Wither the wolf warriors? After years of Chinese officials rabidly defending the country against all real and perceived threats by firing off warnings, insults and non sequiturs, this week it appeared that President Xi Jinping finally stepped in and told them no more howling.
Chinese officials should create a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” national image, Xi said Monday, according to Bloomberg News, adding that China needed to “be open and confident, but also modest and humble.”
Xi’s remarks, made to Chinese officials at a Politburo meeting and featured prominently in Xinhua state news agency, raised more than a few skeptical eyebrows among China watchers.
But in some ways, they also made a lot of sense. China’s international relations have frayed significantly over the past years, with issues like the repression of the Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang, aggressive rhetoric and action against Taiwan, India and Hong Kong activists and relentless obfuscation over the coronavirus darkening China’s global image.
Deep in this fray were “the wolf warriors,” a team that included Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian and an assortment of ambassadors and diplomats around the world. Unsurprisingly, most available evidence suggests that their style of hyperaggressive diplomacy wasn’t winning friends.
China’s reputation in the West has plunged of late. In a Pew Research Center survey of 14 countries released in October, a majority of respondents gave a negative appraisal of China. Negative views reached decade highs in nine of those countries. This decline in China’s international image took place during a period in which the United States was led by a globally unpopular leader whose policies of “America First” drew little support outside U.S. borders and record hostility within.
President Biden is in office now, and despite his softer style, he looks set to push China on issues related to the coronavirus and more. Calls for countries to boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics show no sign of dissipating any time soon, while China’s vaccine diplomacy efforts have been complicated by reports of low efficacy and new waves.
Writing for Foreign Policy, Tufts University’s Sulmaan Wasif Khan argued that the wolf warriors had disrupted China’s “grand strategy” and posed a real domestic risk. “The real danger is that once toxin has spread through the system, there is no knowing where it will end,” Khan wrote.
There’s good reason many are skeptical about a real change. The wolf warriors may be controversial abroad, but they are broadly popular at home. And what if they are not the root cause of China’s aggressive foreign policy, but a symptom?
The name “wolf warrior” comes from an ultrapatriotic and hugely popular 2015 action film, along with its 2017 sequel, which features Chinese elite soldiers helping to protect the country from its foes. When a handful of Chinese diplomats, most notably Zhao, began acting more assertively on Twitter, they gained comparisons to the Rambo-like heroes of the film.
Outside of China, it wasn’t exactly a compliment. When Zhao, then the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, tweeted criticisms of the United States in 2019 alleging racial segregation in Washington, among other ailments, he was mocked and ridiculed.
After being called a “racist disgrace” by Susan Rice, formerly President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Zhao fired back that, in fact, it was Rice who was a “disgrace.” He added that the “truth hurts” before deleting the offending messages.
To outsiders, it seemed embarrassing and humbling. And when it was announced soon after that Zhao would be leaving Pakistan, many assumed it was due to his persistently controversial takes on Twitter. (He had sometimes made things awkward with his hosts there, too.)
Well, yes, but not in the way most expected: He had been promoted. And soon, many in China’s Foreign Ministry were aping Zhao’s undiplomatic style of diplomacy. Research from Yaoyao Dai and Luwei Rose Luqiu published by The Monkey Cage last month found that an average of 10 percent of Foreign Ministry speeches were “combative and hostile” before 2012. That increased to more than a quarter in 2019 and 2020.
The shift in tone was not limited to lower-level officials. Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded to criticism about China’s repression of Uyghurs by telling a webinar organized by the Munich Security Conference: “Our European friends know what is genocide.”
And when Biden administration officials first met with their Chinese counterparts this March, they were on the receiving end of a 16-minute tirade criticizing America and accusing U.S. officials of speaking from a position of hypocrisy and weakness.
The wolf warriors didn’t stop their attacks during the pandemic. Zhao spread baseless theories that the U.S. military could have been behind the coronavirus pandemic that first emerged in Wuhan, China — a notion so bold that some other Chinese diplomats seemed to distance themselves from it.
But increasing international pressure for an investigation into the coronavirus′s origins in China, following Biden’s call for a new assessment of intelligence into the once-discounted lab-leak theory, shows one downside to hyperdefensive diplomacy: It makes it look like you have something to hide.
Moreover, China is entangled in a variety of ugly disputes with countries it once got along with politely. Relations with the European Union broke down amid disputes over Xinjiang, effectively ending plans for a trade and investment treaty. Relations with Australia and India have broken down, with the latter in a small-scale but very real border conflict with China last year.
Taiwan, meanwhile, with its softer diplomatic style of “cat diplomacy,” seemed to be gaining where China was failing.
In 2016, Xi had publicly called for a “dare-to-fight” spirit when promoting Chinese interests. His new remarks appear to suggest that period is over, but some analysts view the idea cautiously. At the China Media Project, David Bandurski voiced doubts about any substantive change, arguing that those at the Politburo event probably viewed things another way.
“The West must be persuaded to see things China’s way,” Bandurski wrote, summarizing their views. “And to this end, confrontation, the crossing of swords, will likely remain as a core component of communication as conceived by the leadership.”
In their research, Dai and Luqiu found that the wolf warriors’ tough talk was often a substitute for tough action, leading nationalistic netizens to proclaim victory and appealing to the poorer countries that are often more skeptical of the United States.
Moreover, it was not rude tweets that brought China’s international standing into disrepute. It is Xi’s actual policies of repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, or the systematic embrace of secrecy and paranoia that may make finding the cause of the coronavirus impossible, that disrupt its relations abroad.
Keeping a tighter leash on the wolf warriors may not spell better international relations for China. And unless there are significant policy changes elsewhere, their howling seems likely to continue.