The posting of China’s most well-known “wolf warrior” spokesperson earlier this week to a less high-profile Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department has turned the spotlight on China’s diplomacy, as well as ignited a debate on whether it is undergoing a recalibration.
The original ‘wolf warrior’, Zhao Lijian, who worked for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing as a spokesperson, garnered a fan-following in China — with more than 7.7 million followers on China’s Twitter-equivalent, Sina Weibo — and a more controversial reputation abroad through his active presence on Twitter, a website banned in China.
Mr. Zhao famously started a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 began because the U.S. military had brought the virus to Wuhan. He was also slammed by then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for tweeting a mock-up image of an Australian soldier with a knife about to slit the throat of an Afghan child, a post the Australian leader described as “repugnant”. Mr. Zhao was unapologetic about his often undiplomatic approach to diplomacy. But rather than receive a promotion to a high-profile posting for his endeavours, he was moved sideways — he remains of Deputy Director General rank in the Ministry, but has now essentially been sidelined, away from the limelight of the spokesperson’s podium. He wasn’t given, as his two predecessors were, an overseas posting with a higher profile.
Now, his reassignment, three months into Mr. Xi’s third term, has expectedly triggered debate about the immediate future of China’s diplomacy and raised the question whether the ‘wolf warrior’ days are over.
That conclusion may be premature. Although Mr. Zhao became for some the face of ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ in the social media era — the name derives from a popular eponymous Chinese action film in 2015 that became emblematic of the nationalistic zeitgeist of the early Xi Jinping years — the hard edge to Chinese diplomacy, in fact, long predated Mr. Zhao’s tweets. And regardless of tweaks in Chinese messaging that may follow his ouster from the Ministry’s briefing room, signs are it is here to stay.
‘Military in civilian clothing’
The idea of China’s diplomats needing to be “warriors” long predates Mr. Zhao, and goes back to People’s Republic of China’s founding and to former Premier, and first Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai. As Peter Martin, author of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, put it to The Hindu, Zhou was faced with a challenge at the PRC’s founding in 1949 as he tried to fashion a diplomatic corps.
“This new Communist state basically had no diplomats,” Mr. Martin said. “It had kicked out all of the KMT Nationalist diplomats who had stayed behind. It had a small band of officials who had been with China’s first Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai, for a couple of decades. But apart from that, its diplomatic corps was made up of group of ragtag peasant revolutionaries and fresh university graduates. And it had this huge need to go out and communicate with the world. China didn’t have any friends or allies outside of the Soviet bloc. But it also was very fearful about regime survival, and very, very paranoid about foreign influence.”
Zhou, who essentially became the founding father of Chinese diplomacy, came up with this approach, Mr. Martin said, “where he said, ‘Well, okay, we don’t know how to be diplomats, but we know how to fight battles. And so why don’t you model yourself on the People’s Liberation Army?’ So he said, be like the People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing. And what that means is unfailing loyalty to the Communist Party, strict adherence to discipline, an ability to display a fighting spirit when necessary.” What Mr. Martin calls a “militaristic culture” has been ingrained in Chinese diplomacy, even if, as Zhou himself embodied, it mastered the ability to hide its fist when needed behind velvet gloves. If Chinese diplomacy evolved to suit the needs of the Deng Xiaoping “reform and opening up” years and China’s integration with the global economy, one constant has been the same emphasis about ensuring regime survival. Foreign observers, who sometimes puzzle over muscle-flexing Chinese actions that to outside eyes appear to serve little purpose besides alienating countries, often discount the overriding importance of domestic politics as a driver of Beijing’s actions.
Chinese diplomats, like the soldiers of the PLA, serve a Party first, and then the State. Keeping the Party surviving is their number one goal. Diplomacy follows a distant second. And when domestic requirements of regime survival rub up against what would seem to be diplomatic needs, there will be only one winner.
“In Chinese diplomacy, domestic politics is always king,” Mr. Martin observed. “We look on with bewilderment sometimes and think, why are they possibly doing this because these are the people who are charged with improving China’s reputation? In truth, we’re not the audience. They’re doing this to signal to people in Beijing that they are loyal to the regime, they’re loyal to Mao or Xi Jinping or whoever is in charge.”
The Great Rejuvenation
At the time of Mr. Xi taking over in 2012, Chinese experts were already intensely debating whether it was time for a new approach to diplomacy that was unabashed about the country’s place in the world. The rise in assertiveness predated Mr. Xi. The Beijing Olympics in 2008, followed shortly after by the global financial crisis starting in the West, triggered a sense of triumphalism about the China model.
When Mr. Xi took over, Deng’s mantra of “hiding brightness, biding time” was swiftly buried. Instead, as he declared at the 2017 Party Congress, China was “moving to the centre stage of the world”, part of what he called “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. That surging sentiment, of being unapologetic about what the Party portrays as China’s destiny, had made its presence felt in Chinese social media, the arts, and in cinema. Enter the film Wolf Warrior in 2015, which neatly captured the mood, telling the story of a Chinese special forces soldier fighting foreign mercenaries in Africa and coming to the aid of Chinese citizens. At the very end of the movie, which became a huge hit in China, the soldier approaches a barricade while transporting his compatriots to safety. He simply holds up a Chinese passport in the air, and is promptly waved through.
This development coincided with Mr. Xi urging Chinese officials and official media to, as he put it, “tell China’s story well”. An increasing number of Chinese diplomats took to Twitter and many tried to outdo the other with their declarations of commitment to the mission. And, importantly, for many of them, their messaging wasn’t directly primarily to their audiences in the countries they served in, but to the 1.4 billion people back in China.
This mission, hence, carried an inherent tension: messages that appealed to the domestic audience at home often didn’t do very much to further Chinese goals abroad. The COVID-19 conspiracy theory popularised by Mr. Zhao was a case in point. Within China, it became a widely held view despite no evidence. In the U.S., it triggered a backlash from the Donald Trump administration and plunged an already worsening relationship to new lows.
If the post-Zhao era may eschew some of his unconventional approaches (he famously changed his social media name to “Muhammad Zhao” while serving in Pakistan), the shift in tone in messaging isn’t likely to alter the broader trends in Chinese diplomacy acquiring a harder edge.
That was indeed the message from one of the officials who now occupies Mr. Zhao’s podium. Asked if the end of the Zhao era may mean a change in Chinese diplomacy, the current spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, responded, “China is committed to its foreign policy goal of safeguarding world peace and promoting common development…..At the same time, on issues of principle that bear on China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, we would never waver in our resolve to firmly uphold them. This is the proud duty and sacred mission of Chinese diplomats.”