LONDON: In early June, President Xi Jinping called for a more “credible, loving and respectable” image of China.
While these comments suggested greater restraint from the more vocal of China’s “wolf warriors” – diplomats, journalists and think tankers who robustly defend China’s policies in public fora - their defensiveness has not subsided.
Leading Chinese English-language commentators continued to use abrasive language to defend China’s policies and deflect perceived slights from the US and overseas.
Perhaps Beijing continues to see its wolf warriors as a useful, perhaps even necessary, rhetorical tool to further China’s viewpoint and counter foreign criticism.
Perhaps they see them as an intractable part of a mosaic of foreign policy tools available to Beijing, from slickly edited videos presenting a softer image of China explaining things like the Five-Year Plan, to the harsh combative language of the wolf warriors attacking foreign critics.
But it is far from clear that these aggressive defenders of China’s viewpoint improve Beijing’s international standing or overseas support of Chinese policy. Moreover, the patriotism stoked by these commentators is only feeding a tiger that Beijing is riding – a nationalism that can be hard to control.
HOWL OF THE WOLF WARRIORS
Even though the term “wolf warrior” comes from a 2015 Chinese film, wolf warrior diplomacy is nothing new for Chinese diplomats.
For decades, ambassadors, foreign ministry personnel and commentators have utilised acerbic language to sharply defend China’s policies. In 2010, then foreign minister Yang Jiechi responded to criticisms from the US by telling Southeast Asian counterparts that “China is a big country and you are small countries and that’s just a fact.”
In 1999, following the US accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, an op-ed in the People’s Daily likened the US to Nazi Germany.
In 1967, Chinese diplomats engaged in a deeply undiplomatic scuffle with police outside the embassy in London, wielding blunt weapons and even an axe, amid tense Sino-British relations.
The current trend of wolf warrior diplomacy differs to these historical records in two key ways: Medium and volume.
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Chinese diplomats today utilise globally popular English-language apps to disseminate their message.
This effectively enables individual diplomats to both reach a wider audience and to tailor messaging to specific groups overseas.
The most popular wolf warriors use media banned in China, such as Twitter and Facebook, which allow China’s diplomats and commentators to assert themselves in public on a far more frequent basis, ensuring a steady stream of invective designed to push China’s narrative.
Wolf warriors are not only more prolific than in the past. There are also now many more.
The number of Chinese diplomatic social media accounts has exploded in recent years. According to a May 2021 report by the Associated Press and Oxford Internet Institute, three quarters of the 270 active Chinese diplomatic profiles on Twitter joined since 2019.
Some are a function of new postings. Chinese ambassador to the UK, Zheng Zeguang, for instance, joined Twitter when he was posted overseas in his first high-level job.
But ambassadors with previous ambassadorial experience have also opened accounts after assuming their current appointments.
China’s ambassador to Iran, Chang Hua, was appointed in June 2019 and opened his Twitter account in October 2019. However, Chang also was previously ambassador to the UAE and Yemen, with no social media presence in those postings.
Similarly, Chen Weiqing, who was appointed ambassador to Saudi Arabia in May 2019, opened his Twitter profile in July 2019 but had no social media presence in his prior posting in Iraq.
Finally, some of these new accounts appear to have been opened for diplomats who had been in the post for several years. Zhang Yiming was appointed ambassador to Namibia in 2017 but didn’t open his twitter account until September 2019.
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These suggest a coordinated attempt by Beijing to increase its diplomatic presence on major Western social media. The timing of this effort coincided closely with the protests in Hong Kong, when there was broad criticism of Beijing on social media.
Such accounts may attempt to defend China against foreign criticism. Not all will use deliberately provocative tactics to try to incite opinion.
Key leading wolf warriors, such as Zhao Lijian, deputy director general for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department, Hua Chunying, director general for the Information Department, and Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalist newspaper, Global Times, comment on foreign affairs frequently and effectively act as trolls at times. The first two have more than 900,000 followers on Twitter.
Other wolf warriors also spontaneously hit out at foreign powers sometimes in a haphazard fashion that can seem unbecoming of a diplomat. Li Yang, consul general in Rio de Janeiro, called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “running dog of the US” in March, and recently mocked US efforts to rescue survivors from a building collapse in Miami.
Such incidents reinforce the impression of a centrally directed move to push back rhetorically on Western social media platforms, through a greater and more assertive presence, mirroring China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping.
Yet not all diplomats use such indignant language, suggesting that there is no clear directive for all overseas representatives to be so aggressive. The decentralisation of messaging to diplomats also allows them to target their criticisms to the audience where they are posted.
But for the most strident of wolf warriors, garnering clicks through controversy helps them gain political capital through more hits on their statements and allows them to demonstrate the fiercest defence of China and Xi Jinping.
The effects of wolf warrior diplomacy have not necessarily been beneficial for Beijing. Some of the more incendiary comments and posts from wolf warriors have created diplomatic incidents.
In November 2020, Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology after Zhao Lijian posted a tweet depicting an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of a child.
Hua Chunying garnered negative headlines in March when she criticised accusations of forced labour in Xinjiang and used a “what-about” defence to point out the history of black slavery in the US.
The rise of China’s wolf warriors has also correlated with a rapidly worsening perception of China in a variety of other countries. A Pew Research Center survey from October 2020 highlighted this deterioration, with favourability ratings in countries such as the US and Australia dropping by 25 percentage points or more.
In most major Western European and Northeast Asian countries, China’s unfavourability ratings are now above 70 per cent, demonstrating a clear majority of people that see the country in a negative light.
A separate study by Yale in late 2020 suggested that the sharp language used by China’s wolf warriors runs counter to Chinese interests. The study concluded that “aggressive messages that attempt to tear down the United States do not have broad appeal”, while “messages that highlight foreign aid move public opinion in China’s favour.”
This all suggests that a more belligerent rhetoric from Chinese wolf warriors and foot soldiers has not only been unsuccessful in changing the hearts of its peers and rivals, but has also hardened overseas public opinion against China, making it harder for foreign leaders to develop more engaging policies towards China.
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NATIONALISM AND STABILITY
Even with these negative effects, Beijing is unlikely to rein in its wolf warriors anytime soon.
Domestically, the wolf warriors play a useful role. They demonstrate to a Chinese audience that Beijing is more powerful and confident, and as a result willing to push back against international criticism.
In a country where the national narrative has been forged by the Chinese Communist Party around the concept of a “century of humiliation”, when China was forced to succumb to overseas interest and lost territories such as Hong Kong and Macau, such forceful messages present a stronger image of China.
These messages reflect the nationalist rhetoric that is often used on China’s social media sites, where patriotic users will highlight wolf warrior statements or replicate the sentiment.
Yet, the nationalism this stokes poses risks for Beijing in not only suppressing criticality from the national discourse, but also creating a patriotism that can be difficult to control.
In 2012, nationalist protests against Japan’s nationalisation of three small islands in the East China Sea were initially encouraged by Beijing as a public form of discontent.
But the protests got out of hand and became violent, leading to a crackdown by the authorities. While damage was relatively limited, it demonstrated that nationalism is a force that can be difficult to contain.
Such nationalism can lead to Beijing having to mitigate damaging diplomatic effects – in June, “patriotic” Weibo influencers branded Chinese academics who received Japanese government funds as traitors, requiring the foreign ministry to underline the “understanding, trust and deeper friendship” to be gained through such programmes.
In fact, there are signs Beijing may now recognise some of the harm wolf warriors do, with the Wall Street Journal reporting in late June that the Foreign Ministry is drafting guidelines for diplomats on the use of Twitter.
But ultimately China’s wolf warriors are an extension of China’s more assertive foreign policy under Xi: A voice to its policies that are here to stay.
It’s a pity the wolf warriors will keep baring their teeth and snarling at foreign critics, when it could be more helpful to listen to some overseas appraisals and see how to apply a charm offensive.
Christian Le Miere is a foreign policy adviser and the founder and managing director of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London.