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China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy at a crossroads amid Ukraine crisis


The Chinese Communist Party’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy — threatening to impose sanctions in a combative way against the United States, Europe, Japan and others that object to its systems and policies — represents Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aim to strengthen a cohesive force within his country.

The more assertive style taken by the party is stimulating nationalism in China, which has emerged from the “century of humiliation” — losing both its territory and sovereignty to the West and Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries — into one of the great powers of today.

Nevertheless, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, confrontation between democratic states — including the U.S., Europe and Japan — and authoritarian states centered around China and Russia has become clearer, with U.S. President Joe Biden saying Russian President Vladimir Putin “should no longer stay in power.”

Xi must be feeling the need to strengthen his wolf warrior diplomacy as part of a propaganda war to win an ideological fight against Western countries — a life-or-death struggle for Beijing’s system.

At the same time, China’s hard-line propaganda efforts are also facing a dilemma as the country apparently tries to avoid giving the impression that it is becoming too biased in favor of Russia.

China-Russia ties

On Feb. 4, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Xi met with Putin, who had traveled to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.

A joint statement issued after their meeting said, “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose color revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.”

Xi is clearly on guard against the possibility of so-called “color revolutions” — a reference to the series of popular uprisings that shook former Soviet republics in the early 2000s — emerging in the U.S., Europe or Japan to unsettle and weaken authoritarian regimes elsewhere.

In order to maintain and stabilize the Communist Party’s rule and spread the ideals of socialism, China and Russia presenting a united front is an absolute principle for Xi regardless of how the Ukraine crisis turns out.

Xi has maintained this way of thinking ever since he became China’s leader.

In December 2012, a month after taking the Communist Party leadership, Xi reportedly told his fellow members during a visit to Guangdong province that China must heed the “deeply profound” lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference convened in August 2013, he expressed a sense of crisis that if China were to lose its ideological battle against the West, the Communist Party’s leadership and the security of the socialist national regime could be put in danger.

Chinese leaders who preceded Xi also had concerns over the spread of Western ideologies, but Xi is different from them in that he does not hide his deep sense of vigilance against the threat of the Communist Party being destroyed and the Chinese nation being subjugated like the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, while having such a sense of crisis, Xi sticks to the historical narrative that China stood up from the “century of humiliation” since the Opium War with an aim to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Xi believes that China has become a superpower on a par with the U.S., with a comprehensive national power to support the global economy. And that is why he is increasingly frustrated with the reality that China has not gained a presence in the global community that matches its power and that it is still seen with “ideological prejudice.”

Such dissatisfaction from Xi is fueling wolf warrior diplomacy rooted in the belief that China should no longer be looked down on and that it should fight fire with fire.

The Chinese Communist Party’s assertive approach to diplomacy is seen by some to be stirring up nationalism among the Chinese people. | REUTERS

The policy is winning the support of some Chinese people harboring nationalist sentiment who feel they cannot allow the U.S., Europe and Japan to keep on criticizing their nation.

Xi is apparently thinking that unless the bond among Western democracies, which became clear amid the Ukraine crisis, is broken, it will become difficult for China to achieve its long-cherished wish of unification with Taiwan, a crucial factor in realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

“Some people on the U.S. side keep spreading disinformation and smearing and pressuring China,” Zhao Lijian, deputy director of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department and considered to be a leading wolf warrior diplomat, said at a regular news conference on March 18.

Authorities will try to generate more nationalism among the Chinese people by evoking the memories of the century of humiliation and utilizing wolf warrior diplomacy to strengthen propaganda and information warfare against Western democracies.

Vocal on social media

It is highly likely that Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is practicing wolf warrior diplomacy by surmising Xi’s intent.

Wang, who has been seen as an expert on Japan and who is nervous of being criticized as conducting weak-kneed diplomacy, must be taking the current situation as a good opportunity to put forth the image of a strong Foreign Ministry.

At a news conference in March 2014, a year after he became foreign minister, Wang spoke about China’s diplomacy in the new era and stressed, “We must also have backbone. The backbone comes from our national pride. Gone is the century of humiliation in China’s modern history.”

China’s wolf warrior diplomacy became apparent in December 2013, a few months before that news conference, when then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine. Chinese envoys appeared in local media in countries where they were posted to condemn the move together.

At the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in November 2014, Xi stressed that Beijing should have “major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” He said China should develop a distinctive diplomatic approach befitting its role as a major country, following its own path “unswervingly.”

The term wolf warrior diplomacy derives from “Wolf Warrior 2,” a Chinese blockbuster action film released in 2017. The term is believed to have been first used in a Chinese-language commentary from the BBC published on July 17, 2019.

The article mentioned Zhao, then-deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan, who had posted a series of tweets on July 13, 2019, which led to a heated online dispute with former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

Zhao had been vocal on Twitter since May 2010 when he was posted to China’s mission in Washington, although the social network is banned within China. He became known for his unusual outspokenness toward the Western community.

Reacting to his string of messages highlighting U.S. hypocrisy in criticizing China’s human rights record and questioning the United States’ own record on human rights, Rice tweeted, “You are a racist disgrace. And shockingly ignorant too.”

Zhao fired back, tweeting, “You are such a disgrace, too. And shockingly ignorant, too.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian gives a news conference in Beijing on Nov. 16. Zhao is known for his outspoken posts on Twitter. | REUTERS
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian gives a news conference in Beijing on Nov. 16. Zhao is known for his outspoken posts on Twitter. | REUTERS

China’s wolf warrior diplomatic style crossed a red line after Donald Trump, who used Twitter as a political tool, became U.S. president.

The U.S.-China trade war, which began in March 2018, continued to expand in 2019 to include other issues involving Huawei Technologies Co., Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

COVID-19 controversy

In August 2019, immediately after sparring with Rice on social media, Zhao was promoted to serve as the deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Information Department in a rare move.

The Chinese government apparently came to the conclusion that it needed a diplomat who fights on Twitter — the communication platform of the West — to counter Trump’s hard-line remarks against China.

In March 2020, Zhao caused controversy by tweeting that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to the Chinese city of Wuhan. He wrote, “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”

China’s wolf warrior diplomacy has taken shape both in name and substance.

Around the same time, many Chinese diplomats started opening Twitter accounts one after another.

In October 2019, prominent diplomats including Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying began tweeting. Many Chinese embassies had also opened Twitter accounts by mid-2020.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry is obviously creating an environment that encourages the practicing of wolf warrior diplomacy using Twitter, and many diplomats must be taking to the platform to demonstrate their achievements to Beijing.

Nationalism and dilemma

Xue Jian, consul general of the Chinese Consulate in Osaka Prefecture, is known as a wolf warrior diplomat.

Xue, who opened a Twitter account in August, has been posting and retweeting numerous messages.

His tweets in Japanese include a caricature of people falling off a U.S. military plane flying out of Kabul and a comment on Amnesty International’s closing of its office in Hong Kong saying “Pest exterminated.”

His posts, with their open hostility against the U.S. and Western democracies, have attracted attention, gaining him more than 32,000 followers.

While his messages are similar to those of other wolf warrior diplomats in terms of expressing anti-U.S. sentiments, Xue is unique in that he:

  • Posts his messages in Japanese.
  • Avoids criticizing Japan for the sake of maintaining a good relationship.
  • Presents himself with a hands-on approach, friendliness and humor.
  • Attempts to create an image and understanding of China different from the negative ones reported by Japanese media.

He is practicing a new type of wolf warrior diplomacy by mixing assertive messages with softer ones, such as creating an opportunity in which he answers any question posed by his followers, as well as detailing a tour to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to be organized exclusively for Japanese people after the COVID-19 pandemic settles down.

Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at an event in Beijing on June 25. | REUTERS
Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at an event in Beijing on June 25. | REUTERS

With wolf warrior diplomacy leading to the deterioration of China’s global image and increased tensions with the global community, how will China conduct its diplomacy in the future?

In December, former Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai made a speech on U.S.-China relations at a symposium in Beijing and criticized wolf warrior diplomats in a less-than-subtle way, warning that such exchanges of anger and attrition were threatening China’s hard-won gains on the world stage.

“In the face of complex realities, we must always keep in mind the fundamental goals of the country, and don’t always think about being internet celebrities,” Cui said. “We must not only defeat them in practical struggle, but also beat them in terms of personal character.”

His remarks revealed that concerns are growing within the Chinese Foreign Ministry over the negative effects of being vocal.

However, Xi is facing the dilemma of having no choice but to stick to wolf warrior diplomacy as he has been advocating a “fighting spirit” to boost nationalism among the Chinese people and is bound by the reality of a more assertive style helping raise morale.

On the other hand, amid the Ukraine crisis, he has not missed the signs of disarray among democratic countries and seems to be looking to get closer to nations that are keeping a distance from the U.S.

China is highly likely to try to destabilize Western democracies by establishing a firm relationship with neutral countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, as well as by approaching Japan and Europe.

Hidemi Shiroyama is a professor at Hokkaido University Research Faculty of Media and Communication. API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series that looks into global political and economic trends, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.

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