On December 20, 2021, former Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai delivered a biting keynote address to a symposium co-hosted by the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. In front of assembled dignitaries including Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister and state councilor, Cui criticized the current state of China’s diplomacy, warning against “carelessness, laziness, and incompetence.” He admonished his fellow diplomats to “always have the country at large in mind, and not always think about being an internet celebrity.”
The comments were a thinly-veiled dig at the increasingly sharp-edged messaging emerging from China over the past several years, as its diplomats have embraced a uniquely aggressive approach now widely known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
Named for an ultra-nationalistic blockbuster film series, wolf warrior diplomacy describes a distinctly confrontational, guns-blazing style of diplomatic rhetoric aimed at hitting back against criticisms of China. Tough diplomacy is certainly not a new feature of Chinese foreign policy, but this strident brand of diplomatic posturing reflects a China far more confident in its international standing compared with eras past.
While the hardline tactics of China’s wolf warriors have evidently received the blessing of top leadership in Beijing, Cui’s public remarks make clear that their approach has also generated pushback within China’s foreign policy establishment. Other high-profile figures within China’s diplomatic and policy circles, including veteran diplomat Fu Ying and leading international relations scholar Yan Xuetong, have likewise offered rebukes of China’s combative diplomacy in recent years.
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As China’s global reputation continues to plummet since the onset of COVID-19 (even as positive views of the United States have resurged from historic lows in 2020), it appears that calls for a more measured diplomatic strategy may be beginning to resonate among China’s central leadership. Key events throughout 2021 indicate that leaders in Beijing are recalibrating China’s external messaging, signaling to the wolf warriors that a gradual softening of tone is in order.
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Taming the Pack
Among the clearest signs that a rethink is underway in Beijing were President Xi Jinping’s remarks to a group study session of the CCP Central Committee’s Political Bureau in May of 2021. At the session, Xi emphasized the need for China to improve its international communication, in order to “enlarge the circle of friends who understand China.” To achieve this, he called for officials to create a “trustworthy, lovable, and respectable” image of China abroad. While many analysts were initially skeptical that these directives would constitute a major turning-point in China’s diplomacy, a number of notable shifts in China’s diplomatic personnel and foreign messaging since June suggest that efforts have since been made to curb the wolf warriors’ excesses.
The recent fall of Hu Xijin, the former top editor of the nationalistic Chinese media outlet the Global Times and an early adopter of China’s brand of caustic online commentary, is possibly the highest profile case of a wolf warrior being called to heel. While Hu announced that he was retiring on Weibo in mid-December, some sources claim his departure was directed by Beijing, with a view to “strengthening the paper’s political guidance.” Hu had often used his megaphone to insult other countries (calling Australia the “gum stuck to China’s shoe”) and whipped up nationalist fervor in support of reunification of Taiwan (recently calling for airstrikes to “eliminate” U.S. troops on the island). Such comments, along with bizarre reactions to Western concerns over missing tennis star Peng Shuai, seem to have had a negative effect on Hu’s career.
2021 also saw the downfall of another prominent wolf warrior, former Chinese ambassador to Sweden Gui Congyou. Gui was summoned by Sweden’s foreign ministry more than 40 times over two years, and frequently lashed out in comments to local media at perceived slights against China, at one point famously declaring, “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.” Gui’s penchant for harsh rhetoric caught up with him after he seemingly threatened Swedish journalists who criticized China; with several Swedish politicians calling on Beijing to remove him from his post, Gui resigned in September of last year.
While some prominent voices have run into trouble thanks to their aggressive antics, others appear to have been rewarded for their more moderate tone. Xiao Qian, a former Chinese ambassador to Indonesia with a reputation for a more professional communication style, was appointed ambassador to Australia in November. At a time when Australia-China relations are incredibly toxic, the appointment of a new, more restrained ambassador could signal a desire to get the relationship back on firmer footing.
Even Zhao Lijian, China’s pugnacious foreign ministry spokesman widely considered a pioneer of wolf warrior diplomacy, seems to have taken his foot off the gas pedal when it comes to certain hot-button issues. Zhao rose to international prominence (and infamy) in early 2020, grabbing headlines for relentlessly promoting conspiracy theories on Twitter suggesting the COVID-19 pandemic originated in Fort Detrick, a U.S. military base in Maryland. His tweets referencing COVID-19’s origins slowed in 2021, however; Zhao posted 13 times about Fort Detrick between April 8, 2021 and September 3, 2021, and then abruptly stopped. His final post about the theory came around a week before a phone call between Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden.
There are a number of factors at play making the current moment an opportune time for Beijing to adjust its diplomatic messaging. With Xi set to take a precedent-breaking third term as president at the year-end Communist Party Congress, as well as China’s hosting of a controversial Winter Olympic Games next month, domestic concerns this year are likely to take precedence over foreign ones. Moreover, with former President Donald Trump and his more vocal foreign policy hawks now replaced by a less strident Biden administration, China may be moderating its tone in-kind, with an eye toward stabilizing its rocky relationship with the U.S.
While we haven’t seen a wholesale shift away from the fiery discourse recently seen from certain diplomats and foreign ministry officials, the evidence laid out above does point to a departure from the more outrageous behavior of the wolf warriors. Realistically, we shouldn’t expect to see substantive changes to China’s messaging on U.S. decline, Western encirclement of China, or human rights whataboutisms, yet it appears a modest change in tone is underway.
Some have pointed out that wolf warrior diplomacy has not served Beijing’s strategic interests, and that it may in fact be undermining them. While this possibility has no doubt occurred to Chinese leaders, observers shouldn’t expect any abrupt shift in the rhetoric of Chinese ambassadors or foreign ministry spokespeople; quickly moving away from wolf warrior diplomacy could be seen as capitulation by Beijing. Instead, those interested in China’s communications with other nations should track subtle changes in discourse and decision-making, shifts that could gradually serve to course-correct China’s diplomatic statecraft, while also saving political face.