Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping recently asked Communist Party officials to adjust their tone and “strive to build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China,” a comment that some believe may be an adjustment to China’s current “warrior diplomacy. However, in his new book China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, Bloomberg correspondent Peter Martin argues that “war wolf diplomacy” is actually rooted in the “war wolf diplomacy”. Diplomacy” is actually rooted in the CCP’s diplomatic tradition. He argues that China’s political system, diplomatic tradition, and domestic political influences constrain the effectiveness of Chinese diplomats in communicating with the outside world.
Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, said Tuesday (June 8) that it is not the United States but China that has created the most problems for China over the past year or two. Campbell also said China’s diplomatic unit understands that China’s policies, including the militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea and more assertive global diplomacy, have led to a global outcry against Beijing.
In recent years, the assertive and even aggressive public posture of Chinese diplomats has been a frequent source of sideways glances.
“little rascals,” “ideological spitters” and “mad dogs.” In March, the Chinese embassy in France used these crude terms to insult a French academic who criticized China’s Taiwan policy on its official Twitter account. The move sparked protests in France, which demanded that the Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shano, be summoned.
“When friends come, there is good wine, and when wealthy wolves come, there is a hunting rifle.” Chinese Ambassador to Sweden Gui Congyou threw out this line in 2019 when talking about Sino-Swedish relations during an interview with Swedish media. He had been summoned by the Swedish Foreign Ministry more than 40 times within two years of his arrival.
In 2018, during an APEC meeting in Papua New Guinea, four Chinese diplomats broke diplomatic protocol and trespassed into the host country’s foreign minister’s office, asking for a last-minute change to language on the joint communiqué that was deemed unfavorable to Beijing. Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister downplayed the trespass in public, but privately described the Chinese diplomats’ negotiations during the summit as “bullying.
“War Wolf Diplomacy” = Zhou Enlai’s “Liberation Army in civilian clothes”
Peter Martin argues that the aggressive, diplomatically disruptive “war wolf” behavior of Chinese diplomats may seem like a new phenomenon, but it actually has its roots in history.
When Zhou Enlai founded China’s diplomatic corps in 1949, he told those diplomats that they had to have a spirit of struggle, that they had to act like the civilian PLA,” he told the Voice of America. The idea has always been that Chinese diplomats must be determined to defend China’s interests. This is balanced with another diplomatic need for China to win favor with the world, make friends and build influence in the international system. Sometimes Chinese diplomats behave more like war wolves, sometimes they act in a more genteel and friendly way.”
Martin argues that Chinese diplomacy has always switched between these two forms, and that which form dominates has to do with the international environment, but depends more on China’s domestic political environment.
He says that since 2008, and especially over the past few years, Chinese diplomacy has shifted to that aggressive posture, partly because China has become more confident in its position in the international system after the financial crisis and epidemic, and partly because China’s domestic political environment has become more focused on ideology and the personal political authority of its leaders, with Xi Jinping abolishing term limits and launching a massive anti-corruption campaign that wants to to see China take a more central position on the world stage.
Martin writes in his book, “The push for Chinese diplomats to follow Xi’s leadership stems from fear and ambition. The easiest way for diplomats to reach Xi’s vision is to assert China’s interests strongly on the world stage.”
The result, he said, is that Chinese diplomats prove their loyalty to Xi by adopting a more assertive, even belligerent, posture: they hand out “Xi Jinping’s ideas” at diplomatic events, just as Chinese diplomats handed out Mao’s “Little Red Book” to foreign diplomats more than 40 years ago. “They constantly refer to Xi’s leadership in their meetings with foreign diplomats; they accuse and attack foreign political figures to avoid being seen as weak.
Not all diplomats share this “war wolf” turn. Yuan Nansheng, the former Chinese consul general in San Francisco, said last year that Chinese diplomacy should “toughen up” rather than “toughen up,” and he called for Beijing to return to its foreign policy of biding its time in the 1990s and 2000s.
Martin: “The spirit of struggle in China’s diplomatic corps has always been there”
During a group study at the Central Political Bureau in late May, Xi Jinping asked Chinese Communist Party officials to improve international communications, mentioning that they “should focus on grasping the tone, be open and confident as well as humble and modest, and strive to build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.”
Martin said at a book discussion on Monday (June 7) that this may be Xi’s way of suggesting that the current “war-wolf diplomacy” may be a bit too much, “at least a slight acknowledgement that Chinese diplomats have been more scary than cute in recent years.”
But he argues that if one looks into the process of building China’s diplomatic corps, one can find that the “spirit of struggle” has always been present.
That’s what Zhou Enlai’s reference to diplomats as a “civilian liberation army” entails. Martin says that this concept means that Chinese diplomats “must be 100 percent loyal to the Party, that they must fight for the interests of China, and that they must be disciplined.”
Many of the foreign affairs regulations based on this principle continue to this day. For example, diplomats must obey their superiors and require permission to act; they are usually forbidden to meet with foreign personnel alone, but are required to work in pairs to monitor each other when necessary; and they are required to follow strict pre-approved talking points during foreign affairs activities.
Martin believes that China’s approach to diplomacy has its advantages, such as the fact that Chinese diplomats never deviate from their positions, so that foreign diplomats never have doubts about China’s core positions on issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet, and that these issues are also consistent across Chinese departments, making it difficult for outsiders to gain insight into the Chinese government’s internal divisions and making China more able to forge synergy in negotiations.
But he noted that the major weakness of Chinese diplomacy is its difficulty in winning hearts and minds.
It allows China to do a good job of making demands on other countries and making its interests clear, but this approach makes it difficult for China to convince other countries to accept its views,” he said. Chinese diplomats always repeat talking points that are written in a rhetoric that is more for a domestic audience, in line with domestic politics and the Chinese Communist Party’s position, than for a foreign audience.”
And because of institutional constraints, it is also difficult for Chinese diplomats to improvise and adapt their articulation and communication to their audience audiences as diplomats from other countries do in their negotiations and foreign affairs activities.
A microcosm of China’s communication with the world
Martin argues that Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo in charge of foreign affairs, former Chinese Foreign Minister and Chinese Ambassador to the United States, in many ways symbolizes the strengths and weaknesses of China’s diplomatic corps.
He says in his book that Yang Jiechi’s English is almost perfect, he is familiar with American politics, culture and history, and he tends to be relaxed and tell jokes before official meetings formally begin. However, once foreigners raised sensitive topics, Yang would immediately change his face and raise the volume of his speech. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary once described Yang Jiechi as a “nationalist with no apologies.
Martin quoted Dennis Wilder, a former senior U.S. official who has dealt with Yang for a long time, as saying, “[Yang Jiechi] is someone who has the ability to show extreme charm when necessary and extreme anger when necessary.” Wilder said Yang may have done it to show the rest of the Chinese delegation that they would be up for the meeting, but he could have flipped that switch, and that was an act of great self-control and self-will.
In many ways, according to Martin, Chinese diplomats seem to epitomize how China communicates with the world. He says the Chinese diplomats he has met are poised, masterful of multiple foreign languages and sometimes funny, but their performance at press conferences or official meetings is stiff.
If the Chinese Communist Party had allowed its diplomats more freedom to use their admirable skills to promote and protect their country, things might have been different,” he writes in his book. But free thought and independent action are too threatening to the Chinese political system to be tolerated for long. The result is that China’s diplomats spend more time looking backward than looking out into the world.”