Wolf Warrior Diplomacy
“We never pick a fight or bully others. But we have principles and guts. We will push back against any deliberate insult, resolutely defend our national honor and dignity, and we will refute all groundless slander with facts.” — Wang Yi, Foreign Minister of China
Once upon a time Chinese statecraft was discreet and enigmatic. Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, wrote in his seminal study Diplomacy that “Beijing’s diplomacy was so subtle and indirect that it largely went over our heads in Washington.” Governments in the West employed sinologists to interpret the opaque signals emanating from China’s politburo. Under its former leader, Deng Xiaoping, the country’s declared strategy was to “hide its ability and bide its time”. Well, not any more. Under Xi Jinping, China’s diplomats have abandoned that policy for an aggressive approach called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, with envoys taking to Twitter to respond bluntly to any accusation made against China and even threatening trade war against governments that criticize China. This has been styled after the blockbuster success of the patriotic, Rambo-style film Wolf Warrior 2 in mid-2017. The slogan of the fils, taken from a Han dynasty saying, is: “Whoever offends China will be punished, no matter how far they are.”
In Wolf Warrior 2, the 2017 Chinese blockbuster that became the country’s highest-grossing film of all time, a former special ops soldier in Africa defeats Western mercenaries, rescues trapped factory workers, and protects the vaccine for the Ebola-like “Lamanla” virus that a Chinese doctor discovered. With Hollywood-style explosions, gunfights, and hand-to-hand combat, the film energized Chinese moviegoers as it depicted their country as an unstoppable altruistic superpower rather than the victim of a century of humiliation. Leng Feng, the titular Wolf Warrior, saves the lives of defenseless Africans, beats to death the ruthless American mercenary, and gets the girl by the end of the two hours. Its tagline: “Anyone who offends China will be killed no matter how far the target is.” At the end of the film, the red cover of a Chinese passport is displayed, accompanied by the message: “Citizens of the PRC: When you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.”
Now, this wolf-warrior mentality has moved from the big screen to real life. China has now dispatched an increasingly vocal cadre of diplomats out into the world of social media to take on all comers with, at times, an eye-blinking frankness. Their aim is to defend China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and challenge those who question Beijing’s version of events.
We have seen China’s international messaging changing rapidly during the recent years. At the party to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Foreign Ministry last year, Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the country’s envoys to adopt a “fighting spirit” in the face of international challenges. Although Twitter and Facebook are banned in China, diplomats quickly acquired accounts and followers, and began to use them to hammer the countries where they were posted. As China faces attacks over its alleged role in the spread of the coronavirus, these diplomats have taken an increasingly strident tone against, and are giving more robust diplomatic response to, countries critical of China especially the United States, Australia, and a few other countries. These ‘wolf warriors’ are lashing out at European countries and even traditional allies. For example, when an unnamed Venezuelan officials referred to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus, diplomats tweeted they should “put on a face mask and shut up.” This suggests that China is positioning itself as an aggressor, willing to push back when adversaries, especially in the United States, criticize it. Such strong actions also act as a warning to other countries who may consider taking actions China disapproves of.
This is what is being dubbed as “wolf-warrior diplomacy”. And, this new approach seems to enjoy some popularity inside China and reinforces a presumed transition of Chinese diplomacy from being conservative, passive, low-key to assertive, proactive and high-profile. Global Times, a daily tabloid newspaper under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, recently wrote: “The days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone. China’s rising status in the world requires it to safeguard its national interests in an unequivocal way.”
Wolf-warrior diplomacy, named after the popular movies, describes how Chinese diplomats are launching an offensive to defend China’s national interests in a high-handed and often confrontational way. For example, China’s foreign ministry spokespersons Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian have taken to Twitter to hit back against external criticisms of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and poor quality of exported Chinese medical equipment. Zhao said in a tweet on 20 March that “if someone claims that China’s exports are toxic, then stop wearing China-made masks and protective gowns”.
Why is China resorting to wolf-warrior diplomacy? How does it affect the current global combat against Covid-19 and China’s relations with other countries? Has the aggressive style become the norm of Chinese diplomacy?
First, this change in China’s diplomatic approach did not occur all of a sudden. Since 2010 when China’s GDP overtook Japan’s to be the world’s second largest, the Chinese have become more proud and confident, and China’s foreign policy has become more assertive, gradually departing from, but not completely abandoning, former leader Deng Xiaoping’s taoguang yanghui (keeping a low profile) dictum. As the Communist Party continues to promote “four confidences” — confidence in our chosen path, confidence in our political system, confidence in our guiding theories, and confidence in our culture — nationalism has been on the rise among the Chinese public. Wolf-warrior diplomacy is an extension and reflection of soaring nationalism at home.
In recent years, President Xi Jinping has advocated “a fighting spirit” on several occasions, whether speaking to PLA soldiers or to party officials at the Central Party School. This gung-ho call has apparently raised the morale of Chinese officials and diplomats and has encouraged a more assertive diplomatic style.
Wolf-warrior diplomacy is evidenced not only in combative words but also in aggressive actions. For example, in early April, a China Coast Guard ship allegedly sank a Vietnamese fishing trawler near the controversial Paracel Islands. When Vietnam protested, the Chinese foreign ministry responded by saying Vietnam’s claims of the controversial area are “illegal”. Then on 19 April, Chinese Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Civil Affairs jointly announced the naming of 80 islands, reefs, seamounts, shoals and ridges in the South China Sea, triggering angry protests from other claimants of the South China Sea. The last time China named islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea was in 1983.
Telling the China story
Second, as China becomes more powerful, some of its neighbours and Western countries especially the US increasingly view China’s development as a threat to their national interests. These countries are generally unprepared or unwilling to accept China’s rise. Western narratives about China’s rise are overwhelmingly negative. Many Chinese believe that Western media portrayal of China is highly biased, often with ideological and racist tinges. The wolf-warrior diplomacy is part of the Chinese government’s endeavour to “tell the China story” to counter Western narratives. The latest diplomatic offensive is also part of the official effort to project China as a great power leading the global fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
China’s image has suffered during the Covid-19 crisis due to its bungled handling of the outbreak at the early stage. Many countries blame China for initially covering up the human-to-human transmission of the virus and for not sharing complete information with the international community. Some have even sued China in their courts. There has been a reported surge of cases of sinophobia or anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in some countries.
From China’s perspective, the current wolf-warrior diplomacy is a direct response to “unfair” approaches of other countries, especially the US, toward China and the Chinese people. For example, earlier this year, the US and China were engaged in a race to expel journalists, which started with the publication of an op-ed titled “China is the Real Sick Man of Asia” by The Wall Street Journal. When the Journal refused to apologise, China expelled three of its journalists. Shortly afterwards, the US State Department declared five Chinese news media to be “foreign missions”, requiring them to register their personnel and property with the US government and cutting the number of Chinese nationals working at the five media. In retaliation, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expelled more American journalists.
In the view of foreign ministry spokesman Zhao, his claim that the coronavirus might have been brought to Wuhan by the US military athletes was a response to US politicians’ calling it “Chinese virus”. Hawks in the US government, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have continued to use the derogatory term “Wuhan virus” in violation of the World Health Organisation guidelines.
Third, just as Chinese society has become more diverse, Chinese diplomats are not monolithic. There is no consensus within the Chinese foreign policy establishment on whether confrontational diplomacy is desirable for China now, and not all Chinese diplomats are wolf warriors.
Traditional-minded Chinese diplomats, including the long-serving ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, have sought to tamp down the combative impulse among some Chinese diplomats and dismissed Zhao’s conspiracy theory about the US military as “crazy”. Another veteran diplomat, former vice foreign minister Fu Ying, said Chinese diplomats should uphold “the spirit of humility and tolerance, and adhere to communication, learning, and openness” in a recent article.
Wolf diplomacy soon to fizzle out?
Diplomacy cannot and should not be hijacked by populism and nationalism at home. Whether wolf-warrior diplomacy represents the culmination of the transition of Chinese diplomacy to a combative and hawkish style is too early to tell. Diplomacy is not the priority of Chinese leaders, whose focus is inevitably on daunting domestic challenges. As China faces growing external criticisms and demands for reparations over the coronavirus, it is not inconceivable that Chinese leaders will soon rein in the confrontational-style diplomacy in order to create an environment conducive to domestic reconstruction. In other words, with internal and external challenges, wolf-warrior diplomacy may not last long.
In fact, wolf-warrior diplomacy is already hurting China’s foreign policy since it has generated some pushback against China, such as Australia’s calls for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus. China’s soft power is weak globally; a belligerent approach will further damage China’s global image. According to the latest polls released by Pew on 21 April, 2020, 66% of American surveyed during 3-29 March say they have an unfavourable view of China, the most negative rating for the country since Pew began asking the question in 2005, and up nearly 20 percentage points since the start of the Trump administration. Confidence level in President Xi dropped to 22%, the lowest since the question was asked in 2014.
Finally, diplomacy is supposed to help solve problems and bring nations together, not push them apart. It is truly unfortunate that China and the US are engaged in a diplomatic tussle and blame each other when they should work together. It’s imperative that they play down their differences and focus on containing the coronavirus now.
As a nation proud of its glorious ancient civilisation, China should remain humble and magnanimous. It should also be courageous enough to admit its botched handling of the coronavirus at the outset and hold relevant officials accountable. The Chinese government should improve the mechanism that encourages, not impedes, local officials to report such public health alerts instantly and effectively.
Due to political, ideological, and cultural differences, Western suspicions about the Chinese government and anxiety about China’s rise will not disappear any time soon, and the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated such distrust and apprehensions. A more powerful China should be more confident and be receptive to constructive criticisms. Striking a balance between firmly defending its national interests and enhancing its soft power is a great challenge in Chinese diplomacy today.
Senior Chinese diplomats have called for more “Wolf Warriors” to defend the country abroad despite warnings that this combative approach was likely to alienate the rest of the world. The whole discussion can be summed up in the words of Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Britain who recently said: “Some people said China now has many Wolf Warriors, the reason is that there are many ‘wolves’ out there in the world now. If there are ‘wolves’, we must have ‘Wolf Warriors’ to fight. We encourage diplomats at all levels to actively fight. Where there is a ‘wolf’, we need to fight back actively to protect national dignity and interests.”
Three Wolf Warriors
A recent BBC report took Foreign Ministry spokesperson and former Minister-Counsellor of Chinese Embassy in Pakistan Zhao Lijian, Chinese Embassy in India Counselor Ji Rong and Minister Ma Hui from the Chinese Embassy in the UK, who had publicly slammed US accusations against China over the pandemic, as typical “Wolf Warrior” diplomats.
- Zhao Lijian
He is a young foreign affairs spokesperson is the quintessential “wolf warrior” with over 600,000 followers on Twitter who knows how to exploit his audience. When he returned from a posting to Pakistan last year, Reuters reported that “a group of young admirers” at the Foreign Ministry cheered him. He had catapulted into global attention by labelling the US as racist and in a Twitter spat, telling former National Security Advisor Susan Rice she was “a disgrace” and “shockingly ignorant.” In January, Zhao was promoted to a Foreign Ministry spokesman, highlighting that his was the path to diplomatic success. In this new role, Zhao has tweeted to his 623,000 followers that US soldiers brought COVID to Wuhan when competing in the 2019 Military World Games.
- Ji Rong
A spokesperson in the Chinese embassy in India, Rong often lectures Indian media to course-correct and adhere to the One-China principle. She even goes beyond the scope of diplomatic ambit and calls India’s complaints “ridiculous” and “eye-ball catching nonsense”.
- Ma Hui
In the United Kingdom, China’s “wolf warrior” is Ma Hui who is the number-3 at the Chinese embassy in London. Ironically, his twitter ID includes the word “warhorse”. Ma Hui lives up to this self-given title. He once described US leaders as despicable and wanted all of China to fight back their so called stupidity.
In addition to the hard-line wolf-warrior diplomacy, China is also deploying a softer mask diplomacy. Around the world, China has jumped in to donate masks, ventilators, medical supplies, and in some cases medical personnel to countries struggling to fight the coronavirus, especially in Europe and Africa. Chinese propaganda has focused on an Air China plane touching down at Ghana’s airport with 37 tons of supplies in boxes with the “China Aid” logo. All the supplies are going to African countries.
China has also come to the aid of Serbia, where President Aleksandar Vučić slammed Europe for its lack of assistance when the country announced a state of emergency in March. Planes full of equipment touched down in Belgrade, and six medical experts coordinated the country’s coronavirus policy, recommending the government quarantine patients in large field hospitals, according to The Guardian. In gratitude, Vučić kissed a Chinese flag while a pro-government tabloid paid for billboards that read, “Thank you, Brother Xi.”
China’s “mask diplomacy” also spurred a dramatic change of tone from Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis. Before the pandemic, he had called for the removal of the Chinese ambassador after a threatening letter from the embassy over a Czech lawmaker’s planned visit to Taiwan.
But as COVID-19 infections spread, Babis raced to the airport to personally greet a planeload of medical supplies from China, and publicly thanked the ambassador he had wanted withdrawn.