The official voice of the Chinese Communist Party appears to have been had.
The People’s Daily newspaper, which for more than six decades has sternly spouted the party line, on Tuesday posted on its website a 55-photo slideshow dedicated to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Eun. The occasion: The satirical newspaper the Onion earlier this month declared the double-chinned Mr. Kim the “sexiest man alive for 2012.”
The slideshow – which begins with a photo of Mr. Kim astride a dappled gray, looking stoically into the distance – quotes liberally from the Onion and offers no evidence that a tongue is anywhere in the vicinity of a cheek. “With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true,” the text below the slideshow says, citing the Onion.
“He has that rare ability to somehow be completely adorable and completely macho at the same time,” it quotes Onion Style and Entertainment Editor Marissa Blake-Zweibel as saying. Longtime readers of the Onion will note she shares a name with the fictitious T. Herman Zweibel, who the Onion claims served in a number of editorial positions at the paper for more than a century until 2001, when he was launched into space. (Mr. Zweibel’s once-weekly column has appeared only sporadically since then.)
The text of the slideshow stopped there, omitting past winners of the Onion’s sexiest man alive award, which include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, convicted investor Bernard Madoff, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Mr. Zweibel himself.
The People’s Daily posted the slideshow in both English and Chinese. The Onion’s role as a humor newspaper is widely known in the English-speaking world but is little-known in China, and the Chinese version doesn’t offer a clue to readers that what they’re reading is satire.
It isn’t clear what the People’s Daily editors were thinking. They couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday.
To be fair, the People’s Daily website can be a saucier read than its staid print version. (Sample headline from Tuesday’s overseas print edition: “India Should Resist the Impulse to Engage in Trade Protectionism.”) It is operated by People.cn Co., a publicly listed company that is controlled by the People’s Daily but has its own profit and audience targets and competes with a number of digital platforms that have popped up in China in recent years. Recent audience-grabbing features on the website and in other People’s Daily-associated sites include photo slideshows of attractive women at this month’s Communist Party Congress, China’s top 10 nude models and a group that claims to be China’s national pole-dancing team.
This also isn’t the first time a Chinese newspaper has mistaken the Onion for a legitimate news source. In 2002, the Beijing Evening News caused English-speaking expats around the country to slap their foreheads in disbelief after it plagiarized an Onion story that said U.S. Congress had threatened to relocate to Memphis or Charlotte unless Washington D.C. built a new Capitol building with better parking and more concession stands. According to the Associated Press, the newspaper’s international news editor at the time bristled at the suggestion he should run a correction. “How can you prove it’s not correct?” he said, according to the AP.
Nor are Chinese newspapers the only organizations to be fooled by the Onion’s brand of satire. In 2009, for example, two Bangladeshi newspapers were forced to apologizeafter running a story, based on a piece in the Onion, that cited Neil Armstrong as saying the U.S. moon landings were a hoax.
And in 2011, according to the New York Times, the U.S. Capitol Police launched an investigation into the Onion after the fake newspaper posted messages to its Twitter feed saying U.S. congressmen where holding 12 children hostage inside the Capitol building.
Multiple calls to the People’s Daily website rang unanswered Tuesday night. It isn’t clear how Pyongyang will react to the slideshow. China is North Korea’s chief economic benefactor and a staunch ally amid international pressure for Pyongyang to curb its nuclear weapons ambitions.
[UPDATE: The Onion has included a note at the end of its story on Mr. Kim directing readers to the People's Daily for additional coverage. "Exemplary reportage, comrades," the note reads.]