It may turn out that the editors of the English-language edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, were only kidding when they ran a 55-image slide show based on “Kim Jong Un Named The Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2012.”
But if it turns out that they weren’t, the explanation for how such an article ended up in China’s most important tribunal isn’t so hard to parse. In three distinct ways, The Onion’s satire was perfectly engineered to appeal to editorial biases — some might call them blind spots — at the English edition of People’s Daily.
The first bias is for extended photo essays depicting Kim Jong Un in official, often heroic poses. This phenomenon started not long after Kim ascended to the North Korean leadership. Nonetheless, Kim-related slide shows now run frequently. Take, for example, last week’s 12-slide “Kim Jong Un inspects horse riding training ground of KPA (Korean People’s Army).” Perceptive visitors will immediately recognize that the first slide of this obscure feature is the same as the first one in the now-infamous “sexiest man” slide show. Two days later, on Nov. 23, People’s Daily ran the less heroic, but no less important, eight-picture “DPRK’s (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Kim visits Ministry of State Security.” Other examples are rife across the site.
The second editorial bias is for stories that highlight foreign leaders or news organizations praising aspects of China that might ordinarily be criticized by overseas voices. For example, in advance of this month’s National People’s Congress, the paper ran a four-picture slide show earnestly titled “Reporters highly praise Press Center of the 18th National Congress.”
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 titled “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.
The third, and final, bias is People’s Daily’s interest in sexy slide shows. On Sunday the paper posted a 52-image slide show titled “Attractive beauties at auto exhibitions” depicting, as the title suggests, models — sometimes skimpily dressed — lounging with cars (this was preceded, three days earlier, by “Sexy car models at 3rd Harbin Autumn Auto Exhibition”). No surprise, the sexy slide shows often descend into blatantly sexist agitprop, such as a now-notorious example, “‘Beautiful scenery’ at 18th CPC National Congress,” where the “beautiful scenery” turned out to be young women who worked at the all-important political event. Finally, there are the more prosaic, single-model examples (in which Kim Jong Un is obviously working), such as Friday’s “Glamorous Li Xiaoran poses on beach.”
No doubt, few would seriously describe Kim Jong Un as sexy, much less as the world’s sexiest man. Nor would many people equate People’s Daily with sexiness. But if there’s one place in the world willing — or, at least, desiring — to believe that a foreign publication would praise him in such a way, it’s certainly the English-language edition of People’s Daily. In retrospect, it was almost inevitable.
Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg View’s World View blog.