Author: Lai Fu

Growling Back at the West

So-called “wolf warrior diplomacy,” or zhanlang waijiao (战狼外交), is a diplomatic strategy of assertiveness that China has pursued for several years now, in line with the country’s status as a major power and responding to Xi Jinping’s call to “fight for international discourse power” (争取国际话语权). In this article we try to answer the following key questions about this strategy:

  • Why have some Chinese diplomats moved from poise (文雅) to belligerence (好鬥)?
  • How has China’s new buzzword in this arena, “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想), reshaped the country’s diplomatic strategy? 
  • How does China’s so-called “great power diplomacy” ( 大国外交) carry out its struggle for international discourse?
  • Will China emerge as the victor through this “wolf warrior diplomacy”?

China’s diplomats have grown increasingly quarrelsome, and their antics have been less and less welcome.

On April 26 this year, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) shared a post on Twitter including a satirical illustration on the issue of Japan deciding to discharge treated nuclear wastewater into the ocean. The illustration was a spoof of the famous 19th century woodblock print “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” by the Japanese artist Hokusai, and it showed two men, dwarfed by Hokusai’s famous wave, in orange radiation suits dumping green nuclear wastewater from a boat into the sea.

A spoof image of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” shared by MOFA’s Zhao Lijian in April to criticize Japan’s decision to dump treated nuclear wastewater into the ocean.

Two days later, at a regular Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) press conference, Zhao responded to Japan’s objections to his post, and request that it be removed. “As you may have noticed, I’ve pinned it on top,” he said of his tweet. As this exchange was reported by the official Xinhua News Agency through its WeChat public account, remarks in the comment section were supportive of Zhao’s stance. “Well done!” said some.

“A small group of Chinese diplomats are using strong rhetoric and social media to present an image of a confident, ambitious and assertive China,” Zhu Zhiqun, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University, told Initium. In an article he said that Chinese diplomacy has moved from a posture of conservatism, passivity and maintaining a low profile, to a posture of confidence, proactiveness and seeking a high-profile.

The Ubiquitous “Spirit of Struggle”

Zhao Lijian has been one of the most visible “wolf warrior” diplomats in the foreign press. In 2009, Zhao, then 37, was assigned as an attaché to the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan. He opened his personal Twitter account the next year under the name “Muhammad Lijian Zhao” (穆罕默德赵立坚), and his account remained active from that point on, with more than 51,000 posts through 2019, most relatively restrained in their remarks.

One of Zhao’s first heated online clashes occurred in July 2019 as he defended China’s policies in Xinjiang in a post by referring to racial tensions in the United States. This prompted former US national security adviser Susan Rice to sharply criticize Zhao, calling him “a racist disgrace.” “And shockingly ignorant too!” she added. For his part, Zhao fired back at Rice: “To label someone who speak the truth that you don’t want to hear a racist, is disgraceful and disgusting.”

According to a report from Reuters, when Zhao Lijian returned to China from his posting in Pakistan in August 2019, he was cheered by a group of young admirers at MOFA. Bloomberg also reported late last year that Zhao Lijian’s September 2019 promotion as a deputy director-general at MOFA’s Information Department sent a clear signal to other cadres that his combative approach had the blessing of CCP superiors.

Since his 2019 promotion, Zhao Lijian has engaged in several high-profile debates on social media, earning him considerable popularity inside China. He has embraced the special title granted him by Chinese internet users: “Voice of the Ministry of Magic” (魔法部之声). This is a play on the acronym for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MOFA, which sounds like the Chinese word for magic, mofa (魔法). In February 2020, when Zhao Lijian took up his post as spokesperson for the ministry, official state media reported that Chinese netizens voiced support for the move. “Our wolf warrior has never lost a battle!” read one comment highlighted by People’s Daily Online. 

Zhao Lijian brought his pugnacious Twitter style to the press briefing room, saying for example at the outset of the Covid-19 outbreak in China that “it might have been the US military that brought the outbreak to Wuhan . . . . The US owes us an explanation!”

A February 2020 tweet from Zhao Lijian suggest the US military might have introduced the virus to Wuhan.

When the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance including the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement voicing concern over Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy, Zhao responded imperiously: “They should take care that they don’t have their eyes poked out!” And after 2+2 talks were held between the US and Japan in March this year over the question of Asian defense, Zhao denounced Japan, saying it had “invited the wolf into the house.”

“China’s leaders have encouraged [these diplomats] to have a ‘spirit of struggle,’ says Bucknell University’s Zhu Zhiqun. This, he says, is one of the key reasons why Chinese diplomats have become so aggressive in their approach.

In September 2019, Xi Jinping delivered a speech to young cadres at the Central Party School, , in which he used the word “struggle” a total of 56 times. He entreated those present to “develop the spirit of struggle and increase their ability to struggle.” Two months later, Foreign Minister Wang Yi conveyed the same message in a speech to current and former diplomats at a conference to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of MOFA. One participant told Reuters that this was the first time they had been told to have a stronger fighting spirit. The news agency also cited two sources with direct knowledge of the matter as saying that Xi Jinping had issued instructions to diplomats in 2019, urging them to be more daring in showing the “spirit of struggle.” This had contributed, they said, to the emergence of a new generation of diplomatic hawks the likes of Zhao Lijian.

Other diplomats who have earned a reputation as “wolf warriors” include Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye (卢沙野) and China’s consul general in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Li Yang (李杨). Lu Shaye was summoned by Quai d’Orsay in March 2021 after he publicly attacked French academic Antoine Bondaz on Twitter, calling him a “petite frappe” (小流氓), or “little rascal” for his critical comments on Chinese disinformation.   

French scholar Antoine Bondaz responds on Twitter after being labelled a “little rascal” by Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye.

After the “petite frappe” row, the Chinese Embassy in France continued to publish articles on its website attacked “certain ‘rabid dogs’ dressed in the garb of academic and journalism” (一些披着学术和媒体外衣的’疯狗’) who were “tearing China apart.” The same month, Li Yang took to Twitter to denounce Canadian President Justin Trudeau as a running dog of the United States (美国的走狗).

Aside from these well-known incidents of antagonism, many Chinese diplomats around the world have made public statements full of the “spirit of struggle.” They include former MOFA spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽), former Chinese Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming (刘晓明), Chinese Ambassador to Italy Li Junhua, Chinese Ambassador to Zimbabwe Guo Shaochun (郭少春), and Chinese Ambassador to Niger Zhang Lijun (张立军).

Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan Meet with CCP Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi in March 2021. Public domain image from US Department of State.

The most dramatic recent manifestation of the “spirit of struggle” in Chinese diplomacy was a 16-minute monologue by Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪), a Politburo member and director of Office of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Working Committee (中国外事工作委员会办公室), during strategic talks between China and the US in Anchorage, Alaska, in March this year. Responding to critical remarks from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Yang said:

So let me say here that, in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength. The U.S. side was not even qualified to say such things even 20 years or 30 years back, because this is not the way to deal with the Chinese people. If the United States wants to deal properly with the Chinese side, then let’s follow the necessary protocols and do things the right way.

A number of Yang’s uniquely phrased remarks were widely reported in China’s media. Such as his statement that, “The Chinese will not eat this,” meaning that it would not stomach what were perceived as insults from the American side. “Haven’t we suffered enough at the hands of foreigners?” he asked. These nationalist sentiments resonated strongly with many back in China.

“The chief task of diplomats is to make friends and help improve relations between home and host countries,” says Zhu Zhiqun, who is critical of “wolf warrior diplomacy.” “Attacking other countries or foreign leaders is not only inconsistent with diplomatic practice, but also counterproductive to achieving a country’s diplomatic goals.” He points out, however, that not all diplomats are “wolf warriors,” and that there are more traditionally minded diplomats in China who are trying to de-escalate the situation.

In March 2020, after Zhao Lijian suggested on Twitter that the US military might be to blame for the spread of Covid-19, Cui Tiankai (崔天凯), China’s ambassador to the US, said in an interview that it was dangerous to spread such “crazy rumors” (疯狂谣言). The next month, Fu Ying (傅莹), the former Chinese ambassador to the UK, wrote in the People’s Daily that “successful discourse must be based on rich facts and practices, and vague concepts and declarations are not adequate to move people and will not enhance discourse power.”

“Those who make headlines tend to be hawks,” says Zhu Zhiqun. “But most Chinese diplomats continue to follow their professional training.” John Lim (林泉忠), an international relations scholar, says that there is not necessarily a rift within foreign ministry between hawks and doves. “The fact that wolf warriors have gotten the go-ahead from the central authorities is a sign of the overall atmosphere, and is not about just personal style,” he says.

Look back through Twitter, in fact, and you’ll find that Zhao Lijian’s early posts on the platform were not framed as direct attacks. Back in 2017, responding to a post by a Pakistani journalist about terrorist groups and China, Zhao was civil: “Please stop spreading rumors about China, and please check your evidence before you speak,” he wrote.

Yang Jiechi, who sounded such a combative note in March, has been known in the past for his more measured tone. In 2001, after a collision occurred between a Chinese fighter jet and a US reconnaissance aircraft, the two side were at a diplomatic standstill. Yang, who at the time was serving as China’s ambassador to the US, spoke with CNN comparing the incident to the killing of a family member by a reckless driver, and demanding a US apology with the rhetorical question: “Shouldn’t that person apologize to you and your family?” Ultimately, the two sides accepted a compromise by which the US said it was “sorry” for the incident without formally and clearly apologizing. Chinese diplomats have since described this compromise as an example of “diplomatic wisdom” (外交智慧).

The year after, Yang was featured in China’s state media for his close personal friendship with the family of President George W. Bush (he had accompanied George Bush Senior on a trip to Tibet in 1977), and for facilitating an invitation for Jiang Zemin to attend a private dinner at the Bush family ranch in Texas. In 2007, after Yang Jiechi was appointed as China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, reports in the state media referred to him as calm, modest and decent.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi appears at the Munich Security Conference in 2019. Image from Wikimedia Commons available under CC license.

China’s older generation of diplomats, says Lin Quanzhong, who were epitomized by the person of Zhou Enlai (周恩来), the PRC’s first premier, established the image of the Confucian diplomat – self-possessed and maintaining a big-picture view.

In 2002, Jin Guihua (金桂华), a former deputy director of the Information Department at MOFA, wrote that diplomatic language is about “gentle understatement” (温和的委婉说词). He offered as an example the compromise wording of the 1972 Joint Communique between the US and China, which states that “there is but one China,” saying that this showed how diplomacy is  “an art of compromise” (是一门妥协的艺术).

Before the rise of wolf warrior  diplomacy, in fact, the caution and restraint of Chinese diplomatic rhetoric aroused resentment among many Chinese. In 2007, Wu Jianmin (吴建民), another former director of the MOFA’s Information Department, said: “Several years ago, not understanding the full situation, someone mailed calcium pills to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying that Chinese diplomacy was too soft and needed calcium supplements.”

Back in February this year, Chairman Rabbit (兔主席), a self-media writer known in social media circles for his pro-government stance, published a gentle critique of “wolf warrior diplomacy.” He criticized in particular Zhao Lijian’s conspiracy theory about Covid-19 being introduced to China by the US military. Many online readers opposed Chairman Rabbit’s views, saying that it was more important in the face of malicious vilification by the West to fight back than to try to be reasonable. Many in Chinese society have waited a long time for tougher Chinese diplomats, and even crudeness is something they find acceptable.

“Great Power Diplomacy” Replaces “Keeping a Low Profile”

In a recent paper discussing the “paradigm shift” in Chinese diplomacy, Wang Jianwei (王建伟), a professor in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau, wrote that “Xi Jinping’s great power diplomacy is an alternative to the low-profile diplomacy of Deng Xiaoping.” China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping, he said,  no longer follows the principle of “keeping a low profile” (韬光养晦) that was established by Deng Xiaoping in the 1990s.

After the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, China was subjected to sanctions by more than 20 developed countries, including the United States and Japan, and its diplomatic relations were interrupted as a result. In order to throw off this isolation, Deng Xiaoping introduced a series of ideas to deal with international relations, which were later summarized as the strategic policy of “calm observation, holding ground, coping calmly, keeping a low profile and making progress” (冷静观察、稳住阵脚、沉着应付、韬光养晦、有所作为). In a 2005 speech, Wu Jianmin revealed that Wen Jiabao, then China’s premier, had said that the policy of “keeping a low profile” would not change for a hundred years.

But Xi Jinping has headed in another direction entirely. Looking at the emergence of so-called “great power diplomacy” (大国外交) and “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想), Wang argues that these phrases essentially have the same meaning. At a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Commission in November 2014, attended by all members of the CCP Politburo, Xi Jinping delivered a speech in which he said that “China must have a great power diplomacy with its own characteristics” (中国必须有自己特色的大国外交). He emphasized that work on foreign affairs must have clear “Chinese characteristics, Chinese style and Chinese manner” (中国特色, 中国风格, 中国气派).

Fielding questions from reporters during the release of a report on the 13th Five-Year Plan in May 2016, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi mentioned “great power diplomacy” for the first time as a “theory” (理论), saying that the theory of great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics was a strategic design from the top, encompassing a set of related ideas including a “community of common destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体), “peaceful development” (和平发展) and “win-win cooperation” (合作共赢).

In January 2017, in the month’s ahead of the CCP’s 19th National Congress, Yang Jiechi published articles in both the People’s Daily and the official CCP journal Seeking Truth that used the phrase “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” for the first time. This idea, said Yang, provided a “scientific answer” to the question of what constituted great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics and how it should be pursued. More than a year later, in June 2018, a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Commission established the guiding position of “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,” and the phrase “great power diplomacy” also held a primary position in Xi’s related remarks.

According to Wang Jianwei’s analysis, China’s foreign policy has shown strong traits of realism and mercantilism from Deng Xiaoping through the administrations of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Throughout this period, China seldom talked about morals and values. By contrast, “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,” with its integral concepts such as a “community of common destiny,” aspires to a value system as a kind of “global idealism” (全球理想主义), says Wang. It attempts to offer solutions to key questions facing humanity in which China can aspire to play a leading role.

Wang adds that Chinese leaders in previous generations essentially believed that China was marginal or semi-marginal within the international system, while China in Xi Jinping’s view, is “closer to the center of the world stage as it has ever been in the past.”

Nor is “great power diplomacy” merely a theoretical construct. During Xi Jinping’s first term in office, China played an ever more prominent role in global affairs – for example, through the introduction of its Belt and Road Initiative, its hosting of the G20 summit, and its deployment of the largest peacekeeping force of any permanent member of the United Nations. It also participated in negotiations over a nuclear deal with Iran, pressed the Afghan government to open peace talks with the Taliban, and issued numerous calls on climate change. As China’s top leader, Xi Jinping has also been very active in the diplomatic arena. During his tenure thus far, he has made state visits more frequently than any previous Chinese leader.

With the notion of “great power diplomacy” guiding foreign affairs, the status of China’s foreign affairs departments has also strengthened under Xi. In 2017, Yang Jiechi, the current director of Office of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Working Committee, was appointed as a member of the Politburo, placing him as one of 25 core people in China’s political system. His predecessor on the working committee, Dai Bingguo (戴秉国), held only the rank of state councillor.

The emergence of “great power diplomacy” has even transformed the nature of diplomatic protocol. Protocol was a matter of great priority in foreign affairs from the early days of the establishment of the PRC, according to a recent paper by Zhou Jiali (周加李), an associate professor at China Foreign Affairs University. In 1954, for example, when the Indonesian premier visited China, 200,000 people were mobilized to greet him, and the state banquet for the occasion included six dishes and one soup (六菜一汤) as well as a variety of other cold dishes.

With the start of reform and opening in 1978 the work of greeting foreign dignitaries was gradually simplified. Elaborate gestures such as organizing the masses or children to welcome visitors, or arranging motorbike escorts for guest motorcades, were phased out. State banquets were eventually reduced to just 10 tables, and hot dishes to three with one soup.

The pendulum has swung back to protocol under Xi Jinping, as China has sought to project the image of a major power. Processions of Chinese youth have reappeared in the welcome ceremonies for foreign visitors, as have motorcycle escorts and gun salutes. Tables for state banquets are no longer limited to just 10, and the menu has expanded once again too. For the G20 summit in Hangzhou in September 2016, there were five dishes and one soup. According to Zhou Jiali, this change reflects the “Chinese characteristics” and “Chinese style” Xi Jinping urged in his remarks on “great power diplomacy.”

But the building up of this “great power diplomacy” has been far from smooth.

Seeking International Discourse Power

“Chinese diplomats have been frustrated by the reluctance of Western countries, led by the United States, to accept China’s rise,” Zhu Zhiqun, the Bucknell University professor, told Initium. Wolf warrior diplomacy is both a response to nationalist sentiment at home and an effort to tell “the China story” (中国故事) to the world in order to counter what Chinese leaders have regarded as the “smearing” (抹黑) of China by the West, he says.

In 2016, speaking at a conference for Party schools, the national and regional training institutions for CCP cadres, Xi Jinping said that “backwardness means suffering defeat [at the hands of others], poverty means suffering hunger, and loss of speech means suffering the criticism [of others].” China, he said, had managed to resolve the first two problems, becoming militarily and economically strong. But the last problem, suffering the criticism of other countries (挨骂), had not yet been resolved. “Fighting for international discourse power is a major problem that we must solve,” he said.

In fact, resolving the problem of “suffering criticism” in the midst of China’s rise is something that has concerned Chinese leaders and strategic thinkers for some time, and this formulation is not Xi’s own invention. Back in 2012, Zhang Zhizhou (张志洲), a professor of international relations at Beijing Foreign Studies University, wrote that while China’s rise is an indisputable fact, the country’s lack of international discourse power (国际话语权) has led to its malicious disparagement at the hands of Western-dominated international public opinion.

Luqiu Luwei (闾丘露薇), associate dean of the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, says it is insufficient to regard wolf warrior diplomacy as merely a response to nationalist sentiment within China. Rather, she says, it is a new set of diplomatic tactics in line with China’s status as a great power, and responding to

Xi Jinping’s call to “fight for international discourse power.”

“China talks less lately about soft power,” Luqiu Luwei told Initium. Together with Dai Yaoyao (戴遥遥), an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at UNC Charlotte, she has conducted a study analysing more than 20,000 transcripts from foreign ministry press conferences over the past two decades. The results of their study indicate that during the first decade of the 21st century, the highest number of what they call “hostile responses” (敌意回应) to journalists’ questions – those using offensive, combative or insulting language – came in 2008, the year that China hosted the Beijing Olympic Games. The next highest year was 2010, during which Shanghai hosted the World Expo, an event that Chinese journalist and political activist Liang Qichao (梁启超) had anticipated a century earlier, and which came as China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy.

“This gave the Chinese government and the Chinese people a sense of pride,” Zhu Zhiqun told Initium, “and steadily rising nationalism was reflected in Chinese diplomacy, with diplomats becoming more assertive and combative from that point.”

The study from Luqiu Luwei and Dai Yaoyao shows a pronounced increase in hostile responses in foreign ministry press conferences since 2012, the year that marked the transition from the administrations of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. It was also in 2012 that China’s first domestic aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was put into service, and that China’s first manned space mission, Shenzhou-9, completed its journey. As China’s military and technological strength increased, territorial disputes erupted in the East and South China Seas, and anti-Japanese demonstrations were held in several Chinese cities over the Diaoyu Islands.

According to Naoko Eto, a research fellow at the Japan External Trade Organization, 2013 was a turning point in the campaign to enhance China’s discourse power. In September of that year, the reform resolution adopted at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP explicitly proposed for the first time in such a plenary document the key task of building a foreign discourse system (建设对外话语体系). In central-level meetings since that time, enhancing international discourse has been a point of emphasis.

The official Chinese view, says Eto, is that the current international order places China at a distinct disadvantage because it must operate in an environment in which Western ideologies dominate, or what is often in official discourse referred to as “Western discursive hegemony” (西方话语霸权). China therefore aspires to create a discourse system capable of reshaping international opinion, eventually enabling Chinese values to replace the “universal values” (普世价值) of the West.

The joint study by Luqiu Luwei and Dai Yaoyao shows that hostile responses from China’s foreign ministry reached an all-time high in 2019 and 2020. In 2019, the US Commerce Department placed the Chinese tech giant Huawei and 70 affiliates on its so-called “Entity List,” and the US lobbied European governments to ban Huawei from 5G networks. The US-China trade war that began in 2018 also intensified in 2019 as the US accused China of stealing intellectual property, and as both sides increased tariffs. In October 2019, the US Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and China countered that Washington was the “black hand behind the scenes” (幕后黑手) of the movement in Hong Kong against the amendment bill on extradition.

As the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in 2020 following the outbreak in the city of Wuhan, US President Donald Trump referred repeatedly to the “China virus” (中国病毒), and this became a point of worsening tensions between China and the US. In Europe, meanwhile, the general view that China had initially covered up the outbreak and allowed it to spread drove sentiment toward the country to new lows. In September 2020, the US Congress passed another bill banning imports of products from Xinjiang in response to investigations into the establishment of “re-education camps” and the use of forced labor in the region. This act also prompted a strong official backlash from China.

Luqiu Luwei’s studies have found that hostile responses from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have not advanced on all issues. Responses were more likely to be hostile when the issues concerned related to “core interests” (核心利益) – including, for example, Japan’s record during the Second World War, issues of sovereignty, Taiwan and the “One-China Principle,” terrorism and human rights, and so on.

Drawing on research from Wang Jianwei at the University of Macau, Luqiu Luwei believes these are signs that China is expanding its definition of “core interests.” In the past, this term was generally used only in reference to the issue of Taiwan. In the Xi Jinping era, the issue of the South China Sea has also become a “core interest.” According to Wang Jianwei’s analysis, China’s foreign policy has become increasingly hard-line in recent years because leaders believe the country’s “core interests” have been threatened. The message emerging from many of Xi Jinping’s public speeches, he says, is that China’s “peaceful rise” (和平崛起) is not unconditional, that if the country’s “core interests” are impacted then there is the potential for a rise that is not peaceful. At the same time, China is actively seeking to expand its international discourse power.

Sun Jisheng (孙吉胜), a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, wrote in a recent article that the competition over discourse power was chiefly a competition about values (价值观), systems (制度) and language (话语). On the question of values, for example, while the West prioritized “human rights over sovereignty” (人权高於主权), China emphasized the rights to survival and development as Chinese values to be exported. On the question of systems, China was actively building international organizations and institutions such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and also taking part in and at the same time transforming the prevailing international system (for example by expanding its voting power at the World Bank).

In the struggle over discourse power, meanwhile, China has sought to expand its influence in terms of agenda setting (议题设置), academic influence (学术影响力), media influence (媒体影响力) and so on. It has pushed to build CGTN as a global television network, endeavoring to “tell China’s story well” (讲好中国故事) through documentaries and other programming on issues like the protest movement in Hong Kong, anti-terrorism efforts in Xinjiang, the fight to eradicate poverty, and the struggle against Covid-19.

When it comes to resolving the issue of “suffering criticism” and increasing China’s discourse power, says Luqiu Luwei, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not in charge of decision-making but does have a responsibility to communicate. And so MOFA and its spokespeople have actively involved themselves in “telling China’s story well” and “fighting for the right to speak” (争取发言权). She cited as examples Zhao Lijian’s sharing through Twitter in November 2020 of a cartoon satirizing Australia on its human rights record, and Hua Chunying’s simple rebuttal to a critical remark from a US State Department spokesperson on Hong Kong using the words of George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.”

Such “wolf warrior” speech, says Luqiu Luwei, is not a language style limited to the foreign ministry. All ministries in China, she says, are increasingly turning to “Party-speak” (党言党语). “Simply put, [their] speech more and more resembles the speaking style of leaders at the top,” she says.  

During a visit with overseas Chinese on an official trip to Mexico back in 2009, Xi Jinping, then a vice-president, gave a speech that departed from the rhetoric of the foreign ministry at the time. “Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do are telling us how to handle our business,” he said. “China, first of all, does not export revolution, secondly does not export hunger and poverty, and third does not torment others. So what else is there to say?” Citing this and other examples in early 2013, the official Study Times journal said Xi Jinping preferred to speak “boldly, truthfully and in the language of the masses” (大白话、大实话和群众语言).

In December 2020, after US Senator Marsha Blackburn posted that “China has a 5,000-year history of cheating and stealing,” Chen Weihua (陈卫华), the EU bureau chief for the official China Daily newspaper responded by calling Blackburn a “bitch,” setting off yet another war of words.

China Could Ultimately Emerge the Victor from Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy

Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor of political science at Cornell University, wrote in Foreign Affairs in July 2020 that while wolf warrior may appease nationalists at home, it could ultimately impact China’s image abroad. A study released three months later by the Pew Research Center showed negative perceptions of China in developed countries reaching all-time highs.

In Sweden, where relations with China have grown sour in recent years, 86 percent of people in the Pew survey reported having a negative view of China. Relations between the two countries entered a period of heightened tension in 2015 when Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai (桂敏海), a Swedish citizen, was held incommunicado in China after disappearing from his holiday home in Thailand. Gui subsequently appeared on state television in China making an apparently coerced confession, and in February last year was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Relations continued to deteriorate in 2019 after Swedish PEN honored Gui with the Tucholsky Prize – named for German writer Kurt Tucholsky, who fled Nazi Germany for Sweden in the early 1930s. China responded by threatening to sanction Swedish officials and cancel economic and trade consultations.

On January 15, 2021, Chinese Ambassador to Sweden Gui Congyou (桂从友) was summoned by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs after he remarked during an interview with the public broadcaster SVT that Sweden was like a “lightweight boxer” constantly provoking a heavyweight, and said Swedish journalists had interfered in China’s internal affairs with their negative reporting. From 2017 to 2020, Gui Congyou was in fact summoned by Sweden’s foreign ministry more than 40 times.

On one occasion, Gui Congyou stated on Swedish public radio: “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.” In April 2021, the two largest opposition parties in Sweden, the Christian Democrats and the Sweden Democrats, called for Gui Congyou’s expulsion from the country after the ambassador sent an e-mail to independent journalist Jojje Olsson accusing him of “moral corruption” and saying he would have to “face the consequences” for his critical coverage of China.

In a 2020 article dealing with China-Sweden relations, The Economist magazine referred to such continued threats as “shotgun diplomacy.” The magazine accused Chinese diplomats of “fomenting nationalism at home and playing the role of obnoxious bullies abroad.” In December 2020, the European Union’s ambassador to China, Nicolas Chapuis, openly criticized wolf warrior diplomacy, urging cooperation between the EU and the US to push back against bullying and intimidation by China. “We need to have a common understanding to say ‘no’ to bullying and intimidation, coercive diplomacy, ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy,” said Chapuis.

In rather stark contrast with the opposition to wolf warrior diplomacy found in Western political circles, the approach has won endorsement from Chinese diplomats and the Chinese public. Responding to Chapuis’ criticism last year, MOFA’s Hua Chunying said: “What’s the harm in being a wolf warrior when it comes to defending China’s sovereignty, security and development interests?”

Top MOFA officials have also expressed the view that “wolf warrior diplomacy” is a legitimate defensive strategy. Back in December, Le Yucheng (乐玉成), a vice-minister of foreign affairs, defended China’s controversial foreign policy rhetoric, saying that it was a means of solving the problem of suffering criticism from foreign countries. The label “wolf warrior,” he said, was simply a “discourse trap,” a way for the West to press China to give up resistance. “China has no choice but to stand up in defense of our national interests and dignity, as others have come to our door and meddle in our internal affairs and abuse us,” said Le. Qin Gang (秦刚), another MOFA vice-minister, said at a February press conference: “Some people call others unreasonable names without reason, and refuse to let others talk back. How dare they!”

Late last year, the Global Times newspaper released the results of a study showing that 71.2 percent of those surveyed in China believed that “wolf warrior diplomacy” is a necessary form of diplomacy. Of these, nearly a quarter said that China should take an even more hardline approach to foreign affairs.

“Wolf warrior diplomacy hasn’t damaged China in any way,” Luqiu Luwei said in an interview with Initium. Zhao Lijian’s remarks at official press conferences are not as offensive at his comments on Twitter could be, and her research accounts only for official responses as made at  press conferences. While the foreign ministry may be verbally confrontational and even offensive, she said, it stopped short of clear action, allowing itself room for compromise. A study by Jessica Chen Weiss and Allan Dafoe of the University of Oxford found that while inaction by the government after explicit threats to use force may have real public opinion costs, there is “evidence that citizens approve of bluster,” that “talking tough can provide benefits, even in the absence of tough action.”

And what about the negative impressions of China that might arise in foreign countries as a result of “wolf warrior diplomacy”? Luqiu Luwei points out that even in the absence of “wolf warrior diplomacy” Western countries would continue to criticize China. Moreover, China’s open rhetorical challenges to the West might earn the goodwill of smaller countries in the international system. “In the end, China might emerge the winner from wolf warrior diplomacy,” she says.

This article originally appeared in Chinese at Initium Media.