpretations of China Daily running this story. Here they are, with my analysis, aided by Simon:

  1. The editors of China Daily don’t understand the satire of The Onion, but think that Kim Jong Un really is attractive and worthy of such an appellation. I sort of bought this at first. There’s evidence, too. For example, China Daily Online ran a 55-photo slideshow of heroic-seeming photos of Kim, accompanying the report about The Onion. And the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the DPRK is as warm as any relationship another nation has with North Korea, even if it’s wary and not all that warm. And on top of that, China Daily has been fooled before, running at least one previous Onion article (about the U.S. Congress trying to leave Washington) as straight-up fact. But now I’m skeptical of this view. The Chinese Communist Party may be quasi-autocratic and certainly interested in controlling media accounts of itself and its allies, but they’re not stupid, and despite the sometimes poor English of their English version, someone on the staff probably understands that this couldn’t be entirely serious. They know how U.S. publications feel about the North Korean regime.
  2. China Daily knows that this is satire, and republished it as such, in the same straight-faced manner as The Onion did. Maybe. If some China Daily editor saw the Onion story and thought that it was funny, why couldn’t they re-run it on their site? After all, it would make Americans look silly to say that we thought KJU was some sort of sex symbol. And making Americans look silly wouldn’t be a bad goal for a Chinese propaganda organ, right? And that slideshow could be interpreted as ample evidence that Americans are misguided in finding Kim sexy. And if they somehow labeled the Onion article as satire (as the Times blog points out they do not), wouldn’t that ruin their own bit of satire? The moment you call something satirical, that ruins the satire. Also, as Simon reminded me (we had had this discussion before), Chinese and Americans have very different ideas of what makes an Asian person attractive. Some of the Asian stars that Americans see as being beautiful don’t fit the conventional definitions of beauty in Asia. That plays into interpretation #3, too:
  3. China Daily didn’t realize that the Onion story was satire, but their seemingly straight-faced report and slideshow are actually satire of Americans who didn’t understand their satire the way they didn’t understand the Onion’s. This one is complicated, a sort of two-way misunderstanding. If this is the right interpretation, then the China Daily Online editors saw the Onion article, thought it was silly that Americans thought Kim was sexy, and then posted a satirical piece (again, not labeled as such, and for the same reasons as in #2), taking it over the top by posting 55 deadpan pictures of the Dear Leader. And then all of our media critics went all snarky because we misinterpreted their misinterpretation.

I’m torn between interpretation #2 and #3, which I also like, but we probably aren’t ever going to know, because why would the editors of China Daily answer such a question (but kudos to the AP for trying, as they say they did in their piece). A Colbertian (I hereby acknowledge that Stephen Colbert is a satirist) wag of the finger to all of the news organizations that took this incident as an excuse to mock Chinese state media. Maybe they deserve it, but using phrases like “fall for” imply that we press bloggers know what was in the heads of the Chinese editors.

And we don’t.

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