Why are China’s diplomats sometimes so undiplomatic?

Not necessarily the softer side.
Not necessarily the softer side.
Image: Reuters/Tingshu Wang
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In 1949, Zhou Enlai, China’s premier and first foreign minister, was trying to create a diplomatic corps out of Communist guerrilla fighters—a task complicated by the fact that diplomacy in Chinese history was inextricably linked to humiliating deals with foreigners.

“Armed struggle and diplomatic struggle are similar,” Zhou told the budding representatives for the newly established People’s Republic of China. “Diplomatic personnel are the People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing.”

Seven decades later, China’s diplomats, highly educated and often erudite, are still shaped by the ethos that the country is fighting a battle, writes Bloomberg diplomatic reporter Peter Martin in China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. Today they are collectively known as “wolf warriors” for their aggressive utterances online and in person, a name that references a 2015 patriotic movie about a fictitious Chinese special forces unit of the same name.

Through firsthand interviews and nearly forgotten memoirs found in government bookstores in China—where Martin previously spent about eight years—as well as accounts from envoys and leaders of allies and rivals, he seeks to answer a question that has been puzzling him and many others: Why isn’t China better at the softer side of diplomacy?

In large part, he explains, it’s the system. China’s diplomats are “unable to extricate themselves from the constraints of a secretive, paranoid political system which rewards unquestioning loyalty and ideological conviction.” As a result, even today, they’re as likely to be looking over their shoulders, he writes, as out into the world.

Quartz spoke to Martin about the competing tendencies of Chinese diplomacy—charm and bullying, confidence and insecurity—and the primary audience for China’s diplomats. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Quartz: In a nutshell, why are China’s diplomats sometimes so undiplomatic? 

Peter Martin: In Chinese history, there are these two traditions since 1949 and the Chinese diplomatic corps was set up to model the discipline of the Chinese military, which is unfailingly loyal to the Communist Party. At times that great discipline is turned to charming the world, and friends of China, and at other times that discipline has been focused on proving loyalty to the leaders in Beijing, whether that was the very nervous early PRC in 1950s or Mao Zedong at the height of the Cultural Revolution or Xi Jinping now.

I think during periods when Chinese politics has taken an inward turn and there are purges going on, and there’s this focus on ideology and on the leadership of one individual, Chinese diplomats have often followed that with these kinds of aggressive and assertive outbursts. In terms of what’s happening now, it’s a combination of two things: There’s a newfound confidence on China’s part, and there are also these enduring insecurities in the system.

The confidence really started around 2008-09, when Chinese leaders saw an indecisive response from the West to the global financial crisis, and they saw that their own stimulus, for all its problems, was praised around the world. Since then, they have watched political gridlock in Western countries. And most recently, they see many democracies flounder in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. They feel like their system has performed better, and that has been validated. So when they’re criticized on their human rights record or for their foreign policies, they feel like, actually you know, we kind of have this figured out. You don’t. Cut the criticism. So that’s one side.

At the same time, Xi Jinping is using tools which many of us thought were consigned to China’s past. He’s experimenting with reeducation camps in Xinjiang, he has initiated a sweeping purge of the Communist Party that punished 1.5 million officials, he’s abolished presidential term limits, and is using study sessions and self-criticism sessions to enforce Party discipline. Chinese diplomats grew up with these tools. They understand what these signals mean in the Chinese system, and they know that the safest response is to follow the lead of whoever is in charge. And at the moment, that person is Xi Jinping.

Talking about getting noticed and getting promoted, for many people the archetype of the “wolf warrior” diplomat is Zhao Lijian [a spokesman in the information department in China’s foreign ministry]. And he was previously in Pakistan [as deputy chief of mission], where he had a very prominent Twitter presence—I think it surprised people that he could be so prominent. Can you talk a little bit about his trajectory and what that says about the current phase of Chinese diplomacy? 

Zhao is really interesting because his rise kind of reflects a struggle that China has about how to project what China’s leaders call its “discourse power.”

They know that despite their economic and military modernization, they are much less successful at making China’s case in the world than they would like to be. They’re not as good as persuading others as they should be given the size of their economy. And that gap is especially pronounced when it comes to social media because it’s such a decentralized format and government programs really weren’t sure how they should use it in order to promote the voice of China.

And Zhao really represented someone who was a relatively obscure figure. He did not have a background in the information system within the Foreign Ministry… but he began to experiment and he developed a large following and, you know—this is true of many social media stars—he courted controversy.

He got into this famous Twitter spat with former US national security advisor Susan Rice and that kind of catapulted him to fame inside China with nationalist Internet users and also inside the foreign ministry. Because this was a brand of assertive, social-media-savvy diplomacy that China hadn’t really seen before. For a lot of young diplomats in particular, it represented kind of a refreshing approach. And giving him the job of spokesman, making him one of the most prominent faces, not just in the foreign ministry, but the whole Chinese government—I think that behavior and that success was something that was emulated by other Chinese diplomats.

Of course, it’s also caused very, very significant problems. Most famously, Zhao tweeted about this conspiracy theory that suggested that the US army started the coronavirus pandemic, and he actually, according to Bob Woodward’s reporting, made Trump so angry that Trump raised this in a call with Xi. So he really has caused controversy right at the very highest levels of the US government and China, the most important bilateral relationship. But, you know as we can see now from the operation of these types of accounts from across the diplomatic apparatus, I guess many people see that experiment as a successful one.

At the same time, you write that there are Chinese diplomats who maybe don’t agree with this particular brand of diplomacy. Can you talk a bit about the people who don’t think China should be aspiring to live up to the wolf warrior label?

I think there have always been and there probably will always be people inside the Chinese system who believe that China should make its case in a way that conforms more with what foreign audiences [expect] and is a little bit more of an accommodating stance. The recent Chinese ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai, was a great example of someone like that. [Cui retired and recently departed Washington; his successor as China’s ambassador to the US is Qin Gang, who arrived in July.]

Cui is every bit as capable of shouting at foreign counterparts, getting angry, and asserting the Chinese demands as anyone else. But he is also capable of this tendency where, a little bit like Zhou Enlai, he could take China’s official talking points and turn them into something that Westerners find palatable. And he’s not getting into these very personal spats. I think that the problem is that [the people who feel this way] don’t feel very empowered to speak out now under Xi.

Speaking of Xi, in June people looked at a speech of his about how China should cultivate a more “lovable” image and wondered if this was a sign Beijing would take a more conciliatory approach. And then on the 100th anniversary of the Party, Xi made a speech where he warned that if you bully China, you face broken heads.

I don’t think there is actually that big a contradiction between them. What Xi was talking about when he said that China needed to cultivate a more lovable image, was telling China’s story better. It was really like, we need to improve the messaging on Chinese policies.

He didn’t say we need to be less assertive when it comes to Taiwan’s airspace or militarizing the South China Sea or our polices in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, or our industrial policies that upset foreign companies. He didn’t suggest compromise on any of those fronts. He just said we need to do a better job of selling this to the outside world. So to me, that kind of spells out the limitations of any recalibration that’s going to take place under Xi.

Really when you look at the depth of dissatisfaction with China in Western countries, it stems from foreign policy, not from messaging. And Xi’s policy is: China is on a course, China’s going to purse that course with great rigor until we’ve achieved the place we want for ourselves in the world by 2050. And if anyone stands in our way we will…meet them with an iron wall or something like that. You know, that’s kind of been the hallmark for his entire tenure as Communist Party chief.

When I first saw the title of your book—China’s Civilian Army—I thought it was maybe a reference to internet users in China who start a patriotic consumer backlash or boycott of a company. Some of them, of course, may have links to the state. But there are many voices online who also also want to express patriotism or try to act on China’s behalf if they feel it’s getting an unfair shake from foreign companies or countries. How do you see them fitting into China’s diplomacy?

I chose the title really because of that Zhou Enlai speech, and actually I started the book before the term “wolf warrior” was even in use. Those other groups I think are responding in their own way, they have different traditions, and they report to different parts of the Chines political system to the diplomats. They’re responding in their own way to this call from Xi Jinping for a stronger voice for China internationally, for people to stand up to China’s interests.

Who is the audience for some of these more combative pronouncements? When they take place on Twitter and in the English language, one has to assume the audience is mostly outside of China. But you say in your book that often the audience is domestic?

I think it is, even in the case of those Twitter fights, the audience is still primarily domestic. Those Twitter controversies will generate Western media coverage, which is then relayed to the leadership of the foreign ministry and to the foreign ministry’s leadership in the Communist Party. So I think that most of those cases represent official efforts or freelancing individuals who are trying to show domestic leaders that they’re acting tough in a way that is in line with Xi Jinping’s expectations. The first audience is really to the leadership and especially Xi himself.

And I think there is this pressure this Chinese diplomats still feel from online audiences, online nationalists. You know, I think back to the border conflict with India. There was a feeling from Chinese internet users that China was being too weak and that it needed to stand up more forcefully for its interests and take a tougher line with India. Chinese diplomats read these commentaries online and they fear repercussions of being seen too weak on these issues. So those are two big domestic audiences.

In terms of foreign audiences, it’s really following Xi’s lead and and saying, you know what, we don’t need to persuade you or ask for permission in the way that maybe we did before. These are our policies, this our bottom line, and if you don’t fall into line with it, there will be consequences.