Last week was a week of rancor in Chinese diplomacy, as Xinjiang-related sanctions from the US, the UK and the European Union brought a wave of counter-sanctions and sanctimony from Chinese diplomats, and a scorched-earth campaign from Party-state media and affiliated social media accounts portraying any and all criticism as defamation and “blackmail.”
One of the nastiest turns occurred as the Chinese Embassy in Paris openly attacked scholar Antoine Bondaz, a researcher for the Foundation for Strategic Research, calling him a “thug” and a “troll.” Defending its conduct as France summoned the Chinese ambassador, Lu Shaye (卢沙野), to voice its strong objections, the embassy insisted that criticism of China would not be accepted:
If China’s national interests and image are threatened and damaged, our diplomats must rush up and defend them desperately. Some have for this reason given the label “wolf-warrior diplomacy.” If there are truly “wolf warriors,” this is because the “mad dogs” are too many and too fierce, including these “mad dogs” who tear China apart in the guise of scholarship and journalism. Some hope that China’s diplomacy can be “lamb diplomacy,” that we just sit quietly as the attacks come from outside. Such times have passed!
This contrast between “mad dogs” and “wolf warriors” seemed destined to catch on, and indeed it was instantly picked up by state media in China. A column on March 23 under the byline Shan Renping (单仁平), which often stands in for Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡锡进), bore the headline: “If There are ‘Wolf Warriors,’ This is Because ‘Mad Dogs are Too Many and Too Fierce.” Another piece published through the news app of the Beijing Daily, run by the city’s propaganda department, similarly highlighted the “mad dog” line. “This talk of ‘democracy,’ ‘human rights,’ and ‘freedom’ is just the same old rhetoric,” said the commentary. “The same old script and a similar farce.”
The same old script indeed.
In recent years, as new digital platforms have come to dominate, the Chinese Party-state and its principal media have pushed a transformation of propaganda and public diplomacy. This is not just about global Twitter spats, but about the way public accounts on platforms like WeChat have been used to viralize the idea within China, whenever it suits the objectives of the leadership, that the dignity of the country is under attack. The New York Times, in its report Monday on the phenomenon, termed this China’s “outrage machine.”
These tactics, which draw on a deep well of historical resentment, are digital-era echoes of past mobilization campaigns. For the Chinese Communist Party, online rage is the conflagration needed to suck the oxygen out of any debate over substance, and distract attention away from criticism. Facts and hard questions on issues like Xinjiang are consumed in the blaze. The trouble is, fires are difficult to contain. The most recent over H&M could send China’s investment deal with the EU up in flames. So much for constructive diplomacy.
But for those who remember the world before the WeChat public account, before the instant rage machine of microblogging, going back even to the youthful days of the Party press of the 1950s and 1960s, much of this may seem familiar. Mao Zedong had his “outrage machine” too, and the anger fomented internally over perceived enemies externally – from “hostile forces” to Soviet revisionists – was very often about building a wall of rage against internal criticism. We should recognize this common lineage, while acknowledging that what is happening today is new and unique, and global in ways CCP outrage could never be in the past.
As it happens, the catchy contrast between “mad dogs” and “wolf warriors” is one key that can help us look back on the historic waves of furor and indignation unleashed by the CCP. Despite the apparent novelty of Ambassador Lu Shaye’s viral remark, “mad dogs” have been around for a very long time.
The Dogs of Civil War
In its earliest appearances in the People’s Daily, dating back to the Chinese Civil War, the phrase “mad dog” spoke to the depravity of the Kuomintang and its soldiers and officers. One story from August 13, 1947, explained how “the most honest militiaman,” comrade Wang Mingyi (王明义), a communist fighter in a Shandong village, was interrogated by Nationalist soldiers following an incursion and bravely resisted revealing the location of CCP cadres:
Thereupon, a group of enemies pressed Mingyi to the ground like mad dogs, first striking him 20 times with a club, and then 40 more times before hanging him up from a tree and beating him with a leather shoe until he could not straighten his body. These mad dogs still wanted the guns, and to find the cadres, and comrade Mingyi finally said resolutely: “The guns were handed over to the district office, and I don’t know where the cadres went!”
Many stories at the time were war stories of this sort, conveying a sense of justice, and sometimes also a disdainful sense of humor, about the showdown with the Kuomintang. One story described an enemy tank that made a desperate turn toward communist combatants and became stuck in the mud, its main gun facing downward at an impossible angle as it fired at the earth “like a mad dog.”
By January 1949, as the People’s Liberation Army was in the midst of its Pingjin Campaign to take northern China, one top trade union official was quoted in the paper as exclaiming: “The Kuomintang war criminals are like a pack of mad dogs. We must chase them to the ends of the earth and make sure they are brought to justice, dunked down into the water. We cannot let them go. If we let them go, they might raise their hackles again and turn to bite us.” Several weeks later, army commander Zhao Shoushan, a former KMT general who had switched allegiances, was similarly quoted by the People’s Daily, suggesting this had become something of stock phrase: “The KMT gang is already like a mad dog facing death. Right now it poses as a begging dog, but we must not fall into its trap and allow it to catch its breath, lest it turn and bite us again.”
American Imperialist Dogs
Earlier this month, China’s government issued its Report on Human Rights Violations in the United States in 2020, sharply criticizing alleged human rights abuses in the US, including “comprehensive, systematic and continuous” racism, and what Xinhua called “Washington’s incompetent pandemic containment.” These problems were framed as a repudiation of any and all US claims to leadership on human rights. China’s government has issued similar reports annually since 1998, in direct response to the country reports on human rights practices issued by the US State Department.
The rancor over US government reports has echoes deep in the pre-reform era. On September 8, 1949, the People’s Daily criticized the China White Paper issued by the Truman administration, saying it had “exposed the new conspiracies by American imperialism to invade our country.” Referring to Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s assertion that “democratic individualism will reassert itself” in China, and should be supported, the article fulminated:
One sentence [in the white paper] says: “Democratic individualists will revolt against the CCP.” This was likely referring to Hu Shih, who, when the mad dog Chiang Kai-shek was about to be beaten to death, wanted to mobilize the powerless lice to bite the Chinese people to death.
Hu Shih, the famous writer and thinker (and leader of the 1919 new culture movement) who from 1938 to 1942 had served as the KMT government’s ambassador to the US, was already by this time the frequent topic of bitter criticism in the People’s Daily. While president of National Peking University (later Peking University) from 1945, Hu had publicly opposed Marxism and advocated “reforming drop by drop” (一点一滴的改造), a notion bitterly opposed by Mao and his revolutionaries as bourgeois nonsense. In 1948, Hu Shih fled the city as communist forces closed in, returning to the United States. The intellectual was by this time “Hu Shih the running dog of American imperialism,” and his ideas – including the pragmatism of his teacher at Cornell University, John Dewey – were the “powerless lice” biting at the Chinese people.
As the PRC was founded, and Chiang run off to Taiwan, much of China’s “mad dog” ire turned on the United States after 1949. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, and by October that year Chinese soldiers from the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) had crossed the Yalu River and engaged in the conflict. On October 27, 1949, an article dedicated to China’s “fighting heroes” declared:
The sound of artillery in Korea shakes our hearts daily. The massacre of peaceful residents of Korea by the US Empire reminds us even more of the atrocities committed by the Japanese fascists against the Chinese people. We cannot tolerate this beastly behavior of the US empire!
In order to save itself from crushing defeat, the mad dog of the US empire is getting crazier and crazier, mobilizing all available US troops in the Far East at all costs.
American bombs, said the paper, had “opened flowers across China,” as volunteers sprang up to head to the front lines. “We cannot allow this mad dog to destroy world peace,” it said.
The show trial against former Hungarian Politburo member László Rajk in Budapest in September 1949, which marked the launch of Stalin’s anti-Titoist purge in Hungary and the removal of competing political parties, was reported in a bloodthirsty account in the People’s Daily, Rajk seen as an agent for the US-led imperialist West. As the paper reported the words of one prosecutor in the Budapest court:
Our people demand the execution of these criminals, and I, as representative of the prosecution, concur in this demand. We must crush the head of the viper. Such a verdict will show every imperialist agent and traitor what awaits him. There is only one defense against mad dogs: destroy them!
Stalin was China’s friend, and the US was the chief enemy in Europe, Asia and right across the world. “Let us unite together like steel,” said an article on December 5, 1950, “and beat to death this mad dog of US imperialism.” The US was “plainly a mad dog,” was “already becoming a mad dog.” In 1958, in the midst of the Second Taiwan Straits Crisis, as the PRC shelled the islands of Kinmen and the US came to the aid of the Republic of China (ROC), the People’s Daily reported that “the mad dog of US imperialism has again provoked 600 million Chinese people.”
In 1962, as the US ramped up its military support for South Vietnam, the issue had shifted but the language was consistent. Reporting on a bombing campaign by US forces, the paper said that “enemy bombers again bombarded indiscriminately like mad dogs, covering helicopters as they made their descent.” That same year, a poem in the People’s Daily called “The Original Yankee” (美国佬的原形) disparaged US notions of freedom, and was accompanied by an unflattering image of Uncle Sam strolling away from a pile of bones, his feet leaving dog prints behind. The poem read:
America, “free” America
Standing before human civilization,
You are naked, you stink to high heaven,
Like a mad dog scampering about.
Toward the end of the 1950s, following Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and disagreements over a host of other issues, China’s relations with the Soviet Union steadily soured. There were new “mad dogs” to join the old.
Soviet Revisionist Dogs
By 1960, the schism between China and its old ally was a fait accompli, Mao denouncing Soviet leaders as “revisionist traitors.” The USSR joined the US in China’s dog house, the People’s Daily growling that the Chinese people, “armed with Mao Zedong Thought,” were undefeatable. “We must, in the spirit of ‘beating the dog that has fallen in the water,’ strike without mercy the mad dog of Soviet socialist imperialism.”
As the Sino-Soviet split drove a rift through the international communist movement, just one country in Europe, Albania, chose to stand with China. The USSR retaliated by withdrawing its economic and military assistance to Albania, but China stepped in, providing shipments of grain to the country even as the Great Famine at home claimed millions of lives. The Albanian alliance was a necessity for Mao Zedong, a political vanity for which the Chinese people paid dearly. Throughout the 1960s, the Albanian friendship was warmly promoted in the People’s Daily.
In a piece called “The Heroic Women of Albania” (英雄的阿尔巴尼亚妇女), the paper told the story of one female commando named Little Fado who was captured by “fascist bandits” during the Second World War and held with other female combatants in the hazy and damp dungeon of an old castle. Interrogating her, the fascists yanked off her five-star cap and threw it to the ground. They ordered her to reveal the location of her unit. Here is the climax of that story:
Her lungs were about to explode, but she calmly picked up her hat, kissed the red stars, and then put it squarely on her head again. The enemy was so furious that they barked like mad dogs and decided then and there to shoot her. Before the end came, Little Fado shouted to her sisters in their cells: ‘Destroy the German and Italian fascist devils! Sisters, I am honored, because I will die like a true partisan. Victory must be ours!”
But following the Lushan Conference of 1959, at which many Party members were highly critical of Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, the “mad dogs” were not just China’s external enemies. As Mao sought to stave off criticism, the aspersion was leveled at internal foes as well.
Dogs in the House
In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, in March 1966, General Luo Ruiqing, a veteran revolutionary who had been on the Long March, was branded as part of an “anti-Party clique” that included Peng Zhen, Yang Shangkun and Lu Dingyi. Luo attempted suicide by leaping from the roof of a three-story building. Though he survived, paralyzed, his legs shattered, the public attacks continued. On October 28, 1967, the People’s Daily ran a piece alleging that Luo, with the support of “China’s Khrushchev” (meaning Liu Shaoqi), had “engaged in a sinister conspiracy to turn the army against the Party.” The article described Luo Ruiqing as “scurrying like a mad dog” as he sought to disrupt the study of Mao Zedong Thought within the army’s ranks.
Another article in 1968, laden with political insults, branded the writer Zhou Yang as an “agent in the arts” for “China’s Khrushhev”:
Zhou Yang and the capitalist roaders of the old film association think they’ve performed “well,” that they “remain useful.” This word exposes their secret all at once, that they believe this mad dog can still serve their counter-revolutionary criminal activities.
[They] must be materially and politically generous in feeding this mad dog, because this mad dog is very good at “biting people,” and can be used to attack the party and attack socialism.
Chinese life became a chorus of rabid denunciations during the Cultural Revolution. And of course it was not just senior Party officials and intellectuals that were tossed into the dog house. A March 1971 article filed from Zhejiang province offered a chilling glimpse into a struggle sessions unfolding in one community. At one point, a member of the community stands up to make a damning disclosure: “That ‘dog that doesn’t bark’ on our team, Jiang Ruilu, has now become a mad dog,” they said. “He has torn off his disguise, revealing his fierceness. He disobeys commands, and provokes divisions between cadres and the group.”
The Pack of Four
The downfall of the Gang of Four in October 1976, just one month after Mao Zedong’s death, ushered in another period of dramatic change. The political faction, led by Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, was blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution – and these “criminals” were quickly, well, dog-piled.
On December 16, 1976, the People’s Daily published an article on Dazhai village in Shanxi province, which in 1963 had been the focus of a vast propaganda campaign by Mao Zedong calling on farmers across the country to emulate the community’s example. The whole thing was a vast manufactured drama, PLA soldiers brought in to do the vast construction projects attributed to self-sacrificing villagers. Guo Fenglian, the top leader in Dazhai, was favored by Jiang Qing, and often used in political campaigns.
But as the Gang of Four was crushed, the village became an object of ridicule. The People’s Daily profiled one poor old farmer in Dazhai, Jia Chengyong, who fiercely denounced Jiang Qing:
“I know best who loves Dazhai and who hates Dazhai. The beloved Premier Zhou visited Dazhai three times and sat on the beds of the poor peasants to ask for warmth and affection; the big ambitious Jiang Qing visited Dazhai twice and bit people everywhere like a mad dog and hurt socialism everywhere like a vicious wolf.”
In a separate article, another farmer, Jia Chengyong, was quoted saying exactly the same thing. Zhou Enlai had visited the village three times, Jiang Qing just twice. Madame Mao was a “mad dog,” a “vicious wolf” and a White Bone Spirit, referring to a demon that appears in the classic The Journey West. “The big ambitious Jiang Qing came twice two Dazhai, biting people like a mad dog, and harming socialism like a vicious wolf. For three generations we have loathed this White Bone Spirit.”
Mad Dogs and Black Hands
As economic reforms took hold after 1978 and through the 1980s, China embarked on a new path. The calumnies of the pre-reform era faded as the focus economically turned from ideology toward pragmatism. In the media, there was corresponding push for “news reform” (新闻改革), rejecting the “falsehood, emptiness and bluster” (假大空) that had dominated the Party-run press – really the Mao-run press – for more than two decades, fanning the flames of internal strife.
The tone of the press, and of politics, became more civil, and the insults and ad hominem attacks of the extreme left were far less welcome. In 1987, a letter to the editor in the People’s Daily cautioned against the volleying of defamatory insults by writers and journalists. Old habits died hard, and some still struggled to shake off the deep impact of decades of raw political hate and sloganeering. But the nation now had a new constitution, and a new system of laws protecting people from such attacks:
Since last year, some readers have written to this newspaper to reflect that some people use literary publications to attack, insult and slander others. These letters have increased particularly since the knowledge of the law has grown.
From the situation reflected by the readers and the reporter’s understanding of the situation, there are indeed some people (including some writers), who use the pens in their hands and the publications they hold, in the guise of writing real stories about real people, to act against the principles of literary creation, against the Constitution, and against the law, amounting even to criminal activities.
One reader in Hebei, Wang Faying, shared her own experience of being “insulted and slandered” by a writer for the magazine Women’s Literature (女子文学). Wang, a former statistician at an agricultural machinery company, understandably chafed against having been called a “specialized privateer,” a “peach-picker,” a “political liar,” a “pickpocket,” a “fraudster,” a “strangely tasting southern chicken,” a “rogue,” and a “mad dog.”
There was a clear whiff of democracy in the air by the second half of the decade. An article on August 10, 1987, shared the instructive story of an overbearing and power-hungry assistant director of a blanket factory in Hubei province, who became furious when his female employees did not support him in casting their ballots for him as a district people’s congress representative. He reportedly called the employees to his office and dressed them down: “I have raised a bunch of mad dogs,” he said. “You do not endorse me, but bite at me behind my back.” The article, “Violating Voters’ Democratic Rights” (侵犯选民民主权利), reported that the assistant director had been dismissed from his position.
The moment that brought a swift and brutal end to the openness and experimentation of the 1980s is one we all know. The violent suppression of po-democracy protests in June 1989 ushered in a new period of denunciation and finger-pointing, with a resurgence of hardline leftist discourse continuing through to Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” in January-February 1992.
It will probably not surprise readers to learn that the next “mad dog” in the People’s Daily, appearing on June 25, 1989, was Liu Xiaobo, the scholar and human rights activist who would later become a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The article, a lengthy attack reprinted from the capital’s Beijing Daily, was called “Seizing the Black Hand Liu Xiaobo” (抓住刘晓波的黑手). Liu, a lecturer at Beijing Normal University, had been arrested and imprisoned at Qincheng Prison on June 5, the day after the massacre, accused of aiding the pro-democracy movement.
The People’s Daily article suggested Liu had been part of a foreign conspiracy, calling him “Liu Xiaobo who rushed back from the United States at the beginning of the turmoil.” Here was the unflattering portrait painted of the activist:
Liu Xiaobo has long been known as “a madman”, “a mad dog” and “a dark horse.” Since 1986 he has made a lot of noise by rejecting everything about China. After receiving his doctorate in literature from Beijing Normal University on June 25, 1988, he traveled to Norway to lecture on August 24, and after three months, he moved to the United States. Before he left the country, he wanted to drop a number of so-called “heavy bombs” against the Communist Party and the people, but he hid them for the time being because he was afraid they would “fizzle out” because he was about to leave the country. When he arrived abroad, he had nothing to worry about, so he tossed them one after the other.
The attack closed by saying that history “is not subject to the will of the reactionaries.” Liu Xiaobo’s dream was but an empty dream. “The people, and only the people, are the masters of this land of China,” it said.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the virulent rhetoric of “rabid dogs” faded once again. As the focus shifted back to rapid economic development, the nation was busy with matters of trade and investment. The society grew wealthier. The media, though still under Party control, diversified, and the internet ushered in a more connected China.
For the first time in the People’s Daily, there were actual mad dogs, rabid ones that had to be dealt with. A reader’s letter from August 13, 2006, argued the need to register dogs in the countryside and regularly vaccinate them to deal with rabies outbreaks. There was the problem of domestic violence, of fathers who show two faces to the family, one the “mad dog.” The paper, calling in 2011 for zero tolerance toward domestic violence, explained: “The ‘mad dog’ type of person can be a gambler, or a drug addict or have other bad habits, and no one can stop them from beating up people.”
At long last, “mad dogs” were dogs, or “mad dogs” were people, with real human problems. The point was not to dehumanize the subject and justify cruelty as payment for their political crimes.
Mad Dogs in the New Era
But the pendulum has swung back once again. There is a new rancor in China’s diplomatic relations, and in the domestic reverberation of its outrages, that is reminiscent, like so much else in the Xi era, of politics in China’s past. That rancor has focused on criticism of China, and on perceived threats to its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Comments like those made by Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye in France are part of a larger turn toward uncivil and dehumanizing speech directed at those who criticize the country or are perceived as its enemies. Earlier this week, a Chinese diplomat on Twitter called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “boy,” accusing him of destroying the relationship between China and Canada, and in the next breath branded Trudeau “a running dog” of the United States.
The diplomat, in fact, was not stepping out of line. A nasty relic of the pre-reform era, the term “running dog,” has in recent years been largely reserved in the Party-state media for discussion of history. But it now seems to be creeping back. Generally speaking, such Cold War rhetoric has been normalized, despite frequent calls in the Party’s own People’s Daily and other state media to avoid Cold War thinking and Cold war talk. Last July, after Canada’s withdrawal from its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, the Global Times said Chinese experts had “slammed Canada’s decision, saying it shows Canada is a ‘running dog’ of the US.” In October 2020, the People’s Daily ran a warning on page seven to Taiwan’s Intelligence Bureau over alleged spying and “sabotage activities.” The article urged the bureau not to “continue to act as the ‘hawks and hounds’ and ‘running dogs’ of the Tsai Ing-wen administration.”
The first re-emergence of the “mad dog” to address current affairs in the People’s Daily in the Xi era came in August 2019, as protests in Hong Kong grew increasingly rancorous, and at times violent. On August 17, an article in the paper reported comments from members of the legal profession in Hong Kong decrying violence, including an attack on a reporter from the Global Times:
During the illegal assembly at the Hong Kong International Airport, the mob obstructed and pushed the passengers, and some mainland passengers and journalists were tied up, beaten and abused by the mob. Some Hong Kong legal professionals have pointed out in interviews and articles that the mob have acted like “mad dogs,” and there is no escaping criminal responsibility.
The point here, as in the case of the Party’s “mad dogs” of the pre-reform era and the attack on Liu Xiaobo, was to dehumanize the party-state’s critics, to impute lunacy and unreason. This removes the need to grapple with the substance of real concerns. Mad dogs are a menace. Period. There is no sense in coaxing them, petting or feeding them. They must be caged, muzzled and removed – whatever it takes to keep the people safe. In this way, it becomes a simple leap from the dog’s madness to the party-state’s reason and legitimacy. Silencing criticism is necessary to inoculate China from rabid criticism.
What is most disturbing about the “mad dog” in the new era, however, is the way such attacks are applied not just to national governments, or “the West,” or political elites like Justin Trudeau, but to scholars like Antoine Bondaz or Joanne Smith Finley. We cannot forgot the resolve of the Chinese Embassy in France as it insisted, in the face of criticism, that China must defend itself against “these ‘mad dogs’ who tear China apart in the guise of scholarship and journalism.”
Scholarship and journalism must stand before its peers and the public, before a global community that is free to speak, free to seek the facts, free to criticize and free to listen. Hu Shih, the intellectual the People’s Daily attacked early on as a “mad dog,” had in fact been called the same by Chiang Kai-shek. He was a critic of the KMT, a critic of the CCP. But above all he was a critic. It was his independence as a thinker and writer that commanded the attention of the thinking public. “Hu was known as a scholar who did not belong to any party, and that’s how he was seen in society,” one researcher has said. “For this reason, as soon as Hu was published, this won the sympathy of society, particularly of the intellectual class, who were very happy about it.”
As comments in online forums in China about its international relations call on the country to “do battle with the mad dogs,” independent voices from scholarship and journalism are invisibilized. The diplomacy of the PRC is lost, meanwhile, in a chorus of howling over “wolves” and “mad dogs.”
Yesterday, confusing things even further, the Chinese Embassy in Ireland made a post to Twitter – a platform banned inside China – that brought sheep back into the cacophony. “Who is the wolf?” the embassy asked. “Some people accused China for so-called ‘wolf warrior diplomacy.’ In his well-known fable, Aesop described how the Wolf accused the Lamb of committing offences.”
What did the embassy mean be related a tale whose moral is that the tyrant can always find an excuse for his tyranny? As though hastening to explain, the embassy said in the very same tweet: “The wolf is the wolf, not the lamb. BTW, China is not the lamb.”
Was the embassy averring that China is in fact the wolf, ready with excuses, pointing its accusing finger at perceived offenders in order to justify devouring them? Certainly, as the diplomats insisted, China is not the lamb in this confusedly allegorical message.
Understandably, puzzlement and ridicule justifiably ensued. But one small shift in the reading of the post from the Chinese Embassy in Ireland makes the allegory work. As the scornful baying about wolves and dogs grows louder, swallowing up all meaningful dialogue, all real diplomacy, along with all facts and legitimate questions – isn’t it painfully clear?
Speech is the lamb.