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In early 2017, China appeared to be on a roll. Its economy was beating estimates. President Xi Jinping was implementing the country’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and was on the cusp of opening China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. Most important, Xi seemed poised to take advantage of President Donald Trump’s determination to pick fights with U.S. allies and international institutions. In a speech in Davos in January of that year, Xi even compared protectionism with “locking oneself in a dark room.”
Nearly five years on, Beijing is facing its biggest international backlash in decades. Negative views of China are near record highs across the developed world, according to a Pew Research Center survey from June, which showed that at least three-quarters of respondents in Australia, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and the United States now hold broadly negative views of the country. The European Union, which Beijing worked to court during the Trump era, has officially branded China a “systemic rival,” and NATO leaders have begun to coordinate a common response to Beijing. On China’s doorstep, the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States have revitalized the “Quad” grouping of nations in response to concerns over Beijing’s intentions. And most recently, the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to share sensitive nuclear secrets with Australia to help it counter China’s naval ambitions in the Pacific.
Yet Beijing shows no sign of shifting course. Unlike previous eras of backlash against China, such as the one that followed the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, this one has not prompted a recalibration in Beijing. For now, China’s leaders appear to have decided that their newfound national strength, combined with the general malaise of the West, means that the rest of the world will have to adapt to Beijing’s preferences.
In recent years, China has faced mounting international criticism of everything from its apparent detention of more than one million Muslim Uyghurs in “reeducation” camps to its sweeping crackdown in Hong Kong, its controversial industrial policies, and its role in the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. But increasingly, it is China’s diplomats who are doing the most damage to the country’s reputation. Popularly known as “Wolf Warriors,” after a series of blockbuster movies that depicted Chinese heroes vanquishing foreign foes, they have picked fights everywhere from Fiji to Venezuela. In March 2020, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian outraged U.S. officials when he claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic began only after American athletes had brought the virus to Wuhan. Last November, Zhao tweeted an illustration of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child, prompting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to demand an apology. And in September, China’s new ambassador to the United Kingdom, Zheng Zeguang, was banned from the British Parliament over Chinese sanctions against British lawmakers.
China’s foreign policy elites have noticed the problem. As early as 2018, Deng Pufang, the son of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, warned that China should “know its place” and “keep a sober mind” in its foreign policy. In May 2020, Reuters reported that the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations—a think tank affiliated with China’s primary intelligence agency—had warned the country’s leadership that anti-China sentiment was at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. And in September 2020, Yuan Nansheng, China’s former consul general in San Francisco, warned against “extreme nationalism” in Chinese foreign policy. Xi himself has at least tacitly acknowledged the problem, warning in a Politburo study session in June that China needed to present a “lovable” image to the world.
Increasingly, it is China’s diplomats who are doing the most damage to the country’s reputation.
But even more striking than the backlash against China has been the country’s inability to recalibrate. Beijing’s response to the rapid deterioration in ties with Canberra was to confront Australia with a list of demands that it said were prerequisites for improving relations. China’s leaders have also repeatedly stressed that any improvement in relations with the United States must begin with concessions from Washington and issued Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman a similar list of demands when she visited Tianjin in July.
Officials in Washington have begun to see Beijing’s inability to shift course as an advantage in the emerging competition between the two countries. During bilateral talks in March, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, lectured his U.S. counterparts on the United States’ moral failings, including police killings of Black citizens. In response, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reminded Yang of what he called the United States’ “secret sauce”: the ability to acknowledge and fix mistakes. “A confident country,” Sullivan said, “is able to look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve.” The implication, of course, was that China seemed unable to do the same, at least in its foreign policy.
It is tempting to see Beijing’s inability to adapt as an intrinsic feature of the Chinese system. Certainly, individual Chinese officials often fear the consequences of admitting mistakes. But in the past, Beijing has actually been quite skilled at course correction. In the 1950s, China undertook a charm offensive that won it friends in the developing world and helped build support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the internationally recognized government of China. In the period after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese diplomats helped rehabilitate their country in the eyes of the world, kick-starting a nearly two-decade run of successes that culminated in China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Rather than an inherent flaw in China’s model of governance, the failure to recalibrate this time is a product of the current political atmosphere in Beijing. Overconfidence is a major part of the problem. In the aftermath of the 2008–9 global financial crisis, Beijing began a shift toward a more assertive style of diplomacy, buoyed by the belief that its system had been validated by its swift response to the financial meltdown. That shift accelerated dramatically after Xi became head of the CCP in 2012: by 2017, top Chinese leaders were pointing to “changes unseen in a century” and Xi had publicly declared that China was “approaching the center of the world stage” and “[stood] tall in the East.”
Paired with Beijing’s newfound self-confidence was a belief in Western—and especially American—weakness and decadence. Washington’s foreign policy mistakes in the Middle East, its indecisive response to the global financial crisis, and its fumbling response to the current pandemic have all reinforced this view. In February 2020, Xi told party cadres that the COVID-19 crisis had demonstrated the “remarkable advantages of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.”
For Chinese foreign policy officials, the safest course is to follow Xi’s lead and to add a little extra zeal for good measure.
Xi has long favored a more assertive posture for China on the world stage. Even before he became president, Xi complained about “foreigners with full bellies who have nothing better to do than point the finger” at China’s human rights record. One of his first acts as leader of the CCP in 2012 was to lay out an agenda for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” signaling his ambitions for the country to retake its rightful place in the world. Since then, he has repeatedly instructed diplomats to defend China more aggressively, even crafting handwritten notes directing them to show more “fighting spirit.” The message for any ambitious Chinese diplomat or propagandist is clear: to get ahead, it is important to match Xi’s assertive tone.
But Chinese officials have followed Xi’s lead out of fear as well as ambition. Since 2012, more than 1.5 million officials have been punished in a sweeping anticorruption campaign that treats political disloyalty as a kind of graft. Diplomats have had to sit through “self-criticism” sessions in the Foreign Ministry and “inspection tours” that test their loyalty to the party and willingness to follow orders. Old rules relating to secrecy and discipline have also been implemented with a new zeal: one dating back to 1949, which forbids Chinese diplomats from meeting alone with foreigners, has been imposed on everyone from ambassadors to junior diplomats in study abroad programs.
Chinese diplomats know how to interpret these signals. Over the decades, China’s foreign policy apparatus has endured multiple rounds of purges in which colleagues informed on one another and were sanctioned for being insufficiently loyal to the regime’s agenda. During the Cultural Revolution, ambassadors were locked in cellars, forced to clean toilets, and beaten until they coughed up blood. Large numbers of Chinese diplomats were sent off to reeducation camps in rural China. For Chinese foreign policy officials, the safest course is to follow Xi’s lead and to add a little extra zeal for good measure.
The rise of Wolf Warrior diplomacy in China has rendered regular diplomatic channels with the United States ineffective. Formal meetings have become little more than opportunities for Chinese officials to publicly dress down their U.S. counterparts, while backchannels through former officials or on the sidelines of official meetings have also become less effective, since Chinese officials recite well-worn talking points out of a fear of being labeled weak or even landing in political trouble. Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador in Washington until earlier this year, stopped meeting alone with foreign counterparts in the final years of his posting, always meeting with another diplomat on hand to keep tabs. Today, most in-person contacts have been suspended because of the pandemic, and online Track II dialogues between former officials feature little more than the stilted repetition of talking points.
Not that China’s diplomats have the ability to restore China’s global reputation by themselves. Previous recalibrations of Chinese foreign policy have been backed up by domestic policy changes that made the country more appealing to the outside world. Its charm offensive in the 1990s, for example, was accompanied by a commitment to economic liberalization ahead of its accession to the World Trade Organization, a willingness to set aside border disputes, and even tentative steps toward domestic political reform.
But Xi’s government has shown no sign that it is willing to alter the state-led industrial policies that have alienated multinational companies, to soften the crackdowns in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, or to compromise on territorial disputes from the Himalayas to the South China Sea. That leaves Chinese diplomats and propagandists with a difficult if not impossible message to sell. But as long as they use Wolf Warrior tactics, they don’t even need to try.