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The making of China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy | In Focus podcast

In this episode, we are examining the rise of what's being called China's wolf warrior Diplomacy, referring to an increasingly assertive brand of fiery diplomacy from many of Beijing's diplomats and foreign envoys. What exactly is wolf warrior diplomacy? Is this new diplomacy a change in merely style, or also a change in substance? What does history tell us about how domestic political trends in China shape Beijing's external behaviour? What do these changes mean for countries like India and their relations with China?

Guest: Peter Martin, journalist and author of China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.

Here is a transcript of the conversation.

(Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity)

Ananth Krishnan: Peter, to begin with a question that's fairly obvious: I think many of our listeners would like to know how exactly this wolf warrior term came into being? And of course, why it interested us so much?

 

Peter Martin: Yeah, of course. So there was this blockbuster movie that came out in 2017, about this Chinese action hero kind of fighting foreign bad guys on the continent of Africa. And, you know, avenging China's enemies. And it had unexpected commercial success, the highest grossing movie ever at the Chinese box office. It came to symbolize this new mood in Beijing, where China was going to stand up for its interests, it was confident on the world stage. And it came, of course, at the same time as the Trump administration, was seen to be shaking some of the United States’ status. In the following years, Chinese diplomats really started to follow that lead as well, in some cases, shouting at foreign counterparts coming out of international meetings, name calling. In the end, that term was applied to them, too.

 

AK: So Peter, if I remember right, at some point were there people who were embracing this term giventhat for many people in China it was considered something positive? But then it seemed that it's somehow evolved into something that some officials in Beijing seem to resent.

 

PM: I think it's kind of a mixed bag. I would say on the whole, Chinese diplomats and officials, as far as I can tell, don't like the term very much, because, you know, from their perspective, the US administration, and its allies have kind of ganged up on China, and they

feel criticized for their economic policies and the human rights records. From their view, they're just kind of standing up for China's interests. And they see this wolf warrior label as just a form of name calling. I think, though, that quite a lot of Chinese citizens like the label, they like the idea that now China's time has come, and our government is standing up for us. And you know, perhaps in the past, they think it was a little bit too weak. And now they think that that that level of assertiveness is appropriate.

 

AK: I thought your book made a really persuasive case for how so many things that we see today, and we think are completely new, actually do have the sense of continuity, going back to 1949. We'll come to that history in just a bit. But before we get to that, I think a lot of the media reporting sort of sees this wolf warrior emergence coinciding with the Xi Jinping era, starting in around late 2012, early 2013. How much of this do you think is down to the change in leadership we saw in Beijing? And how much of it do you think is maybe a result of broader trends?

 

PM: It’s a great question. I guess I kind of think of Xi Jinping as both a cause and a consequence of changes that have taken place in China. So this new assertive turn in Chinese diplomacy really started in 2008-09. In the wake of the global financial crisis, China had just hosted the Olympics. The West's response to the financial crisis was sluggish and China's was very, very decisive. In the ensuing years, China watched Western political systems deal with gridlock at home while its own economic growth continued, and most recently during the coronavirus pandemic. There are these trends taking place in China that are quite independent of Xi Jinping. But I think what Xi did was take a more confident and assertive tone, and kind of accelerate it and make it make it more decisive and more permanent. So in terms of foreign policy, I think some of that's driven by Xi, and Xi is also a consequence of the changes underlying in China.

 

AK: You do mention, post-2008 leading up to Xi taking over in 2012, there was this debate going around in Beijing, should they continue the Deng Xiaoping era maxim of “hiding brightness, biding time”. It seemed that there were a lot of people who felt that it was in China's interest to do that. But at the same time, it seemed there was a growing chorus of people who said, you know, enough of that, that was for a different era. Do you think that debate has been resolved in one way right now?

 

PM: I think the debate is still ongoing beneath the surface, although, you know, in public, Xi Jinping, and those who want to continue this very brash, assertive tone, have certainly won out. There are large parts of China's scholarly community on foreign affairs, and in fact some people in the Foreign Ministry, who would still like China to take a quieter, more humble approach to foreign policy. I don't know that those people necessarily think that returning to the policy of the 1990s is realistic. There's a refrain I heard quite a lot in Beijing, you can't hide an elephant. The idea is China has gotten too big to really take that kind of low profile that it had in the past. But I think there are a lot of people who are very uncomfortable with this trend of picking apparently unnecessary fights and insulting foreign counterparts.

 

AK: One of the arguments you make quite persuasively in your book is that sometimes when Chinese officials do say those things and we are left wondering if it's counterproductive, you make the case that a lot of it is actually tied to what happens domestically in China, to

China's political system. A lot of it even goes back to 1949 and the early years. You describe how China's diplomatic corps has always been unique, and going back to 1949, Zhou Enlai looked at the PLA as a kind of role model for the diplomatic corps. How did the diplomatic corps evolve?

 

PM: I see China's diplomatic culture as a response to quite a unique challenge that China faced in 1949. This new Communist state basically had no diplomats. 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, and the potential for its newfound rule over China to be undone.

 

Zhou Enlai, the first Foreign Minister and kind of the founding father of Chinese diplomacy, came up with this approach 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 that’s what 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. And so this kind of militaristic culture grew up around Chinese diplomats, really in a response to that need to both communicate with the world but also be incredibly cautious about how they dealt with it.

 

AK: You mentioned that even starting from 1949, one of the things that continues today is the fact that, for instance, you rarely have Chinese diplomats who would meet foreigners, one-on-one, they would always meet in twos, ostensibly so one can report on what the other is saying. You make the point it kind of ties into the Communist Party's own early history, the sense of being an underground outfit came with a sense of paranoia. How much of that do you think still shapes how China’s diplomatic corps functions?

 

PM: I think it's absolutely crucial. Chinese diplomats, you know, lots of them have studied abroad at Georgetown or the London School of Economics, they've lived for decades in the countries where they represent China's interests. So they can be very, very good at presenting this image of Chinese diplomats being just the same as any other countries. But in reality, it's quite different. It's the style that one of the diplomats whose memoirs I read described as controlled openness, which I thought was a really a really nice way of summarising it. It's this idea that we have permission to communicate a certain amount about our policy stance to you, and nothing more. You know, from your experience in Beijing, trying to extract information from the daily press conference, or even from private meetings with diplomats, is really like pulling teeth, because the fact is they've got so much that they can tell you, they're not going to tell you any more than allowed to, an even if they wanted to, they've got a buddy sitting there watching them, and monitoring what goes out. I think in truth, that's to China's detriment when it comes to its ability to persuade others of its point of view.

 

AK: Looking at the history of how domestic turbulent events in China would shape their foreign policy, you have some really stark accounts in your book on the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and how the diplomats abroad were by no means insulated from what was happening in China. We are obviously in a completely different context from the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, but how do you see the changes in China today under Xi Jinping shaping how China's diplomacy is being conducted by its diplomats who have to, for example, respond to this more muscular rhetoric that's happening at home?

 

PM: I think in Chinese diplomacy domestic politics is always king. There's kind of been this pattern over the decades when China wants to take the considerable discipline and expertise of its diplomatic corps and charm the world, and that's the direction that the leadership sets, it can be very, very effective in doing so. But when Chinese politics kind of turns in on itself, starts embracing purges and ideological study sessions, cult of personality around leaders, those periods in history tend to produce a very combative style of diplomacy that that alienates a lot of people outside of China. We kind of 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. Foreign audiences are really a kind of by-product there.

 

AK: That's a really interesting point. It seems that maybe even 10 years ago, maybe the brief was kind of present an image of ‘peaceful rise’, of a likeable China. But it seems now maybe a big part of a brief is to also, in some ways play to the gallery at home. The current Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has in some ways for many observers become emblematic of this wolf warrior approach. What have you made of his rise up the ranks, and does he symbolise this moment perhaps as well as anyone else does?

 

PM: For me, Zhao is the best representative of what historically we might think of as wolf warrior tactics. Obviously, the name didn't exist until a few years ago. But we've seen wolf warrior tactics from the early 1950s, or from the Cultural Revolution when Chinese diplomats literally wielded axes in the streets of London. We see them again now. Zhao is probably the clearest example of that kind of style. He went from being a relatively obscure diplomat posted to Islamabad, who got himself in a Twitter spat with former U.S. national security adviser, Susan Rice, and was kind of rocketed to fame and eventually appointed foreign ministry spokesperson. He has experimented with spreading conspiracy theories about the US, insulting foreign countries, tweeting doctored images of Australian troops

torturing others, and all kinds of provocative things. He in my mind symbolizes the further extent of wolf warrior-ism has reached under Xi.

 

AK: In terms of us trying to evaluate whether or not this approach is currently successful, you make the point that it's good maybe at expressing China's demands. But if diplomacy is the art of getting the other side to do what you want them to do, while having them believe it's in their own interest, if you want to evaluate it by that measure, how would you say these current tactics work? Is it a case that it might work, for lack of a better word, when it

comes to smaller countries that don't want to offend China, or is it your impression that it's a mixed bag?

 

PM: I think the current tactics are really quite effective when it comes to connecting with certain groups of political elites and across the world. I think of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Vladimir Putin's Russia, to some extent Duterte in the Philippines. There are elites who kind of chafe under U.S. leadership and wish that the United States and its friends and partners would keep their opinions to themselves. I think wolf warrior tactics are quite effective at communicating with them. But in the grand scheme of things, I find it really hard to come up with any kind of net positive assessment of it. It’s one of the factors which has contributed to this incredible decline in global perceptions of China in Pew polling that you'll have seen recently. Even before Biden came back, the EU was getting tougher on China, Britain was getting tougher on China, the Wuad was becoming a more meaningful grouping in the Pacific, the Five Eyes intelligence Alliance, NATO, were all starting to take a more cohesive approach toward PRC foreign policy. I think wolf word diplomacy has contributed to that. In my mind, India is perhaps the best example of where this approach has kind of backfired. Wolf warrior tactics, combined with, of course, great military assertiveness on the China India border, has ended up pushing India much closer to the United States, and alienating a billion plus-person economy, an emerging power on the global stage with good relations with the United States, and that shares a border with China. To me, there's no better example of that kind of counterproductive approach than what's going on there.

 

AK: And finally, Peter, you did mention that in some ways, the debate in China is still ongoing. Recently, a lot was made of Xi Jinping’s comments about changing how China was seen and the rest of the world in your view. In your view, is the wolf warrior approach, given the domestic currents in China, here to stay?

 

PM: I think it's hard to see it disappearing in the short to medium term. Xi Jinping did give this set of remarks recently at a Politburo study session where he talked about China needing to put forward a more lovable image in the world. And as we discussed, you know, there have been these incredible periods of where China has charmed outside opinion and really improved its image using diplomacy as a tool. But Xi followed those remarks up with kind of a pretty blood curdling speech for the Communist Party's 100th anniversary celebrations. And it hasn't really been combined with any softening of policy, from China's use of re-education camps in Xinjiang to the clamp down in Hong Kong. Without some shift in those underlying policies which are upsetting elites in the West, and some alteration of the way that China presents itself in the world, and the expectations it sets for deference and respect from others, I find it quite difficult to imagine how Chinese diplomats could take a softer approach in that context.


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