China – China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy Is Here to Stay
Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, WPR contributor Rachel Cheung and Assistant Editor Benjamin Wilhelm curate the week’s top news and expert analysis on China. Subscribers can adjust their newsletter settings to receive China Note by email every week.
China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy may have backfired in Australia, Canada and most recently France, but in a sign of its hardening attitude toward the West, Beijing is not backing down from its aggressive posture. Defying diplomatic norms, a growing number of Chinese envoys are adopting a belligerent tone in their speeches and tweets, which Chinese authorities have justified as a necessary response to counter what they call “foreign smears” and to protect “national interests.” While it panders to jingoism at home, such combative diplomacy also reflects the Chinese leadership’s firm belief that the West is in irreversible decline and, therefore, China no longer needs to maintain friendly ties.
Named after two patriotic blockbuster films starring a Chinese soldier who defeats all his enemies, including foreign mercenaries, the “wolf warrior” term was coined in 2019 to describe the newly bellicose rhetoric from some prominent Chinese officials. Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, was at the forefront of this campaign: His controversial tweet of a doctored image that showed an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child set off a diplomatic furor with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government last December.
The public spat between Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at last month’s meeting between American and Chinese officials in Alaska, was also celebrated in China as a display of national confidence. “China’s ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ in Alaska meeting impresses world,” read the headline of an editorial in Global Times, the tabloid controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. “The arrogant Western world led by the US is no longer eligible to deal with the world’s second-largest economy with a condescending attitude,” the article declared.
Now, those actions have set an example for others to follow, as more Chinese diplomats take to Twitter—a social media platform that remains banned in China—to counter what they see as an “anti-China narrative.” Last week, Li Yang, China’s consul general in Rio de Janeiro, lashed out at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Twitter, after Canada had joined the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union in sanctioning Chinese officials for human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. “Boy, your greatest achievement is to have ruined the friendly relations between Canada and China, and have turned Canada into a running dog of US,” he wrote, before engaging in playground insults with critics in the replies. “I hate to use this kind of words [sic],” he replied to one. “But we found that polite words don’t work! This is the language they understand!”
That followed a storm that the Chinese Embassy in France had kicked up last month, when it called a French researcher, Antoine Bondaz, a “little thug” and a “crazed hyena” on its official Twitter account. Those insults came in response to Bondaz’s tweet to the embassy, sarcastically offering “a big kiss to you and your trolls” after China’s ambassador in Paris, Lu Shaye, had tried to pressure French lawmakers into not meeting with Taiwanese officials during a future visit to Taiwan. Though the French Foreign Ministry slammed the Chinese comments as “unacceptable” and summoned the ambassador for a meeting, the Chinese Embassy defended them as “a legitimate counter-attack to provocative remarks from a so-called China expert,” without naming Bondaz.
Not to be outdone, the Chinese Embassy in Ireland last week tried to push back on the “wolf warrior” criticisms, which Beijing has lambasted as a “racist” portrayal of its diplomats—even though Chinese state media uses the term itself, and Chinese diplomats seem to relish how antagonistic they are. But the embassy’s tweet—which began by asking, “Who is the wolf?”—instead left most people baffled. “In his well-known fable, Aesop described how the Wolf accused the Lamb of committing offences. The wolf is the wolf, not the lamb. BTW, China is not a lamb.” Something was obviously lost in translation. The embassy later deleted the tweet.
“There’s always been this performative aspect of being an official in the party structure,” Margaret Lewis, a law professor and China specialist at Seton Hall University, told The Guardian. “But we’re hearing it louder now.”
Though this aggressive style of communication may alienate Western countries, in some cases, it works in Beijing’s favor. Signaling strength and threatening costs for crossing China may lead to friction with some countries, but it could cow others, especially ones that are dependent on Chinese trade, as Chong Ja Ian of the National University of Singapore told The Australian. Bhutan, for one, has largely remained silent about China’s gradual encroachment on its territory, as Beijing has tried to secure more access close to its disputed border with India. The Chinese Embassy in Ireland may draw laughs and ridicule for its muddled analogy, but it did get one thing right: While China constantly paints itself as a victim of “slander” and false narratives, it is not a lamb.
Top Reads on China
Hong Kong courts the rich amid a human rights crackdown: Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government is hoping that its ongoing assault on civil liberties will not scare away the global banks and investors that have made the city a global financial hub. Top officials in Hong Kong are preparing “a new tax break and other sweeteners to portray Hong Kong as the premier place in Asia to make money, despite the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly autocratic rule,” Alexandra Stevenson writes for The New York Times.
“So far, the pitch is working. Cambridge Associates, a $30 billion investment fund, said in March it planned to open an office in the city. Investment managers have set up more than a hundred new companies in recent months. The Wall Street banks Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley are increasing their Hong Kong staffing.”
Police officers warn protesters to disperse on China’s National Day in Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2020 (AP photo by Kin Cheung).
America’s risky freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea: In East Asia, the U.S. Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPS, are “are often sold as a way to challenge China’s aggression at sea and reinforce norms,” Jonathan G. Panter, a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University, writes for Foreign Policy. But he argues that in reality, FONOPS “endanger U.S. lives and national assets in a game of brinksmanship that promises little meaningful benefit.” The U.S. has used FONOPS more frequently in recent years to challenge China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, but this increased activity substantially raises the risk of accidents, Panter claims. Additionally, a drawn-out confrontation could be “highly disruptive to U.S. efforts to cooperate with China on areas of great import,” while also lacking support from an American public that is already weary of foreign military commitments.
“Instead of committing to risky and politically dubious operations,” Panter writes, “the United States should encourage its allies with greater stakes in the region to assume the responsibility for FONOPs,” while Washington enforces the norm in other ways. “This could both increase the likelihood of compliance and reduce the risk of accidents and escalations that endanger a fleet with far more important responsibilities.”
In the News This Week
South China Sea: A diplomatic row between the Philippines and China continued this week over the prolonged presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels at a Manila-claimed reef in the South China Sea. Philippine officials continue to demand the withdrawal of the flotilla, even as Duterte said Tuesday that the Philippines was committed to resolving the issue “through peaceful means.” The national security advisers for the U.S. and the Philippines have also discussed their shared concerns over China’s activities in the South China Sea (Associated Press & Reuters).
Hong Kong: Seven leading figures in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement were convicted last Thursday for organizing and participating in a march during massive anti-government protests in 2019. They each face up to five years in prison (New York Times). … Three people who were among those convicted last Thursday, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai and ex-legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, pleaded guilty Wednesday to taking part in a separate unauthorized rally in 2019 that led to violence between police and participants (Associated Press).
Foreign policy: South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong met Saturday with Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart, in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. North Korea was a key issue of discussion, and the two diplomats also agreed to prepare for a visit to South Korea by Chinese leader Xi Jinping once the coronavirus pandemic has stabilized (Associated Press). … Turkey on Tuesday “summoned China’s ambassador after the embassy suggested on Twitter that it could take action against two Turkish politicians who criticized Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur community,” according to the Associated Press.
Cross-Strait relations: China is holding naval drills involving an aircraft carrier group near Taiwan, and the Chinese navy said such drills will become regular (Reuters). … Beijing also sent fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on multiple occasions this week, continuing a pattern of near-daily incursions (Reuters). … Taiwan on Wednesday said it had spotted Chinese drones circling the Taipei-controlled Pratas Islands—known in Chinese as the Dongsha Islands—in the South China Sea, warning that it may shoot them down if they enter restricted waters and airspace (Reuters).
U.S.-China relations: The White House said Wednesday that the Biden administration is not discussing a joint boycott with U.S. allies of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics over human rights concerns, walking back a statement from the State Department a day earlier that the idea was being discussed (Financial Times & Reuters).
Xinjiang: China on Tuesday sentenced two former Xinjiang officials to death with a two-year reprieve on charges including separatism and bribe taking (Associates Press).
Domestic: China is expected to release the results of its once-a-decade census in the coming days. According to Reuters, it “is expected to show a further fall in the percentage of young people in its fast-aging population as high living costs and an aversion to having children among urban couples push China closer to a demographic crunch.”