China's wolf-warrior style of diplomacy in age of social media
This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on April 05, 2021 and can be accessed here.
Recently, the Chinese embassy based in Ireland left many Twitter users scratching their heads after tweeting a photo from the Aesop's fables: “Some people accused China for so-called ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’. In his well-known fable, Aesop described how the Wolf accused the Lamb of committing offences. The wolf is the wolf, not the lamb … BTW, China is not a lamb.” The photo and caption were supposed to evoke the classic tale of the Wolf And the Lamb. Was China implying that it was the wolf or the sheep? Analysts could reach no consensus.
Over the last year, Chinese diplomats have gotten increasingly aggressive on Twitter. The style of diplomacy, nicknamed Wolf Warrior Diplomacy both within China and outside, immediately grabbed eyeballs.
At the beginning of the last decade, only one Chinese diplomat possessed a Twitter account. A 2019 report found that "only fourteen Chinese embassies and consulates abroad had officially opened Twitter accounts and that only three Chinese diplomats were active on Twitter." With the Ministry of Foreign Affairs opening an account in October 2019, the number of Chinese diplomats has rapidly increased. A typical wolf warrior would be Zhao Lijian, the Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington, when he catapulted into fame for his aggressive takedowns of 'negative' narratives against China. Zhao was then promoted to the position of deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department.
Other ambassadors followed Zhao's pattern. Now there is a tacit understanding that the more eyeballs one can grab on Twitter, the more appreciated s/he is within the Chinese Communist Party for standing up for China's national interests. The trend has notably picked up over the last year, with the pandemic worsening China's tensions with countries worldwide. Some Chinese diplomats bolstered the narrative that the US army created the virus and blamed it on China. They drew parallels between the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong the Capitol riots in Washington DC in January 2021. Another theme is to show how happy the people of Xinjiang are and to shut down criticisms of human rights violations in the province.
The idea of a wolf warrior comes from the hit film franchise of the same name. The second movie in the series, Wolf Warrior II, released in 2017, became the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. The film, shot in a typical Hollywoodesque style, is about a Chinese soldier who saves a medical aid team in an unspecified war-torn African country. It is considered a game-changer in Chinese cinema. As one paper points out, "The reconfiguration of a Hollywood-style Chinese hero converges with the modern Chinese state’s aspirations for world leadership; the film displays the rise of China as an increasingly powerful state that is nevertheless still a developing country, seeking solidarity with other developing nations." This sentiment reciprocated by diplomats on Twitter showcases them as individuals deeply connected with Party values and Chinese nationalism.
As China grows in size and stature, her diplomats are increasingly belligerent on social media. This wolf warrior diplomacy panders to a domestic constituency and reflects increased Chinese jingoism, especially under the current government. Even if China is not belligerent in her foreign policy, her diplomats will continue to be wold warriors on social media outside China for the foreseeable future. What implications this will have on Chinese strategy is something we need to keep an eye on.