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Wolf warrior diplomacy

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Former Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, considered one of the leading "wolf warrior diplomats"[1]
Wolf warrior diplomacy
Traditional Chinese戰狼外交
Simplified Chinese战狼外交

Wolf warrior diplomacy is a confrontational form of public diplomacy adopted by Chinese diplomats in the late 2010s.[2][3][4] The term was coined by Western media from the title of the Chinese action film Wolf Warrior 2 (2017).[4][5][1] This approach is in contrast to the prior diplomatic practices that emphasized the use of cooperative rhetoric and the avoidance of controversy.[2][6]

Wolf warrior diplomacy is often combative, with its proponents vocally denouncing perceived criticism of the Chinese government, its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and associated policies on social media and in interviews, sometimes engaging in physical altercations or other forms of compellence with their opponents.[2][1][7] Wolf warrior diplomacy has been seen as part of CCP general secretary Xi Jinping's efforts to bolster China's "discourse power" in international politics and a reflection of an ideological struggle with the Western world.[8] Xi's foreign policy in general, perceived anti-China hostility from the West among Chinese government officials, and shifts within the Chinese diplomatic bureaucracy have been cited as factors leading to its emergence.

Overview[edit]

When Deng Xiaoping came to power following Mao Zedong's death in the late 1970s, he prescribed a foreign policy that he summed up as tāoguāng-yǎnghuì (Chinese: 韬光养晦; lit. 'to conceal one's light and cultivate in the dark'), and emphasized the avoidance of controversy and the use of cooperative rhetoric. This idiom—which originally referred to biding one's time without revealing one's strength—encapsulated Deng's strategy to "observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership."[9]

In contrast, the Chinese government's wolf warrior diplomacy in the 21st century is characterized by the use of confrontational rhetoric by Chinese diplomats,[10][11] coercive behavior,[6] as well their increased willingness to openly and stridently rebuff criticism of the government and its policies, and court controversy in press conferences, interviews with the foreign press and on social media.[1] It is a departure from former Chinese foreign policy, which focused on working behind the scenes, avoiding controversy and favoring a rhetoric of international cooperation, exemplified by the maxim that China "must hide its strength" in international diplomacy.[12] This change reflects an abrupt shift and larger change in how the Chinese government and the CCP relate and interact with the larger world.[13] Efforts aimed at incorporating the Chinese diaspora into China's foreign policy have also intensified, for example during the political fallout from the COVID-19 Pandemic, with an emphasis on all Chinese regardless of "nationality and political citizenship."[14]

Wolf warrior diplomacy began to emerge in 2017, although components of it had already been incorporated into Chinese diplomacy before then. The assertive diplomatic push resembling wolf warrior diplomacy had its roots in the Great Recession, with an acceleration of wolf warrior diplomacy following Xi Jinping's ascension into office in 2013. The emergence of wolf warrior diplomacy has been tied to Xi Jinping's political ambitions and foreign policy inclinations, especially his "Major Country Diplomacy" (Chinese: 大国外交; pinyin: dàguó-wàijiāo) theory, which has legitimized a more active role for China on the world stage, including engaging in open ideological struggle with the West.[15][8] The emergence of wolf warrior diplomacy has also been attributed to Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,[16] a fear of "ideological designs" from the West amongst Chinese government officials, and perceived "anti-China hostility" as well as threats to national stability and the goal of "national rejuvenation".[17][12][18] The encouragement of this form of diplomacy by senior officials is to be taken in the greater context of Chinese domestic politics, as the general shift of the CCP's focus pivots more towards the adversarial relationship of China and the West.[12]

Discourse by wolf warrior diplomats has often employed the Marxist terminology of class struggle and contradiction.[19]: 33  The contradiction between Chinese ideas and socialism and Western ideas and capitalism features heavily in the domestic rhetoric surrounding wolf warrior diplomacy.[18]

One factor which may have helped bring about wolf warrior diplomacy was the addition of a public relations section to internal employee performance reports. This incentivized Chinese diplomats to be active on social media and give controversial interviews. Additionally, a younger cadre of diplomats that worked their way up the ranks of the Chinese diplomatic service and this generational shift was also seen as accounting for part of the change.[20] Activity on social media was greatly increased and the tone of social media engagement became more direct and confrontational.[21] CCP officials say wolf warrior diplomacy is a "necessary" response to Western diplomats' social media presences.[1] More specifically, foreign vice-minister Le Yucheng says he believes that foreign countries "are coming to our doorstep, interfering in our family affairs, constantly nagging at us, insulting and discrediting us, [so] we have no choice but to firmly defend our national interests and dignity."[22]

The use of Western social media platforms has been more prominent with Chinese officials engaging in wolf warrior diplomacy. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook reach a primarily Western audience and therefore are reaching the target audience; Weibo does not hold the same capacity of for displaying wolf warrior diplomacy as their messages would reach a primarily Chinese audience, and therefore is of a lower priority to officials.[18]

Other factors in the development of wolf warrior diplomacy have been cited, such as the belief of being lectured and embarrassed by other nations that Chinese diplomats hold.[18] The story of Wu Jianmin having the French Embassy's dogs set on him as a child having shaped the way he acted as China's ambassador to France is frequently used as a justification for the aggressive diplomatic actions.[18] Other narratives have appeared mirroring Wu Jiamin's experiences. The belief of China's top diplomats and senior foreign ministry officials that they are not receiving the level of respect and seriousness they believe they deserve is a driving factor behind the pivot to wolf warrior diplomacy.[18]

"Wolf warrior" began to see use as a buzzword during the COVID-19 pandemic.[16] In Europe, leaders have expressed surprise at the Chinese using a diplomatic tone with them that they previously would only have used with small or weak countries, with the messaging shifting from a tone of collaboration to one of opposition.[23][12]

Wu Jing on the set of Wolf Warrior 2

Peter Martin has noted that although "many Chinese diplomats are aware that the response to wolf warrior diplomacy has been very negative and actually damaged China's interests in a wide range of cases...those who have misgivings need to keep their thoughts to themselves for now, or they will face political repercussions." Martin noted the trend "as during previous periods of assertive diplomacy from China, the primary audience is domestic politicians. Therefore, the reaction of foreigners and outsiders is not a top motivator for Chinese diplomats".[18]

Following a deterioration of China's international reputation, CCP general secretary Xi Jinping called for improvements in the country's international communication at a May 2021 CCP Politburo group study session.[24] Several other events in 2021 were interpreted by The Diplomat as evidence "that leaders in Beijing are recalibrating China’s external messaging, signaling to the wolf warriors that a gradual softening of tone is in order," including the departure of Hu Xijin, editor of the CCP-owned tabloid Global Times, an early adopter of wolf warrior rhetoric.[24] This further continued by 2023, when Zhao Lijian became the deputy director of Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department since January 2023, being moved to there from the Information Department, effectively ending his tenure as spokesperson.[25] Two undated US Joint Chiefs of Staff briefings leaked in 2023 wrote that China has been transitioning away from wolf warrior diplomacy to a "more measured approach", in part to divide the European Union (EU) from the US, though it assessed these measures have been failing, basing this on conversations with European officials in March 2023.[26]

Proponents and practices[edit]

NYO-China members with Liu Xiaoming at the Embassy of China, London

Aside from China's leader Xi Jinping himself, both the Chinese foreign affairs and the state media/propaganda system have prominent proponents of "wolf warrior" diplomacy or its style of communication. These include Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople and diplomats Zhao Lijian, Hua Chunying, Wang Wenbin, Liu Xiaoming, and CCP-owned Global Times columnist Hu Xijin.[1] The Chinese Ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, in particular gained extreme notoriety as a wolf-warrior diplomat for denying the sovereignty of post-Soviet states (all of them had either predated the formation of the Soviet Union or were created as sovereign states within the Soviet Union). In his view, the rise of such diplomacy reflects the rising national strength of China and its relation to the changing international environment.[27]

Chinese diplomats who favor wolf warrior diplomacy view it as a natural response to perceived Western efforts to contain China, its people and their aspirations, along with the issues raised by Western diplomats that the Chinese diplomats see as nitpicking criticisms of China.[27]

Economic coercion[edit]

Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies stated that there were 16 nations and over 120 global companies that had been subject to economic coercion from China through trade boycotts, punitive tariffs and "weaponizing" trade interdependence between 2008 and 2022.[28] China has used trade to coerce countries such as Australia, imposing unofficial embargoes on the importation of Australian coal, along with prohibitive tariffs on Australian barley and wine as a punishment for the then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's call for an inquiry on the origins of COVID-19.[29] One business that has been coerced is the NBA, with China suspending broadcasts of Houston Rockets games, because the Rockets' then General Manager Daryl Morey had tweeted his support for the pro-democracy protesters during the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests.[30][28] Shaoyu Yuan noted that tourism serves as another strategic economic lever for China to influence other nations. The substantial economic impact of Chinese tourists makes a potential tourism boycott a potent form of pressure. For instance, following South Korea's decision to implement the U.S. THAAD missile defense system, China informally prohibited group tours to South Korea. This action led to a notable decrease in tourist numbers and adversely affected South Korea's economy.[2]

Diplomatic incidents[edit]

2018 APEC summit[edit]

When Papua New Guinea hosted the APEC Summit in 2018, four Chinese diplomats barged in uninvited on Rimbink Pato, Papua New Guinea's foreign minister, arguing for changes to the communiqué proclaiming "unfair trade practices" which they felt targeted China. The bilateral discussion was rebuffed as bilateral negotiations with an individual delegation would jeopardise the country's neutrality as host.[31]

Chinese embassy in Sweden[edit]

In November 2019, Ambassador Gui Congyou threatened Sweden during an interview with broadcaster Swedish PEN saying that "We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we got shotguns", over the decision to award Gui Minhai with the Tucholsky Prize.[32] All eight major Swedish political parties condemned the Ambassador's threats. On 4 December, after the prize had been awarded, Ambassador Gui said that one could not both harm China's interests and benefit economically from China. When asked to clarify his remarks he said that China would impose trade restrictions on Sweden, these remarks were backed up by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing.[32][33][34] The embassy has systematically worked to influence the reporting on China by Swedish journalists.[35] In April 2021 it was revealed that the Chinese embassy threatened a journalist working for the newspaper Expressen. Several political parties publicly expressed that they believe the ambassador should be declared persona non grata and deported on the basis that his actions violated the constitution of Sweden.[36] Within Gui's first two years of the ambassadorship, Sweden's Foreign Ministry summoned him over forty times to protest Gui's remarks.[27]

2020 Zhao Lijian image controversy[edit]

The digitally created image, Peace Force (和平之师)

In late 2020, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian used his Twitter account to circulate a computer graphics art piece by Wuheqilin, a self-styled "Chinese wolf warrior artist", depicting a child having their throat cut by an Australian soldier in response to the release of the Brereton Report.[37] Global commentators called the tweet "a sharp escalation" in the dispute between China and Australia.[38]

Reuters reported Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison describing Zhao's tweet as "truly repugnant" and stating that "the Chinese government should be utterly ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world's eyes."[39] The next day, the Chinese foreign ministry rejected Australian demands for an apology.[40] The incident was damaging to Australia–China relations.[41] The effect of Zhao's tweet has been to unify Australian politicians across party lines in condemning the incident and China more generally.[42] On the other hand, Zhao's tweet also garnered a strong wave of Chinese nationalism support in the country, with Wuheqilin's Sina Weibo account doubling in followers to 1.24 million.[43] Security analyst Anthony Galloway later described the event as "a grey zone attack if ever there was one."[44]

Chinese embassy in France[edit]

The Ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, was summoned twice by the French foreign ministry, first in April 2020 over posts and tweets by the embassy defending Beijing's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and criticising the West's handling of it, then in March 2021 over "insults and threats" over new economic sanctions placed on China for its crackdown against the Uyghur minority.[45] Previously as Ambassador to Canada, Shaye accused Canadian media of "Western egotism and white supremacy" and disparaged their work on the ground that they are in a lesser position to judge China's development compared to the Chinese people. He also regularly complained of the "biased" and "slanderous" character of their articles denouncing the persecution of Uyghurs.[46]

Lu has earned a reputation as a wolf-warrior diplomat, which he is proud of.[47] In August 2022, Lu suggested that Taiwan's populace would be "re-educated" after unification.[48] Lu garnered international outcry after questioning the sovereignty of "post-Soviet states" in 2023,[49] forcing Chinese officials to denounce the statement as "personal opinion".[50][51]

Altercation at ROC National Day event in Fiji[edit]

In October 2020, a Taiwanese official was hospitalized for head injuries after an altercation with two diplomats from the Chinese embassy in Fiji at an event where Fijian and Taiwanese officials were celebrating National Day of the Republic of China (ROC). According to The Guardian, "Taiwan’s ministry of foreign affairs said two Chinese embassy officials arrived at the Grand Pacific hotel uninvited and began “harassing” and trying to photograph the guests which included Fijian ministers, foreign diplomats, NGO representatives and members of Fiji's ethnic Chinese community" and a fight broke out when the pair was confronted by Taiwanese staff. Taipei also alleged that the Chinese diplomats had falsely told Fijian police they were attacked. The Chinese embassy in Suva claimed that a Chinese diplomat was injured in the altercation and accused staff of the Taipei Trade Office in Fiji of having acted proactively against staff outside the venue. These statements were reiterated by China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.[52][53]

2020 Olympics[edit]

Chinese diplomats engaged in wolf warrior diplomacy during the 2020 Olympics with issue being taken with the way Chinese athletes were being depicted by the media and by the Taiwanese team being introduced as "Taiwan" instead of Chinese Taipei. The Chinese consulate in New York City complained that NBC had used an inaccurate map of China in their coverage because it didn't include Taiwan and the South China Sea.[54]

Response[edit]

Domestic[edit]

China's wolf warrior diplomacy has been positively received by domestic Chinese audiences.[27][55]

Within China's foreign policy establishment, older personnel tend to disfavor the wolf warrior approach.[56]: 132  As of at least 2024, this is a minority view within the foreign policy establishment.[56]: 136 

International[edit]

Internationally, wolf warrior diplomacy has, generally, garnered a negative response and in some cases has provoked a backlash against China and specific diplomats.[57] By 2020, The Wall Street Journal was reporting that the rise of wolf warrior diplomacy had left many politicians and businesspeople feeling targeted.[58] In December 2020, Nicolas Chapuis, an ambassador of the European Union to China, warned: "What happened during the last year [...] is a massive disruption or reduction in support in Europe, and elsewhere in the world, about China. And I'm telling that to all my Chinese friends, you need to seriously look at it."[58] Indeed, when the Pandemic started, and China received international criticism for its pandemic management practices, it mobilized its diplomats to counter negative stories about China and its Covid pandemic management.[59]

Taiwan[edit]

When the Chinese government threatened Miloš Vystrčil, the president of the Czech Senate, for addressing Taiwan's national legislature, Reporyje Mayor Pavel Novotný called Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi a Chinese "wolf warrior diplomat".[60]

In 2023, Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005, said "Taiwan has benefited from China's 'wolf warrior' diplomacy."[61]

Taiwanese then-representative to the United States Hsiao Bi-khim has been described as a "cat warrior"[62] and has started using the term herself.[63][64] Cat warrior diplomacy is seen as focusing on the soft power aspects of Taiwan's advanced economy, democracy, and respect for human rights as well as using Chinese aggression to highlight the differences between their two political systems.[65]

Bondaz effect[edit]

Wolf warrior diplomacy has been described as counterproductive by an IRSEM report in September 2021, introducing the "Bondaz effect" concept[66]: 237  by using a case from March 2021 when Antoine Bondaz, a French researcher intervened against the pressure exerted by Lu Shaye, the Chinese ambassador to France, on Twitter to dissuade French senators from traveling to Taiwan. In response, he was described as a "small-time thug" by the embassy, prompting immediate condemnation from many researchers, journalists and politicians who expressed their support for Antoine Bondaz.[66]: 237  This case was presented by the IRSEM report as an example of wolf warrior diplomacy, demonstrating the perverse effect of this strategy of influence, the embassy having drawn attention to the work of Antoine Bondaz by wanting to discredit him.[66]: 239 

The embassy published a press release on its website in which Antoine Bondaz was described as a "mad hyena" and an "ideological troll". The Global Times internationalized the affair by publishing several articles in English supporting the ambassador and attacking again Antoine Bondaz. He denounced "an all-out, coordinated attack, mobilizing the means of the [Chinese] State to seek to discredit [him] and silence [him]."[66]: 237 

In three days, Antoine Bondaz gained more than 3,000 followers on Twitter, gave numerous interviews to the press, radio and television. The affair weakened the embassy's partnerships and stirred up diplomatic tensions between China and France. It was part of a sequence from March 15 to 22, 2021 with "disastrous" consequences for China's public image in France and contributed increasing the awareness of political leaders and the French population on the practices of Chinese authorities.[66]: 642 

See also[edit]

Clash at the Consulate General of China, Manchester

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