July 17, 2020

IntelBrief: The Rise of ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomacy from China

File photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)
  • Chinese diplomats have engaged in aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ public diplomacy in the last year, following instructions from President Xi Jinping to show more ‘fighting spirit’ in defending China on the world stage.
  • ‘Wolf warrior’ diplomacy has garnered some criticism from within the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, although given the insular nature of China’s government, it remains difficult to assess the extent of the divide.
  • This phenomenon has arisen as U.S.-China ties have deteriorated sharply amid a number of major disputes, which likely reflect a more hostile posture toward Washington on the part of Beijing’s senior leadership.
  • ‘Wolf warrior’ diplomacy may be antagonizing countries that China could otherwise have bolstered relations with as the U.S. fails to mount an effective response to the coronavirus pandemic at home and abroad.

In recent months, some Chinese diplomats have employed an increasingly strident tone in their English-language public communications, often in response to criticism of China and its deplorable human rights record. This has been termed ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, named after a highly successful series of Chinese action films that feature patriotic protagonists who fight enemies of China both at home and abroad. The shift in tone occurred following instructions from President Xi Jinping last year that directed diplomats to show more ‘fighting spirit.’ Both social media—including Twitter, which is banned for most people in mainland China, but which Chinese diplomats have been using more extensively—and state media play a prominent role in this new approach. A few high-profile spokespeople exemplify ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, the most well-known being Zhao Lijian, deputy director of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Hua Chunying, director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department; and Liu Xiaoming, ambassador to the United Kingdom. Zhao in particular is known for having engaged in a spat on social media with former national security adviser Susan Rice following U.S. criticisms of China’s Xinjiang policy. These diplomats and others have also targeted European countries and Australia for fierce criticism on social and state media. Hua and Zhao have both attacked the United States on Twitter over human rights, while the editor of the Global Times, a state-run tabloid, called Australia ‘gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe’ in response to Australia’s accusation that China engaged in economic coercion.

There appears to be something of a divide within Chinese leadership over this type of messaging. On the one hand, some in China’s diplomatic corps, such as Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai, has criticized diplomats engaging in ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. Specifically, Ambassador Cui criticized Zhao for suggesting on Twitter that COVID-19 originated with the U.S. Army, calling it ‘very harmful’ to engage in such speculation. On the other hand, given the CCP’s authoritarian model of state control, it is inconceivable that messages of this type could emanate from the Chinese foreign policy apparatus without at least tacit permission from the country’s highest leadership. Such permission suggests a more hostile public posture toward the United States on the part of China’s leaders than in the past. It is difficult to tell whether such public disagreements among diplomats are signs of a true divide, or are something of a ‘good cop-bad cop’ act manufactured by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 'Wolf warrior’ diplomacy and other increasingly aggressive foreign policy initiatives rolled out under Xi fundamentally contradict CCP philosophy on the subject. For decades, Chinese foreign policy has included a calculated risk approach and an emphasis on state sovereignty, institutionalized collective decision making, and Deng Xiaoping’s famous term ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones.’

The ‘wolf warrior’ phenomenon has emerged against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and a sharp deterioration in U.S.-China relations under the Trump administration, which accelerated since the pandemic started. China’s use of 'mask diplomacy,' whereby it sends medical supplies to countries struggling to cope with COVID-19, has come under criticism since it was revealed that China conflates sales with aid in its official statistics, and many of the supplies it has sent abroad have been revealed to be substandard. A trade war with the United States, and spiraling tensions over Hong KongTaiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and Xinjiang have brought U.S.-China relations to an unprecedented nadir not seen since the 1999 accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Many in China feel that Washington wants to contain Beijing’s rise, and is reacting to its inevitable displacement as the global hegemon, a perception magnified by the drastically different responses to the coronavirus pandemic. 

While the world has taken note of China’s successful containment of COVID-19 within its borders and America’s failure to do the same, ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy may be squandering some of the geopolitical advantages China could have gained from this situation. The contrast between China’s success in containing its epidemic after covering up the initial outbreak and the United States’ failures in containing its own could not be starker. This contrast contributes to global perceptions of Beijing’s rise and Washington’s relative decline as a superpower. But so far, at least, China seems not to have turned this situation to its advantage entirely, having spurned a proposed international, impartial inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, excluded Taiwan from the World Health Organization (WHO) despite Taiwan’s success in controlling the epidemic within its borders, and bungled much of its ‘mask diplomacy’ as mentioned above. Recent analysis from the Global Engagement Center (GEC) suggests that Chinese disinformation in Africa about COVID-19 originating in the United States, which was pushed by CCP officials, was negatively received and rejected by the intended audience. ‘Wolf warrior’ diplomacy adds to this list of ways China has antagonized others on the world stage in recent months, and indicates that the country’s leadership would rather bend international structures and norms to China’s will than seek to fit within them. 


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