China’s zealous ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy highlights both Beijing’s power and insecurity

China’s abrasive, entitled ‘Wolf Warriors’ are doing a better job than any American diplomat of arousing anti-Chinese feelings around the world 

This new generation of diplomats want China to shine, but as they try to please their boss, they would do well not to add to the country’s external uncertainties

During the Second World War, Winston Churchill wanted the British ambassador to Spain – the somewhat unfortunately named Samuel Hoare – to press General Franco to release British pilots who had been shot down but escaped across France to Spain and were detained there. The ambassador protested that to do so would ruin his relations with Franco. “Stuff your relations with Franco,” Churchill is reported as having replied. “What do you think they are for!”

In everyday conversation, to be ‘diplomatic’ means to be tactful, sensitive or agreeable. But only the most superficial of diplomats thinks that this is the be-all and end-all of diplomacy.

Experienced diplomats know that diplomacy is about advancing or defending a country’s national interests – preferably by being tactful, sensitive or agreeable, but if necessary, by whatever appropriate means. In this respect, there is nothing particularly unusual about 
China
’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomats – named for their emulation of a Rambo-like Chinese movie character.

Still, some anonymous wit has wisely described a diplomat as someone who never unintentionally insults another person. Diplomats must be tough, even rude if need be. Assuming that these lupin envoys are not all drunk or babbling in their sleep but acting intentionally, what they are up to? What Chinese national interest do they think they are pursuing and how effectively? Are they defending China or harming China?

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the closing session of China's National People's Congress in Beijing in May. Photo: AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the closing session of China's National People's Congress in Beijing in May. Photo: AP
The sense of entitlement embedded in the strongly nationalist narrative of humiliation, redemption and rejuvenation under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – and specifically that of President 
Xi Jinping
 – by which the CCP justifies its right to rule, invests an abrasive tone of superiority to their efforts. China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ are doing a better job than any American diplomat of arousing anti-Chinese feelings around the world.

It is tempting, but, alas, not very credible, to think of them as CIA sleeper agents, now awoken to do Donald Trump’s bidding. Still, even Fu Ying, a former Vice-Foreign Minister and no slouch when it comes to being tough, was sufficiently concerned about the effect these doughty warriors were having to use a People’s Daily commentary to warn: “A country’s power in international discourse relates not just to its right to speak up on the global stage, but more to the effectiveness and influence of the discourse.”

Whether you agree with her or not, it is usually worth paying some attention to what Fu Ying says. I hope her former colleagues are doing so. She and some other experienced Chinese diplomats have hinted that China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ are speaking more to a domestic than international audience.

All diplomats know that they have, from time to time, to exercise their craft at home as well as abroad. But China’s diplomats are doing so far more publicly, insistently, aggressively, and counterproductively than is usual. There are several reasons for this.

One reason is simply generational. Many of these ‘Wolf Warriors’ have known no other reality than a rising China, and are frustrated with policies based on Deng Xiaoping’s sage advice to bide your time and hide your light.

Anyone who has spent any time with younger Chinese diplomats would have heard stories of how they have been criticised by the public for being ‘soft’. This is not only a talking point that they use to justify their actions. A new generation of Chinese diplomats believe that their time is now, and want China’s light to shine brightly, even dazzlingly.

This is entirely understandable. No one joins their country’s diplomatic service if they are not patriotic to some degree. But that is not all of the story.

Former Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying expressed her concern about the effect that ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomats were having on China’s diplomacy. Photo: AFP
Former Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying expressed her concern about the effect that ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomats were having on China’s diplomacy. Photo: AFP

Many years ago, it fell to me to host a dinner for a Chinese Foreign Ministry senior official and his delegation who were visiting Singapore for ‘consultations’. He was an interesting fellow and it was no hardship to entertain him. I liked him and considered him a colleague insofar as any foreign diplomat can be a colleague.

But I knew that he was not really visiting to ‘consult’ but rather to ask us not to discuss the 
South China Sea
 (SCS) at a forthcoming 
Asean
 meeting. And he knew that I knew. It had become a ritual request before every Asean meeting. And I knew that he knew that the ritual answer would be that such an important issue had to be discussed.

It was a pleasant dinner. Through the first few courses, my Chinese colleague and I drank together and talked about everything except the SCS. It was only as dessert approached that he asked whether he could step outside for a smoke. As host, I followed him out.

“You know why I’m here?” he asked as he lit up. “Yes,” I replied. “So?” he laconically enquired. “Not possible,” I said. And that was the end of our discussion on the SCS. We rejoined our other colleagues to continue drinking and chat of cabbages and kings.

He knew what my answer on the SCS would be before he asked. He knew that our countries would have to work together on other issues, and that it was pointless to argue about something on which we could not agree. That could only poison the atmosphere without achieving anything. But he had his instructions, just as I had mine.

He knew that I had no authority to change a national position, just as he had no authority not to ask me to do so. He carried out his instructions in as painless a way as possible for both of us. I would have done the same in his place.

Their brashness is brittle … They demand overt approbation for Chinese policies.

That Chinese diplomat, now long retired, was of a generation that had endured much, including the Cultural Revolution. He was a patriot. Having endured and survived what China had endured and survived, he was confident enough in himself and his country to act as he did. Ironically, today, many younger Chinese diplomats who know only a wealthy and rising China are too uncertain of themselves to disagree without a public quarrel to prove how ‘patriotic’ they are.

Their brashness is brittle. So too apparently is their confidence in China. They demand overt approbation for Chinese policies. They bridle and profess umbrage when praise is not effusive enough, or otherwise at the slightest criticism.

Generational and institutional anxieties reinforce each other. The Chinese Foreign Ministry is not high in China’s decision-making hierarchy. Until former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was appointed to the Politburo in 2017, no Chinese Foreign Ministry official had reached a really senior position in China’s hierarchy since former Foreign Minister Qian Qichen retired as Vice-Premier in 2003. The current Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, is State Councillor – below Politburo or Vice-Premier status.

In 2019, President Xi Jinping reportedly told Chinese diplomats to show more “fighting spirit”. The concentration of power that has occurred on his watch, his insistence on CCP control of thought and deed, and his use of the CCP’s disciplinary apparatus and the anti-corruption campaign to enforce his will have together amplified his wishes – perhaps even beyond what he intended. All of this has certainly added to the anxieties, personal and institutional, in the Foreign Ministry. Taking a hard line is safe.

But ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy is not just the result of institutional self-doubt in the Foreign Ministry or of some Chinese diplomats wanting to suck up to the boss. It is also a symptom of a deeper and wider malaise in the Chinese system. China is a land of contradictions: it is so big and complex that it would be foolish to seek consistency on everything. One of the most important contradictions is that the CCP is simultaneously very powerful and persistently insecure.

The West pays too much attention to the views of Chinese dissidents. By and large, although there may be grievances over specific – usually local – issues and cadres, the CCP enjoys public support. It has after all improved the lives of hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese.

People walk past Tiananmen Gate in Beijing as the National People's Congress took place in the nearby Great Hall of the People in May. Photo: AFP
People walk past Tiananmen Gate in Beijing as the National People's Congress took place in the nearby Great Hall of the People in May. Photo: AFP

But by the same token, the CCP is far more dependent on delivering continual growth to sustain its legitimacy to rule than other types of political parties in other types of political systems.

If, for example, the US undergoes a prolonged recession with massive job losses, the worst that can happen is that some individual politicians may lose their jobs as a different party takes over the government.

The system is not shaken. But if China undergoes a prolonged recession with massive unemployment, the systemic consequences are more uncertain.

As early as 2007, then Premier Wen Jiabao warned that China’s development was “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and ultimately unsustainable”. At its 18th Congress in 2012, the CCP officially acknowledged the unsustainability of its growth model. At its Plenum in 2013, it announced a plan to restructure the economy with a ‘decisive role’ for the market.

But by the time of the 19th CCP Congress in 2017, very little of this new approach had been implemented. Yet Xi Jinping’s speech to the 19th Congress had made the necessity of meeting the Chinese people’s rising expectations its major theme, describing it as the ‘principal contradiction’ facing China – strong meat in Marxist terms.

All this has been complicated by heightened 
US-China strategic rivalry
 and the economic consequences of the 
Covid-19 pandemic
 for China and the world. The CCP’s concern was evident in Premier Li Keqiang’s report to the recently concluded National People’s Congress, which did not set a specific growth target and stressed job preservation and the maintenance of living standards

By emphasising CCP control, Xi had also sharpened the difficulty of finding a new balance between political control and market efficiency.

The CCP is not a party in denial, as had been the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union. Recognising the centrality of economic viability to survival, the CCP had, almost obsessively, studied the USSR’s experience to avoid its fate.

But the key challenge confronting China is as, or perhaps even more, daunting as that which successive Soviet leaders since Brezhnev had chosen to pretend did not exist, until Gorbachev did too little too late and bungled even that.

Today’s China is a communist country no longer ideologically, except in the most pro forma way, but certainly in the structure of its polity. China is a Leninist state led by the CCP, which is a Leninist vanguard party.

The essence of a Leninist state is the vanguard party’s insistence on control of not just politics, but of state and society in all their aspects. The market, by definition, means less control, and not just in economics.

The choice between political control and market efficiency is, of course, not absolute. What is required is a new balance between control and efficiency. Where that new balance should lie is, however, not always clear. In a Leninist state, political logic and economic logic are not easily reconciled.

China faces a vicious circle that is difficult to change or break: sustaining growth to meet continually rising expectations requires greater economic efficiency; efficiency requires a new balance between party control and the market; establishing that new balance necessarily entails risk; mitigating the political risks requires growth to satisfy rising expectations; sustaining growth requires a new model based on a new balance; and so on.

In a Leninist state, change is always top down. Bottom-up change is regarded as threatening. In China, it took a Deng Xiaoping to look at his life’s work, decide that it was going seriously wrong, and abruptly change course. Such men are rare in any country.

No subsequent leader has found the political will or courage to take the risks needed to break out of China’s circular dilemma by decisive action of the sort Deng took some 40 years ago.

Xi Jinping has not abandoned the search for greater market efficiencies, but has so far placed much greater emphasis on party discipline and control. It was not irrational to do so. A huge country that has undergone such profound transformation within a historically short period is naturally internally roiled.

It is not clear that there is any practical, immediate alternative to the CCP for stability. But by emphasising CCP control, Xi had also sharpened the difficulty of finding a new balance between political control and market efficiency. Xi and the CCP have improvised around, instead of directly confronting, this core issue.

There is perhaps also a more profound reason for the deep insecurity that haunts the CCP. Deng Xiaoping’s genius was to recognise the fatal flaw in China’s Soviet-style system well before the USSR collapsed. He saved the CCP. But what Deng did not foresee was that the more prosperous and freer life that the Chinese people have enjoyed after his reforms has accentuated an older problem.

In his classic work, From the Soil, the Chinese sociologist, Fei Xiaotong, explained the essential difference between Western and Chinese society by reference to the rural foundations of Chinese society. This led to the greater immediacy and importance of family and local networks of personal relationships centred on themselves rather than institutions of the state.

The pervasiveness of guanxi (connections) in Chinese culture points in the same direction as Fei’s essential idea. As a result, Fei argued, Chinese society had a deeply ingrained “self-centred quality”, and traditional Chinese society was ‘selfish’. Sun Yat-sen was suggesting much the same thing when he described the Chinese people as loose grains of sand.

Such ‘selfish’ personal networks challenge a Leninist party’s basic principle of centralised rule and claim to a monopoly of power and authority. Since 1949, the CCP has continually struggled to transform this deep social structure into something more impersonal and collective.

To do so, the CCP has turned to Marxism-Leninism, Maoism and, lately, even Confucianism, which the CCP once condemned as emblematic of the reactionary feudal society it overthrew. That it is willing to go so far underscores the seriousness of the challenge and its intractable nature.

The greater individual agency that the Chinese people have enjoyed since reforms started has widened the scope to create and operate ‘selfish’ networks of personal relationships. 
“Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”
 is, of course, another attempt to reassert the kind of impersonal authority and collective identity that the CCP wants to promote.

Even with the new technologies that give the CCP greater command over the Chinese people than any previous authoritarian system, is there any a priori reason to expect that this will be any more successful than prior attempts at taming ancient patterns of behaviour?

Above all, not too much zeal.Talleyrand, 18th century statesman

The CCP itself has been constantly plagued by factional struggles based on top CCP leaders controlling extensive networks of personal influence through loyal followers spread throughout and often overriding the formal party structure. Xi Jinping has crushed such networks – for example, that of the now jailed Zhou Yongkang in the security and state energy sectors.

However, by insisting that the CCP be guided by his own ‘Thought’ (now enshrined in China’s Constitution), Xi Jinping has created his own personal faction. And by moving against Zhou, Xi upended the unwritten CCP rule that exempted former and current Politburo Standing Committee members from prosecution.

China will survive. But can the CCP indefinitely circle around fundamental issues? In a period of greater internal and external uncertainty, the nature of the fateful denouement of the rough beast that Xi has conjured up and, despite all his power, must continually struggle to control, is altogether unclear.

As they try to please their current boss, China’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ would do well not to add to the external uncertainties and take the advice that the 18th century statesman, Talleyrand, was said to have given his ambassadors: “Above all, not too much zeal.”

Bilahari Kausikan is the former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This article first appeared in his Geo-Blog with Global Brief magazine (Toronto) – 
www.globalbrief.ca

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