Inside Story

Lupine or supine?

Are China’s wolf warrior diplomats for real?

Graeme Smith Books 5 September 2021 1318 words

The template: Chinese premier Zhou Enlai at the Geneva conference on Korea and Indochina in 1954. Topical Press Agency/Alamy

China’s Civilian Army: The Inside Story of China’s Quest for Global Power
By Peter Martin | Oxford University Press | $38.99 | 272 pages

Soon after the coronavirus outbreak, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the name of Zhao Lijian took to Twitter to claim that the virus originated in the United States and had been brought to Wuhan by American participants in the World Military Games. Reproached by his superiors at the time for his “dangerous” remarks, Zhao Lijian’s “wolf warrior” views have become mainstream within the ministry and are promoted by the propaganda apparatus, even spawning a rap song, “Open the Doors to Fort Demick.”

Zhao’s (un)diplomatic style is named after the movie Wolf Warrior II, the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. It combines aggression and a saviour complex: in dialogue that could have been lifted from any militaristic Hollywood blockbuster from Rambo to Saving Private Ryan, male lead Wu Jing intones, “I’ve come to rescue you.”

Peter Martin’s impressive new history of China’s foreign service opens with a decidedly undiplomatic scene from our near north. Papua New Guinea’s unassuming foreign minister, Rimbink Pato, enjoying his nation’s time in the sun as the host of APEC, suddenly found that four Chinese delegates had forced their way into his office on a mission to influence the wording of the conference communiqué. Security, and then police, stepped in.

Just a few months earlier, Nauru’s prime minister, Baron Waqa, had labelled China’s delegate to the Pacific Island Forum, Du Qiwen, as “very insolent” for insisting on his right to speak at a ministerial-level forum. And last October, Martin recounts, a cake decorated with the Taiwanese flag at a function at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva prompted two uninvited Chinese diplomats to provoke a brawl, landing a librarian from the Taiwanese trade office in hospital.

At the heart of Martin’s book are two parallel questions. How has it come to this? And is “wolf warrior diplomacy” really something new, or do we just have a name for it now?

To probe the worldview of China’s diplomats Martin has not only interviewed them but also mined the memoirs of more than a hundred former officials, which are about as far as you can get from a Hollywood blockbuster. He credits Zhou Enlai, Mao’s most politically savvy lieutenant (his savvy demonstrated by the fact of his survival), with providing the template and embedding it in the DNA of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As one former diplomat has explained, “Zhou Enlai said the diplomatic corps is like the PLA in civilian clothing, it must have that kind of strict, iron discipline… [F]or the last few decades, we haven’t worn military uniforms, but we’ve always used this discipline to guide our work.”

Martin argues that Zhou’s military ethos has made the ministry remarkably effective in certain ways — it stays resolutely on-message about core issues such as Tibet and the South China Sea, and is very good at keeping secrets — but that its representatives have little capacity to persuade those with different views. Australia hosts one of China’s most able diplomats, the urbane deputy ambassador Wang Xining, who is sufficiently confident to appear on adversarial TV shows and at the National Press Club. So narrow is his remit, though, that he is like an accomplished ballet dancer performing with his legs tied together.

With the “two person move together” rule still enforced, meaningful contact with locals is impossible. Martin relates the story of a trainee Chinese diplomat in Vietnam in the sixties who was invited on a date. His superiors gave their assent after “earnest research,” but only as long as four other trainees joined him. As Martin notes dryly, “He didn’t get a second date.”

Martin argues that the wolf warrior instinct has long been a strand in the make-up of a ministry that took the lead in blowing up relationships with the outside world during the Cultural Revolution. Then, as now, junior diplomats were ahead of their superiors in adopting the aggressive tone that suited Chairman Mao’s taste. In London, young Chinese diplomats ignored the calls of their superiors and attacked protesters outside their embassy, taking to the streets wielding iron bars, bottles and an axe.

The unsurprising reality, though, is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, like every other agency in China, is not as monolithic as it looks to the outside world. Doubtless many within the ministry are uneasy about the wolf warrior turn: as Martin explained recently on The Little Red Podcast, you join the diplomatic corps because you “want to explain your country to the world.” These diplomats recognise the problem with “all of these negative headlines and negative perceptions” created by wolf warrior tactics. “They’re as aware as we are of the damage it’s doing.”

Xi Jinping’s assertive international stance has benefits for the ministry. With politics rather than economics in command, its position is strengthened relative to other Chinese agencies and companies that muscled them out during the two decades in which China’s foreign trade and investment exploded. Its coordination role in the Belt and Road Initiative brings it clout in interagency struggles with the Ministry of Commerce and state-owned enterprises. Yet this new influence comes with constraints — just as in the Cultural Revolution, there’s no pay-off in being the voice of moderation.

The fervour of younger diplomats steeped in a patriotic education — originally a temporary measure in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, later made permanent — may be genuine. Ambition surely plays a part, too, in displays of performative anger: for a young diplomat posted to Fiji, not a place where he’d be dominating the cable traffic, punching a librarian over a too-Taiwanese cake might seem like a sensible career choice. And much like the Red Guards storming the embassies in the 1960s, patriotic netizens are watching ministry officials for evidence of equivocation in the face of foreign foes.

Such pressure can lead to comical scenarios: patriots sending calcium tablets to the ministry’s headquarters expressing the hope officials might grow a backbone; one foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, being forced to meet his Japanese counterpart in the men’s toilets at an ASEAN forum in Malaysia because he feared meeting him in public. But the pressure is shaping the behaviour of officials. When Liu He, China’s lead negotiator in US–China trade talks, looked to strike a deal in 2019, online nationalists piled on, comparing him to Li Hongzhang, a complex and brilliant Qing dynasty official who — in the flattened world of Han nationalists — is largely known as the man who gave Taiwan to Japan.

How much pressure domestic nationalism brings to bear on China’s diplomacy will be fascinating to watch. In 1999, I walked alongside Chinese students bussed in to vent their real but choreographed outrage about the US attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The regime was terrified about violence spiralling out of hand — as it did after Japan beat China in the 2004 Asian Cup Final.

In conversation with Martin, Jessica Chen Weiss, author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations, recently argued that this overheated patriotism could become a dangerous influence on foreign affairs officials if a real crisis blows up. “Over time, when they’re looking out at what’s the strategic vision, there is room to dial it down [or] to dial it up, but in a particular instance, in which some foreign actor or government has crossed some line, they would face very intense pressure.” Perhaps those officials will need calcium tablets to stand up to their own citizens.

As Martin concludes, pressure from home means Chinese diplomats “spend more of their time looking over their shoulders than out into the world.” To understand why this is so — a question that is central to the future of our region — get the book. It’s a brilliant read. •