China’s wolf warriors are undermining Beijing’s empathetic messaging on India’s Covid-19 crisis

China’s wolf warriors are undermining Beijing’s empathetic messaging on India’s Covid-19 crisis
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This article has been updated.

China has been trying hard to repair its global image, tarnished by the spread of Covid-19, but its efforts are being undermined by some of its “wolf warriors.” The term used to refer to aggressive Chinese diplomats, but now nationalistic government social media accounts have also joined the ranks.

On Saturday (May 1), the official Weibo account of China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission stirred a huge backlash after one of its posts attached a picture juxtaposing China’s successful launch of a module into space with one that shows India’s cremation pyres burning at night. “China lighting a fire versus India lighting a fire,” the post read.

The insensitive comment from the commission, which oversees China’s courts and law enforcement bodies, soon attracted nationalistic endorsement for appearing tough towards India, which has long had border disputes with China. India is fighting a devastating second wave of Covid-19.

But the post also sparked criticism from many Chinese internet users who say it lacked humanity and empathy for the suffering of people in other countries. “Some defended the post by saying it was only criticism of the Indian government’s handling of Covid-19. But have those people thought that by focusing only on the propaganda war between China and India, they ignored the citizens suffering in both countries,” said one user.

The post had been shared more than 9,000 times before it got deleted that day. Meanwhile, another Weibo post last week by China’s Ministry of Public Security, comparing China’s emergency Covid hospital with India’s mass cremations, also got deleted. The removal of the posts was likely a result of orders from within the government, as censors at Weibo usually do not have the power to delete posts by authorities, Eric Liu, a former censor at Weibo who now lives in the US, told Quartz.

Who are the wolf warriors?

“The fact the post was deleted so quickly is a sign that it does not represent China’s official position on the tragedy unfolding in India,” said Natasha Kassam, the director of the Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program and a former Australian diplomat.

“However, this is a crucial example of where senior leaders set the tone with aggressive and nationalistic language, and more junior officials respond and mimic this behavior'” she told Quartz. “In [Chinese president] Xi Jinping’s China, it isn’t hard to imagine a social media manager believing that a post mocking India would ingratiate them with their superiors.”

Under Xi, China’s diplomatic policy has become ever more aggressive. While former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping wanted to “keep a low profile and bide your time,” Beijing is gradually diverting from that theory and becoming more comfortable with utilizing and encouraging nationalism at home to look tough and rally support.

Some of the most enthusiastic followers of the new direction include foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, who promoted an unfounded conspiracy theory linking Covid-19 to the US army last year. Figures like Zhao have been dubbed “wolf warriors,” a name borrowed from a namesake nationalistic Chinese movie.

But the controversy and international attention brought by the deleted post highlight a major shortcoming of the wolf warrior approach. The damage could far exceed the benefits it might have, such as distracting Chinese citizens from China’s domestic problems. Instead, the negative feeling towards China because of such messaging could bury its more empathetic gestures to India’s Covid-19 crisis and further strain the two countries’ relationship.

China has sent India medical supplies, including over 21 million masks and more than 21,000 oxygen ventilators, and is producing another 40,000 oxygen generators for India, according to China’s ambassador to India. Xi sent condolences for India’s Covid victims to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi last week, vowing to enhance China’s cooperation with the country to fight the pandemic, while China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said last month that China would do the utmost to help India.

In addition, China’s foreign ministry told Bloomberg, in response to the post, that people should pay attention to “the Chinese government and mainstream public opinion supporting India’s fight against the epidemic,” and said more supplies will be sent to India in the coming days.

“China has been sending medical supplies to India to tackle the pandemic, which is much appreciated,” said Kazim Rizvi, founding director of Delhi-based think tank The Dialogue.”But such insensitive comparisons are in poor taste.” The Chinese government should “reprimand” whichever authorities are behind the Weibo posts, he tells Quartz, so as not to “aggravate the already tense ties between India and China.”

An opportunity for Taiwan

China’s widening rifts between India have, meanwhile, left an opening for Taiwan, which has been governed independently from China since 1949 but is still viewed by Beijing as part of its territory. This has led to strong Chinese resistance towards international recognition of Taiwan. As Beijing now struggles to project its soft power globally, Taiwan could grab the opportunity to increase its influence, say analysts.

On Sunday, Taiwan flew over 150 oxygen concentrators and 500 oxygen cylinders to help India stem its Covid surge, and Taiwanese officials were quick to post messages of sympathy and solidarity across social media channels.

“The epidemic knows no borders,” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Joanne Ou told Quartz. “In this difficult moment, Taiwan and India stand together to jointly respond to the challenges of the pandemic.”

The messages from Taiwanese authorities display the island’s agile, proactive “cat diplomacy” approach towards India, and the prospects of potential engagement with India once the pandemic subsides, according to Sana Hashmi, a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation. “However, in the case of China, while the government is still attempting to revamp its image in India by taking advantage of this crisis, several social media accounts affiliated to the Party are doing the opposite—[which] further goes on to tell us how divided and hawkish China is on India,” Hashmi says.

Update: A quote from Kazim Rizvi, founding director of Delhi-based think tank The Dialogue, was added on May 5. Additional reporting by Niharika Sharma.