They are called the “wolf-warrior diplomats” from China, but in Beijing’s eyes, these Chinese diplomats are defenders of China’s image and reputation abroad. Their provocative and confrontational comments have attracted a lot of attention, but they also intensify the tension between China and other democratic countries.
China has been heavily criticised for its human rights records in Xinjiang and Hong Kong over the last few years. Beijing has hit back by detailing other countries’ human rights problems as proof that they are not “qualified” to judge Beijing’s policies in those regions.
However, some began to wonder if the Chinese government was planning to adjust its strategy after President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of improving China’s international communication during a group study session of the Communist Party’s leadership group earlier this month.
During the meeting, Xi said China needs to “develop a voice in international discourse that matches with China’s comprehensive national strength and international status”. According to the state-run Xinhua News Agency, Xi stressed the efforts to construct China’s own discourse and narrative, allowing Beijing to interpret its own practices “by its own theories”.
“He also emphasised the efforts to introduce the Chinese culture abroad and strive to shape a reliable, admirable and respectable image of China,” Xinhua wrote. “Xi urged greater efforts to help foreign audiences understand what the [Chinese Communist Party] is pursuing is nothing but the Chinese people’s wellbeing.”
Xi’s comments came at a time when China’s relationship with western countries has soured due to concerns over Beijing’s persecution of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and its crackdown on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong. In the G7 communiqué released last Sunday, world leaders called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedom, highlighting worrying developments in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
The Chinese embassy in the UK hit back at the G7 nations on Monday, accusing them of “baseless accusations”. “Stop slandering China, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, and stop harming China’s interests,” the embassy’s spokesperson said.
While Xi’s remarks seem to suggest that China may soften its confrontational diplomatic approach, some experts think his intention is to reinforce its international propaganda efforts.
“Beijing has set out policies related to telling the China stories well and strengthening international propaganda efforts before,” said Teng Biao, a Pozen visiting professor at the University of Chicago in the United States. “In fact, China has been sparing no effort to promote these policies in recent years and they have proven to be effective.”
Teng points out that China has been increasing its influence and promoting “the China model” through media infiltration and propaganda in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In a report released by the International Federation of Journalists last month, the authors concluded that China has been using its media infrastructure globally to seed positive narratives about China in national media.
Instead of hoping to ease tensions with western countries, other experts think Xi’s remarks reflect Beijing’s belief that being seen as “admirable and respectable” may not be in China’s interests.
“[They might think that] If China is powerful enough, then actually winning hearts and minds is a bonus and it’s not necessarily what they want to do,” said Alex Dukalskis, an associate professor at University College Dublin.
According to Dukalskis, while being seen as respectable can make things easier for China internationally, it would also come with the price of having to tolerate criticism, which the Chinese government isn’t very comfortable with. “Being more open and lovable could accomplish some goals but it also comes with some negative side effects,” he told The Irish Times.
As Beijing needs to safeguard its power and legitimacy to rule, Teng Biao doesn’t think the Chinese government will consider softening tensions with western democracies anytime soon.
“It’s impossible for China to adopt any concrete steps to satisfy western countries’ demands at this point,” he said. “From human rights to trade policies, there is very little room for China to compromise its stance realistically.”
Dukalskis said China doesn’t just rely on “wolf warrior diplomacy” to advance its interests across the world. Rather, it adjusts its strategies for different geographic and linguistic audiences.
“We shouldn’t discount that China has maintained a pretty favourable image in big parts of the world, and the wolf warrior diplomacy is not universally a global phenomenon as we tend to think,” he said. “Wolf warrior diplomacy and positive diplomacy can coexist at the same time in different places.”
As a result, Teng Biao thinks Xi’s messages may in fact show the Chinese government’s desire to consolidate its role as the leader of authoritarian states around the world and it could further harden the emerging rivalry between democratic countries and authoritarian states.
“This trend is becoming clearer as more western democracies view China as the biggest threat to freedom-based international order,” Teng said. “The G7 nations sent a clear signal by criticising China’s human rights records in its communiqué on Sunday.”