Did Xi Jinping really put a halt to the aggressive behavior of Chinese diplomats? Not really.
by Yang Jianli
At a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo study meeting held on the afternoon of May 31, Xi Jinping instructed his colleagues that they must “tell a good Chinese story,” “propagate the voice of China,” ensure that China has an “international voice” that matches its “comprehensive national power and international status,” “grasp the right tone,” “be modest and humble,” “pay attention to the strategy and art of the ‘public opinion struggle,’” and “make Chinese discourse more persuasive.” This seems to indicate that the Chinese government has realized that “wolf warrior diplomacy” has placed China in a more difficult state of affairs on the international scene. Consequently, Xi Jinping wants to make certain adjustments to China’s so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy.”
However, it was Xi Jinping himself who initiated China’s wolf warrior diplomacy. It originated from Xi’s concepts of the “self-confidence of a great power,” the “Chinese model,” the “Chinese plan,” and a “community with a shared future for mankind.” Moreover, it was Xi himself who bolstered the Chinese public’s sense of nationalism as part of a strategy to further consolidate his power and increase his prestige. Over the past two years, Xi Jinping demanded that Chinese diplomats demonstrate a “fighting spirit” and take a tough stance on Sino-U.S. relations and international challenges. Furthermore, the rise of “wolf warrior” diplomacy is precisely in line with the high-profile establishment of the Research Center for Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy and the lavish praise bestowed upon Xi for guiding China’s diplomatic practices towards historical achievements. According to Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, “Xi Jinping is a great strategist.”
Xi Jinping’s diplomatic philosophy is based on a series of notions about China and the world.
For example, China’s status as the “world’s largest factory” not only remains intact but has actually been strengthened. China will surpass the United States economically in the near future, possibly within three to five years. Following that, China is set to surpass the U.S. in variety of fields. International capital markets and Western industries are bound to rely heavily on China. Clearly, Chinese leaders hold the world economy firmly in their grip. During the annual “Two Sessions” in March, Xi Jinping spoke about “the rise of the East and the decline of the West.”
Indeed, China’s technology is approaching, or has even surpassed, that of the West in key areas, despite still lagging behind in some domains. As the first country to recover from the pandemic, China is poised to repeat what happened in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. At the time, China was regarded as the only lifeline that could save Western capitalism. China is naturally leading the world in the fight against COVID-19 and will earn the world’s respect at large. Chinese leaders feel that they have amassed so much strength that they can use economic and other means to punish “disobedient” countries at will. In the past, China was only able to punish smaller, economically weaker countries. Today, even developed Western nations are the involuntary recipients of China’s punishment. All of these realities strengthen the view that China’s newfound dominance is rooted in the principles of “self-confidence of a great power,” the “Chinese model,” the “Chinese plan,” and a “community with a shared future for mankind.”
China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy is also related to the CCP’s short temper and lack of confidence. On the one hand, China’s self-confidence as a world superpower makes it eager to establish an international voice that matches China’s comprehensive national strength and international status, and even more eager to obtain a commensurate level of “soft power.” Engaging in diplomacy is an important part of establishing a country’s soft power, but China intrinsically lacks soft power. China has spent billions of dollars on a charm offensive to increase its soft power, including grand propaganda, Confucius Institutes, and aid programs to Africa and Latin America, which are not limited by the institutional or human rights concerns that constrain Western aid.
But for all its efforts, China has earned a limited return on its investment. Why? Because China has misled the world about the pandemic and erected barriers blocking international inquiries on the origins of COVID 19, continues to brutalize Muslims and oppress Christians and other religious minorities, acts as a bully in the East and South China Seas, has conducted illegal island-building campaigns, is engaged in a massive military buildup, has ended Hong Kong as a free island and is intimidating Taiwan, has carried out Himalayan border sieges, launches relentless and ongoing cyberattacks, engages in predatory trade practices around the world, the list goes on.
According to a Pew research report of last October, negative views toward China among Americans soared from 47 percent in 2017 to a staggering 73 percent in 2020, 40 percent to 73 percent in Canada, 37 percent to 74 percent in the United Kingdom, 32 percent to 81 percent in Australia, 61 percent to 75 percent. Beyond China’s own borders, few people still believe that its rise is peaceful, and growing public hostility toward China is an undeniable phenomenon.
Therefore, the CCP is angry because it thought that it could use “wolf warrior diplomacy” to save face, or at least maintain a high level of nationalist fervor within its own borders.
The subject of the CCP Politburo’s study meeting mentioned at the beginning was “Strengthening China’s International Communication Capacity.” The lecture was given by Fudan University professor Zhang Weiwei, who is widely known as the “wolf-warrior professor” by Chinese netizens. During remarks delivered on last year’s National Day of the People’s Republic of China, Zhang said: “We are witnessing a great turn in human history. My prediction is that the world will tilt to the East, to China and to socialism at a faster pace, and this ‘world war of pandemic’ is arguably the catalyst for that tilt.” He added that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the United States to collapse and that the people of China are heartened to see America wearing the emperor’s new clothes. This is exactly what Xi Jinping wanted to say. There is no way to know the content of his lecture at this Politburo meeting, but the fact that a “wolf-warrior professor” lectured the CCP’s top leadership on “strengthening China’s international communication capacity” says a lot about the Chinese leaders’ mindset that is driving the course of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy.
In essence, the fact that the CCP’s diplomatic overtures have been rebuffed is not a question of the words, tone or attitude adopted by Chinese diplomats. The fundamental problem is one of soft power. As long as Xi Jinping doesn’t change his “great diplomatic thought”; as long as he still needs a strong and unfailing nationalist sentiment at home to maintain his power and prestige; and as long as the CCP continues on the same path of brutally violating human rights—then no matter what changes the Chinese government makes in terms of form and style, people will never feel that China is trustworthy, likeable or respectable, and “wolf warrior” diplomacy will return to the stage again and again.