In 2015, Wu Jing—a Chinese martial artist, film star and director—produced Wolf Warrior about an elite Special Forces unit. Simply put, the film was Rambo with Chinese characteristics. In the spectacularly successful Wolf Warrior II, made in 2017, the storyline moved abroad to Africa. Playing on the theme of aggressive Chinese nationalism, it became the highest grossing film in China and has been the highest grossing non-English film worldwide.
In 2020, the ‘Wolf Warrior’ has been reborn as the new kind of a Chinese diplomat, patriotic, aggressive and ready to go head to head with anyone to defend the country.
- In 2020, the ‘Wolf Warrior’ has been reborn as the new kind of a Chinese diplomat, patriotic and aggressive.
- The earlier breed of Chinese diplomats were usually known for their conservative low profile approach.
- The designation of the virus as “China virus” or “Wuhan virus” triggered a tweet storm from the Chinese diplomats.
- In the last three years, as the US and China crossed each other in the trade war, the tone of Beijing’s diplomacy began to change, in considerable measure because of the BRI.
- ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy is as much about messaging at home as abroad.
Rise of the Chinese ‘Wolf Warrior’ Diplomat
The earlier breed of Chinese diplomats were usually known for their conservative low profile approach, in keeping with Deng Xiaoping’s 24 character strategy of hiding the country’s abilities and biding its time.
The increasing tensions between the US and China has, according to the Global Times, forced China into using a ‘Wolf Warrior’ style diplomacy—pushed by a new breed of Chinese diplomats who are “increasingly more strident and combative.” It marks, says the Communist Party of China(CPC) owned newspaper, the end of an age “when China can be put in a submissive position.”
Even so, the Global Times claims that their actions and statements, often using platforms like Twitter which are not available in China, as a defensive and restrained response to the West’s effort “in smearing China’s virus fight and its cooperation with other countries and world organisations.”
‘Wuhan Virus’ and the Awakening of the ‘Wolf’
Not surprisingly, the designation of the virus as “China virus” or “Wuhan virus” triggered a tweet storm from the Chinese diplomats. Not all the tweets were in the category of promoting conspiracies about the American origins of the virus.
Among the ‘Wolf Warriors’ who sprang into the breach in mid-March was the spokesman of the foreign ministry Zhao Lijian who in early March, infamously accused the United States military of introducing the coronavirus infection in Wuhan. He continued the ‘fight’ for weeks.
In the fourth week of March, the Chinese Embassy to France posted a series of tweets claiming that the US had covered up a coronavirus outbreak in 2019 as flu cases. In another post, it attacked France for letting older people die in retirement homes.
BRI and More: Trade Sets the Tone of Diplomacy
The coronavirus pandemic provides a perfect template for the ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomat. The bungled initial handling of the outbreak by China and the increasingly strident criticism coming from the US, required an aggressive response from China to repair its image globally.
One part of the campaign has featured aggressive posturing, while the other a new Health Silk Road diplomacy that has seen test kits, masks, ventilators and other medical supplies provided to over 100 countries around the world. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) targets like Italy, Serbia, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, and some Asian countries also received contingents of medical experts to help.
In many ways, the ‘Wolf Warrior’ syndrome only the attenuation of a trend that has been visible for a while.
In the last three years, as the US and China crossed each other in the trade war, the tone of Beijing’s diplomacy began to change, in considerable measure because of the BRI.
The European Union leadership has been wary of China wooing the Central and East European nations through the 17+1 grouping. It is not an accident that Chinese aid has gone to Italy which was the first major EU country to support the BRI, or Serbia which attacked the EU for banning the export of medical equipment and hailed Chinese supplies that it got subsequently.
Twitter is the Battlefield of China’s Wolf Warriors
An interesting feature of the ‘Wolf Warrior’ is the aggressive use of platforms like Twitter which are not available in China. According to the South China Morning Post, Chinese state-run media outlets have “at least 115 identifiable Twitter accounts belonging to diplomats, embassies and consulates.” The phenomenon is fairly recent with many of the accounts being opened just last year. To an extent, the Chinese may be influenced by how Trump successfully uses Twitter to evade responsibility and purvey falsehood.
In a tweet tackling the issue of the delay in informing the world of the Covid outbreak, chief spokeswoman Hua said “China has been updating the US on the cornonavirus and its response since Jan 3. And now blame China for delay? Seriously?”
In another Tweet, Ambassador Xu Hong in the Netherlands, accused Trump of racism in ignoring “the great effort and sacrifice made by the Chinese people!”
Earlier this month, the Twitter account of the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka was suspended for a while for violating Twitter rules. The embassy had got into a bitter exchange of words with Twitter users after being accused of negligence in the spread of coronavirus.
For China, Coronavirus is Not the Only Issue
The coronavirus is not the only issue that has led to the emergence of the Wolf Warrior. The US China trade war, the issue of detention camps in Xinjiang and, above all, the Hong Kong disturbances have put Beijing on the backfoot. The strong support that the Hong Kong protestors got from the West led to a strong push-back from Chinese diplomats. Chinese diplomats used speech platforms, press briefings and opeds in newspapers to put across the Chinese point of view which was essentially that the local government was handling things to the best of its abilities and foreign interference was complicating things. The Chinese ambassador to India Sun Weidong used the Indian media on several occasions to convey China’s official position on the Hong Kong protests.
The tone of this new Chinese diplomacy was set last year by Hua Chunying, who at the time of her promotion as the Chief Spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, called for Chinese diplomats to be more assertive, especially in the face of adversity. In a front page article of Study Times, the flagship of the CPC’s Central Party School, she called on Chinese diplomats for more effectively and aggressively telling the China story, to get the message across to the world.
China’s Diplomacy Also Has Home Audience
‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy is as much about messaging at home as abroad. China has a limited number of Twitter users, but the message being put out aligns itself with the domestic narrative that Beijing will not bow to international bullying. Some of it, of course, is about promoting the careers of the younger Chinese diplomats, but some of it is the old tactic of using offensive tactics to defend the indefensible.
Given the devastation caused by the coronavirus people are unlikely to be carried away by tales of Chinese generosity. Even if they do not blame the Chinese people as such, they are not unaware that the virus did originate in China and that there are questions about the initially bungled response of the authorities.
By targeting the outsider or someone else for your troubles, the ‘Wolf Warrior’ approach, whether by the Chinese or others, is likely to promote xenophobia and nationalism. Across the world it has been seen in discrimination against Africans in China, Muslims in India, and in attacks on Asian Americans, mainly Chinese in the United States.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)