Wolf Warrior Diplomats and the Need for a More Perfect Union

Chris Park

China is on the rise. So is its pride in itself, its culture, and its form of government. Nowhere is this more evident than China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy,” or zhanlang waijiao, the  new diplomatic practice adopted by Chinese diplomats after President Xi Jinping took office.

It takes its name from the successful 2017 Chinese action movie Wolf Warrior 2 where the lead character, played by popular martial arts actor Wu Jing, takes down an American mercenary, Big Daddy. The movie is filled with waves of nationalism and is reflective of Xi’s governing ethos of the “Chinese Dream” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

For much of the post-Mao era, Chinese foreign policy had been guided by the principle of taoguang yanghui, famously articulated by Deng Xiaoping. Sinologists have offered different interpretations of the maxim. Some suggested that Deng thoughtChina should hide its powers and bide its time until China was ready to rise. Others, like Chas Freeman, more convincingly have argued that the phrase better translates to avoiding the limelight and cultivating obscurity without more sinister-sounding notions of “biding time.” [1]

In this tradition, China carried out a measured foreign policy under Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, seeking to settle border disputes with its neighbors while avoiding diplomatic and military clashes with other countries. China also did not forcibly respond or retaliate to the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, despite viewing the attack as a deliberate action of American military aggression. Instead, Chinese diplomatic activities stayed behind the scenes and steered clear of controversy. [2]

The new brand of aggressive diplomacy under Xi — largely carried out by ambitious and young diplomats — marks a clear break from the Dengist tao guang yang hui. The most notable and public aspect of wolf warrior diplomacy is the heightened and confrontational rhetoric by diplomats who aggressively refute foreign criticism of China, the Chinese Communist Party, and its policies.

Still, Chinese diplomatic jargon today is filled with sentiments professing “win-win cooperation” and “new type of great power relations” that avoid conflict with the United States. [3] However, it is difficult to accept such amicable language to be genuine. Instead, the wolf warrior diplomats embody the true ambitions of China as it prepares to challenge the United States not only economically or militarily but also ideologically and remake the world in its image.

Diplomats channel this tactic on social media where they have a huge following and are rewarded for their inflammatory rhetoric. Zhao Lijian, for example, received widespread criticism for referring to then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice to be “black in & white out” in a tweet. He was soon promoted thereafter to be a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now has a dedicated podium to further perpetuate sharp rhetoric that criticizes the West and highlights China’s superiority. [4] 

The “wolf warriors” have recently been at the forefront of defending the Chinese Communist Party from American criticisms about its actions in Hong Kong. Such aggressive defense was especially visible during the 2019-20 protests as Chinese boldness under Xi’s leadership dramatically increased since earlier in his term in 2014 when the previous large-scale pro-democracy protests occurred. High-profile practitioners of zhanlang waijiao were also placed in prominent government roles by 2019.

The United States vigorously criticized reports of police brutality against protesters marching against laws that would erode the democratic norms and rights enjoyed by the special administrative area’s citizens. The Trump administration also levied sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials it deemed to be involved in the anti-democratic laws, a move broadly supported by Congressional leaders of both parties. [5] 

Chinese diplomats, in response, have worked to highlight the contradictions and deficiencies of the American democracy.

As the United States experienced a racial awakening through the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the summer of 2020, Chinese diplomats eagerly seized on images of police brutality, burning cities, and looting. They described the scenes using the same words used by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi describing the Hong Kong protests as a “sight to behold.” Chinese diplomats also goaded the United States over its national struggle with racial discrimination. [6] Hua Chunying, for example, responded to her U.S. counterpart’s criticism of Beijing’s actions against Hong Kong with “I can’t breathe,” George Floyd’s famous last words that became a rallying cry for American protesters rallying behind police reform and racial justice. [7] 

Beijing, at the same time as the BLM protests, was pushing forward a National Security Law that was widely considered to violate the principle of “one country two systems.” The Trump administration naturally pushed back against the law. Its denunciations of China that touted the greatness of democracies, however, rang a bitter and somewhat hollow note as the United States, the leading nation of the free world, faced tremendous domestic challenges.

The recent violent attack on the Capitol is exactly what the Chinese Communist Party will use to criticize democracy and prop up its authoritarian policies in Hong Kong. Sino-American relations is not merely confined to economic and military competition, but it clearly is also an ideological one.

If the United States seeks to maintain its influence on the international community and convince the world that the democratic experiment is a cause worth fighting for, it needs to be a better example of what democracy can look like. It must make necessary reforms to the democratic system to ensure its viability. It needs to return to the Constitution. And it can never cease in its quest to become a more perfect union.

[1] Freeman, Chas. “China’s National Experiences and the Evolution of PRC Grand Strategy.” in China and the World. ed. David Shambaugh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[2] Ibid, pg. 51.

[3] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Remarks on Yang Jiechi’s Meeting with US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. June 18, 2020. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2535_665405/t1789798.shtml.

[4] Churchill, Owen. “Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian, known for his Twitter outbursts, is given senior foreign ministry post.” South China Morning Post. August 24, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3024180/chinese-diplomat-zhao-lijian-known-his-twitter-outbursts-given.

[5] U.S. President. Executive Order. “The President’s Executive Order on Hong Kong Normalization, Executive Order 13936 of July 14, 2020.” Federal Register 85, no. 138 (July 17, 2020): 43413, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-07-17/pdf/2020-15646.pdf

[6] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference on June 1, 2020.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. June 1, 2020. https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/t1784867.shtml.

[7] Hua, Chunying. Twitter post. May 30, 2020. 10:43 p.m. (UTC +8). https://twitter.com/SpokespersonCHN.

Image: https://www.rappler.com/world/us-canada/united-states-china-spar-harsh-public-rebukes-first-biden-presidency