In early June, Chinese leader Xi Jinping created a sensation when he urged officials to create a more “lovable” (可愛的) China. As reported by state news agency Xinhua, the country must “make friends extensively, unite the majority, and continuously expand its circle of friends with those who understand and are friendly to China.” Since Chinese diplomacy in recent years has been decidedly undiplomatic, foreign media speculated that this heralded a change in policy. Could this mean the end of “wolf warrior” diplomacy?
The term “wolf warrior,” derived from two jingoistic films, “Wolf Warrior” and “Wolf Warrior Two,” in which Chinese special forces operatives fight on behalf of the world’s downtrodden, was a huge hit in China, though not elsewhere. While the films broke box office in China, foreign critics were not so kind, with one review opining that Wolf Warrior Two’s “sheer moral ineptitude combined with its throwback B-movie tone makes it one of the most unintentionally hilarious films of the year.”
Admirable though belligerent behavior by soldiers on a mission to help oppressed humanity may be, they had not won China many friends when practiced by the country’s diplomats. Although there are many previous instances of Chinese diplomats being rude, the opening salvo in the current era occurred in June 2010 when then-foreign minister and now State Councillor Yang Jiechi angrily informed ASEAN that “China is a big country and you are small countries and that is a fact.”
A succession of other incidents followed in language that more resembled the trash talk of wrestling matches than traditional diplomatic discourse. No region of the world was spared.
When a Canadian reporter asked her country’s foreign minister about China’s detention of Canadian citizens, Wang Yi, Yang Jiechi’s successor as Chinese foreign minister, broke in with what the New York Times called “a withering lecture delivered with operatic dudgeon in which he called the journalist arrogant and prejudiced.”
Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Brazil’s president and himself a congressman, was excoriated for referring to Chinese espionage.
After the Australian government asked for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Hu Xijin, editor of Beijing’s Global Times, commented that “Australia … is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub if off.”
In Sweden, internationally regarded as a neutral observer of world affairs whose citizens are slow to anger, Ambassador Gui Congyou became the poster child for wolf warriorism. He and his staff so regularly disparaged the country’s media and public officials that he was summoned by the Swedish foreign ministry more than 40 times in two years. In an expression that quickly became as infamous as Yang Jiechi’s China-is-big-you-are-small phrase, Gui stated, “We [China] treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.” Questioned later about the comment, Gui remarked that, despite his talk of shotguns, Sweden is “not important enough to threaten.”
After the Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing group comprising Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, criticized the arrest of Hong Kong democracy advocates, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official warned that “whether they have five or 10 eyes, they should be careful about having their eyes poked out” and characterized the grouping as a coalition of white Anglo-Saxon supremacists.
Warnings that wolf warrior tactics were backfiring into the formation of a coalition hostile to China seemed to provoke them into escalating.
In March, Li Yang, China’s consul general in Rio de Janeiro, referred to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “boy” whose “greatest achievement is to have ruined the friendly relations between China and Canada, and have turned Canada into a running dog of the US.”
The Chinese embassy in France responded to complaints by saying, “If there is a Wolf Warrior diplomacy, it is because there are too many ‘mad dogs.’ Some people want China’s diplomacy to be ‘lamb diplomacy,’ which is more tolerant and calm toward external attacks. This era has gone forever.”
In April, Australia was back in the news with General Jin Yinan saying that the country was neither strong nor powerful; “we don’t need to take it seriously,” adding that “white supremacy” was a key motivator in its actions.
In May, a cartoon tweeted by the Chinese embassy in Japan showing the grim reaper with the Israeli flag on his scythe caused a furor. After protests by the Israeli embassy, the tweet was removed, but the embassy issued no apology.
Hopes that Xi Jinping’s admonition to make China more lovable were not accompanied by a softening of rhetoric. On the contrary, France’s outspoken ambassador Lu Shaye described himself as wearing the epithet proudly and vowed to stand firm against “mad dogs” that attack China.
Nor was there a suspension of belligerent activity. China has stepped up its incursions into Southeast Asia, causing protests in Malaysia in June as the country’s air force scrambled jets to intercept Chinese aircraft entering its national airspace. The Philippines has complained about the presence of Chinese coast guard ships in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, with China responding that the area is within the 9-dash line it claims in the South China Sea—a claim that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague has ruled invalid. This so infuriated Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro (Teddy) Locsin Jr. that he sent a tweet calling China an “ugly oaf” and telling it to “get the f—k out.” Admonished by his president for using language that only the president himself could use, Locsin later apologized for this choice of words, although not the substance of his comments. According to the Japanese defense ministry, as of the beginning of June, Chinese coast guard vessels were seen in Japanese contiguous zones for a record 112 days so far this year. In mid-June, 28 Chinese air force planes entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone exceeding the previous record of 25 only two months before. Separately, Chinese ground troops and the navy held a series of exercises featuring vehicle and amphibious landing ships.
Beijing has responded to any criticism with shrill rhetoric—assertions that China is being “bullied” by other states, and that it will defend to the end its principled claims—accompanied by increased military pressure and economic coercion. These are occasionally leavened by admonitions to the need to find ways to get along that are not accompanied by any conciliatory words or deeds that might provide grounds for diluting what has become a toxic mix.
At least up to the present, wolf warriors seem to be succeeding. The tough rhetoric is popular domestically and the countries that should be forming a coalition to counter Chinese aggression have so far proved themselves unable to do so. Some nascent efforts can be seen: the Blue Dot Network of Australia, Japan, and the United States aims to provide an alternative to China’s transnational infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); the European Parliament has suspended the ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement of Investment (CAI) that had seemed all but assured; and the World Bank has declined to award the contract for a trans-Pacific cable to a Chinese company—but these steps may be too little and too late.
Parsing Xi Jinping’s words more carefully, the image of a more “lovable” China he held forth did not involve acts of kindness but was actually an admonition to his public relations, aka propaganda apparatus, to “tell China’s story better.” In other words, there should be more stories of Tibetans singing and dancing in order to counter foreign accounts of Tibetan Buddhists self-immolating to protest religious oppression; photographs of rosy-cheeked Uyghur maidens reaping bountiful harvests rather than Western videotapes of gaunt residents who live in high-walled prison compounds; and Hong Kong residents praising the stability the Chinese Communist Party has brought to their city rather than videos of the police beating pro-democracy dissidents and a leading newspaper editor being led away in handcuffs. Which set of images will prevail? Thus far, the momentum would seem to be with China.
June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of political science at the University of Miami, a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a faculty adviser to the Rumsfeld Foundation, and a former commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Dr. Dreyer has authored several books on China’s ethnic minorities, China’s political system, China-Taiwan relations, and Sino-Japanese relations.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.