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How wolf warrior diplomats have become symbols of the threat posed by a rising China

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  • How wolf warrior diplomats have become symbols of the threat posed by a rising China

    Excerpt from “China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” by Peter Martin, a political reporter for Bloomberg News. Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press.

    It was late afternoon when Rimbink Pato, Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister, heard a loud commotion outside his door. Seconds later, four young Chinese diplomats burst uninvited into his office, demanding last-minute changes to the communiqué of the APEC summit, the Pacific’s most important economic and political forum.

    For Papua New Guinea to have even hosted a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, whose members represent around 60 percent of the world’s GDP, was a feat in itself. The sprawling archipelagic nation in the middle of the South Pacific has a population of just 8.6 million people and is among the poorest on earth. With 850 languages and more than 600 islands, it was difficult to govern at the best of times. The capital Port Moresby had a reputation for violence, prompting the country’s southern neighbour and former colonial overlord Australia to provide security for the event by stationing a warship in the harbour.

    China had been meticulously building its influence in the resource-rich nation for years, ramping up investment and building infrastructure. Chinese loans had funded hospitals, schools, and hydropower stations across the country. By the time the summit took place in November 2018, the nation owed a quarter of its external debt to Beijing. Further afield, China was promising more than $100 billion to finance infrastructure projects across the Pacific and Eurasia under its Belt and Road Initiative.

    It looked like the event would be an easy win for Xi Jinping, the president of China and head of the ruling Communist Party. President Donald Trump skipped the meeting, sending Mike Pence, the vice president, instead. Pence spent little time on the ground, instead stationing himself in nearby Cairns because of concerns about violence.

    Xi was the first foreign leader to land in Port Moresby. Ahead of his arrival, local newspapers carried an op-ed in his name, which hailed the “rapid growth” in ties as the “epitome of China’s overall relations with Pacific island countries.”

    Xi made a grand entrance. His motorcade, which included two Hongqi (“red flag”) limousines air-lifted from China, sped from the airport to the hotel along a Chinese-funded highway past the fluttering flags of both countries. Xi drove past crowds of cheering high school students and billboards of himself shaking hands with the country’s president. His hotel was decorated with red lanterns and an elaborate Chinese gate.

    At the summit, Xi delivered his standard speech on the importance of open markets and globalization. He’d used public appearances since Trump’s surprise election victory in November 2016 to contrast China’s approach to the “America first” protectionism espoused by his American counterpart, and APEC was no exception. The audience of global executives and political elites applauded when he told them, without naming names, that implementing tariffs and breaking up supply chains was “short-sighted” and “doomed to failure.”

    This public display was largely under China’s control. The ongoing behind-the-scenes wrangling over the summit’s communiqué, however, was not. In a last-minute push to influence wording about “unfair trade practices” that they believed targeted Beijing, Chinese diplomats took matters into their own hands by requesting a sit-down with Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister. He refused, arguing that bilateral negotiations with an individual delegation might jeopardise the country’s neutrality as host. The Chinese tried again but were once more rebuffed.

    Undeterred, four Chinese diplomats decided to push their way into the foreign minister’s office, calling out that they just needed two minutes of his time. Security guards then asked the Chinese officials to leave and police were later posted outside the door. Publicly, Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister sought to downplay the incident, telling reporters it was “not an issue.” Privately, the country’s officials described China’s behaviour throughout the negotiations as “bullying.” China’s foreign ministry denied that the incident ever occurred, calling it “a rumour spread by some people with a hidden agenda.”

    As reporters waited for the outcome of the summit, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau eventually confirmed that negotiations over the communiqué had collapsed. “There are differing visions on particular elements,” he said with understatement. For the first time since leaders began attending the annual summit in 1993, no statement was issued.

    The APEC summit should have been an opportunity for China to boost its reputation. Trump had spent the two years leading up to the Port Moresby meeting undoing much of the goodwill America had developed in the region. Within days of his January 2017 inauguration, he had withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal that aimed to help America compete with China’s engagement in Asia. He’d gone on to launch a trade war with China, forcing Pacific nations to choose between two powers they could not afford to offend.
    Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aupito Sio, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, Brigadier General, Francis Agwi, of Papua New Guinea and Minister for Trade and Export Growth, Damien O'Connor, pose for a group photo with APEC economy representatives during a welcoming powhiri for APEC 2021 on December 01, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

    The president had also personally insulted America’s partners across the region, hanging up halfway through a February 2017 phone call with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and branding Canada’s Trudeau “very dishonest” and “weak.” But instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, China emerged from APEC looking ever-more like a bully. Its diplomats – the very people who should have been most concerned about their country’s reputation – only seemed to be making matters worse.

    The APEC debacle was just one of a series of setbacks for Chinese diplomacy in the months before and after the summit. Two months earlier, at the Pacific Islands Forum in the Micronesian microstate of Nauru, China’s envoy had walked out of a meeting when the host refused to let him speak ahead of another nation’s prime minister. The president of Nauru described the Chinese diplomat as “very insolent” and a “bully.”

    In the months after the Papua New Guinea incident, China’s ambassador to Canada publicly accused his hosts of “white supremacy.” China’s chief emissary in South Africa declared that Donald Trump’s policies were making the United States the “enemy of the whole world.”
    Soldiers at The Great Hall Of The People on September 30, 2020 in Beijing, China. On October 1 last year, China celebrated 71 years since the establishment of the People's Republic by Mao Zedong.
    While these aggressive displays won plaudits at home, they compromised China’s efforts to cast itself as a peaceful power. The foreign media began to brand this new confrontational approach “wolf warrior diplomacy” after a series of Chinese action movies that depicted Rambo-like heroes battling China’s enemies at home and abroad. The second in the series, Wolf Warrior 2, told the story of a group of People’s Liberation Army soldiers sent to rescue stranded Chinese civilians in a war-torn African nation.

    The 2017 movie was a huge success for China’s film industry, making more than US$854 million at the box office. Its tagline read, “Even though a thousand miles away, anyone who affronts China will pay.” The moniker captured the intimidating and sometimes bewildering nature of Chinese diplomacy as seen by the outside world, and it stuck.

    The behaviour of Chinese diplomats grew even more combative as Covid-19 spread around the world in early 2020. Beijing’s envoys hit back hard at suggestions China was to blame for the spread of the virus. Some did so on Twitter: “You speak in such a way that you look like part of the virus and you will be eradicated just like virus. Shame on you,” Zha Liyou, China’s consul-general in Kolkata, India, tweeted at one user who criticised China.
    China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.

    Most provocatively of all, Zhao Lijian, a recently appointed foreign ministry spokesman, suggested that the virus might have been spread deliberately by the US Army, prompting fury in Donald Trump’s Oval Office and worldwide alarm about Beijing’s role in spreading disinformation. The outbursts continued after the election of Joe Biden to the US presidency.

    In November 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology for a “repugnant” tweet by Zhao, who’d posted an illustration of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. In January 2021, the Chinese Embassy in Washington lost access to its Twitter account, after the company said a post about Xinjiang, which claimed that efforts to “eradicate extremism” in the province meant women there were no longer “baby-making machines,” violated its policies.

    The behaviour of Chinese diplomats helped fuel a global backlash against Beijing. Reinhard Buetikofer, a German lawmaker who chairs the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, said the foreign ministry’s “extremely aggressive” behaviour combined with the Communist Party’s “hard line propaganda” had helped turn European opinion against the Asian nation. Its conduct, he said, spoke to the “pervasiveness of an attitude that does not purvey the will to create partnerships, but the will to tell people what to do.” A global poll released in June 2021 showed that negative perceptions of China were near historic highs in nearly every one of the 17 advanced economies surveyed.

    These setbacks matter. As global politics is increasingly defined by Sino-American rivalry, the ability to compete diplomatically will help shape the history of the twenty-first century. Taken together with economic, military, technological, and ideological prowess, diplomacy is a key part of what makes any power great. American strategists have long defined it as a core element of any nation’s power: diplomatic, informational, military, and economic capabilities are often reduced to the acronym “DIME.”
    Performers dance in front of a screen showing the Tiananmen Gate and the portrait of the late Chairman Mao Zedong during a mass gala marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party on June 28, 2021 in Beijing, China.

    Chinese diplomats play an outsized role representing the country. The Communist Party’s top leaders speak to the world through a blend of empty-sounding platitudes about “win-win” cooperation or Marxist slogans that fall flat with foreign audiences, while China’s civil society is too tightly constrained to present its own alternative.

    NGOs are closely regulated, while the country’s media and cultural industries are heavily censored, and its business leaders studiously avoid politics. While the foreign ministry is widely seen as a weak bureaucratic player at home, on many crucial global issues, its diplomats are the face of the Chinese state to the world.

    China knows diplomacy is important and it’s spending big to compete. Between 2012 and 2017, Beijing nearly doubled its spending on diplomacy to $7.8 billion, even as the United States slashed funding for the State Department. In 2019, its diplomatic network overtook that of the United States, with 276 embassies and consulates around the world. Just two years earlier it had ranked third behind America and France.

    Still, instead of winning friends, its “wolf warrior” diplomats have become symbols of the threat posed by a rising China.To understand what’s going wrong, we need to step into the shoes of the country’s diplomats. Chinese envoys are behaving so undiplomatically because they are unable to extricate themselves from the constraints of a secretive, paranoid political system.


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    While their actions can sometimes seem aggressive – even bizarre – from the outside, they make perfect sense when seen from a domestic perspective. Understanding why involves looking at how China’s political system has shaped the behaviour of its diplomats since the earliest days of the People’s Republic.
    A portrait of the late Chairman Mao Zedong sits above Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, China.

    In 1949, Mao Zedong established Communist China after decades of bitter political struggle with Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) rivals. The Communists had spent much of this time living secretive, underground lives in fear of capture and persecution. After being nearly obliterated in 1934, they were forced into a humiliating retreat across China’s remote heartlands before rebuilding their revolutionary movement and eventually seizing on Japan’s 1937 invasion to stage a comeback.

    Despite the Communist Party’s eventual victory in 1949, the new regime feared that its rule could be undermined by class enemies at home. What’s more, it faced the threat of invasion by the Kuomintang, which had established a new capital on the island of Taiwan, and an increasingly hostile, anti-communist United States.

    Still, Mao’s new regime badly needed to build bridges with the outside world. Establishing ties with capitalist nations would strengthen its claim to be the sole legitimate government of China, a status contested by the Kuomintang on Taiwan. Strong diplomatic ties with the communist world could bring military protection for the new regime, as well as access to the crucial foreign technologies and expertise needed to modernize the country. Communist China’s approach to diplomacy was forged by this imperative to establish relationships around the world while jealously guarding the Party’s hard-won victory.

    The man charged with squaring this circle was Zhou Enlai, one of the Communist Party’s most experienced revolutionaries and the founding father of modern Chinese diplomacy. The task was especially daunting given that the new government had no diplomats to speak of. Acting on Mao’s instructions, Zhou cast aside any Kuomintang diplomats who had opted to remain on mainland China, and instead set about creating a diplomatic corps from scratch. Other than a small group of Party officials who had experience dealing with foreigners, the bulk of Zhou’s diplomatic corps would be made up of fresh graduates, ex-soldiers, and hardened peasant revolutionaries. Most spoke no foreign languages and some had never even met a foreigner.
    Zhou Enlai (1898 - 1976), Premier of the People's Republic of China, 1974. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    Zhou’s task was doubly daunting because, in the eyes of the Chinese public, diplomacy had often been associated with weakness and capitulation to foreign powers. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese envoys had represented the crumbling Qing Dynasty by signing agreements that gave foreign powers preferential access to the Chinese market, extra-legal privileges on Chinese soil, and even control over portions of the country’s territory such as Hong Kong.

    The imperial capital of Beijing itself had been sacked on more than one occasion. The Communists came to power promising to end bullying at the hands of foreign imperialists and declaring that China had “stood up.” In order to distance the new regime from this humiliating legacy, the diplomacy of the People’s Republic would need to win the respect of other nations while never allowing its own diplomats to show weakness.

    Zhou’s solution was to model Chinese diplomacy on the military force that had propelled the Communists to power: the People’s Liberation Army. He told the new recruits to think and act like “the People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing.”

    They would be combative when needed and disciplined to a fault. They would instinctively observe hierarchy and report to their superiors on everything they did. When necessary, they would report on each other. Most important, the idea of working as a “civilian army” underscored the fact that the first loyalty of Chinese diplomats would always be to the Communist Party. As every good Communist knew, when Chairman Mao declared that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” he had added that “the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.”

    Participants wearing Red Army uniforms while spirit experience in Long March Spirit Experience Park on June 26, 2021 in Yingshan, Hubei, China.
    The idea of a “civilian army” proved a potent and lasting metaphor for Chinese diplomacy. It provided Zhou’s ragtag group with a way to feel proud of what they were doing and some sense of how to do it. A little like the “mission statement” pinned to the wall of a tech startup, it gave them a way to scale their organisation quickly while conveniently ignoring the fact that they didn’t really know what they were doing.

    “They applied the same discipline to the foreign ministry that they applied to the military,” explained Gao Zhikai, a former foreign ministry interpreter. “The discipline applied to the organisation and also to every individual. The pressure is huge: everyone is watching everyone else to make sure no one is fooling around.”

    Using this rubric, the Communists found a way to communicate with the outside world while minimising the risks of doing so. Zhou encouraged a style among his diplomats that one cadre aptly described as “controlled openness.” Chinese diplomats were expected to adhere to a rule that forbade them from meeting alone with foreign counterparts. Instead, they worked in pairs to ensure that if anyone deviated too far from the Party line, or shared sensitive information, the person next to them was there to report it.

    Diplomats were instructed to ask permission before they acted, even on the most trivial matters, and to always report what they said, did, and heard to their superiors. They were banned from dating or marrying foreigners. They were told to stick rigidly to pre-approved talking points, even when they knew these often failed to resonate with foreign audiences.

    Born of necessity more than seventy years ago, these rules and practices are still in place today. Zhou’s approach has survived and evolved through revolution, famine, capitalist reforms, and the rise of China as a global power. “We’re very different to other ministries,” one diplomat said. “We’re unusual in that we’ve had a strong culture that’s lasted since 1949.”
    In the realm of spirit, seek clarity; in the material world, seek utility.


  • #2
    Originally posted by Hudson_Institute

    Understanding Wolf Warrior Diplomacy with Peter Martin

    Hudson Institute
    29 November 2021

    In recent years, Chinese diplomats have adopted an increasingly aggressive posture toward the United States and its democratic partners, known as “wolf warrior diplomacy.” However, as Bloomberg journalist and China expert Peter Martin discusses in his new book, “China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” neither this style of diplomacy nor the strategic considerations behind it are new to China’s approach to foreign policy. Join Senior Fellow Nury Turkel for a discussion with Peter Martin on the motivations behind China’s escalation of aggressive diplomatic tactics and its implications for U.S.-China relations.