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The Age of the Wolf Warrior: China’s Post-Pandemic Strategy

The younger diplomats take their cue from a Chinese Rambo-style movie and the rewritten history they learned at school

While countries around the world have been dealing with the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), China has claimed disputed areas in the South China Sea, taken over the Hong Kong government, and flown planes over Taiwan.

One result was a standoff between warships from the U.S., Australia, and China. A 2016 international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China has no legal sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. China, saying that the ruling was void, claims areas that are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Japan. The Chinese Liberation Army has also increased the number of troops at its border with India (the Line of Actual Control) disputed since the Sino-Indian war in 1962 (below right).

A broader issue is the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive response to any approach to COVID-19 that deviates from its preferred narratives. For example, when Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the virus, China countered with a threat of economic sanctions, as well as propaganda warning Chinese students in Australia of racism. The Chinese embassy in Venezuela claimed that legislators who called SARS-CoV-2 the “China coronavirus” suffer from a “political virus.” The legislators were told to “wear a mask and shut up.” One analyst sums it up:

And now, while Beijing grasps a fire hose with two hands, it’s also planting a boot on the world’s neck… But China isn’t letting the crisis go to waste. Instead of looking to make amends, Beijing is taking advantage of the chaos to pursue its long-term foreign policy goals more aggressively.

Alex Ward, “How China Is Ruthlessly Exploiting the Coronavirus Pandemic It Helped Cause” at Vox (April 28, 2020)

One of those goals is extending influence in Africa. That includes providing large infrastructure loans. When several countries asked for debt relief so that they could direct their resources toward public health infrastructure, China agreed, provided that they “provide lucrative national assets as collateral.” For example, Zambia had to provide their copper-mining projects as collateral so that they could focus on improving healthcare, sanitation, and food during the pandemic.

The wolf now studies diplomacy?

This approach has been described as “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. The tactic takes its name from a 2015 Chinese movie that depicts a Rambo-style vigilante who fights American mercenaries. Younger Chinese diplomats apply the strategy to foreign powers that do not tout a pro-Beijing narrative.

Most of these diplomats have been educated in schools where they are indoctrinated in Communist Party rhetoric, anti-Western sentiments—and alternative history. According to historian Yuan Weishi, students learn from history books in which the facts of an event are completely changed. In a 2007 essay translated by the editors of China Heritage Journal, Victor Mair describes Yuan’s reaction to typical children’s history books:

Highly selective and ideologically-driven descriptions of events leading up to the infamous razing of the Garden of Perfect Brightness, the imperial Manchu demesne outside Beijing which was destroyed by Anglo-French forces in 1860, and the Boxer rebellion of 1900, were not only incorrect but, Yuan warned, serve only to inflame nationalistic passions among impressionable teenagers. Yuan also cautioned that the irrational spirit guiding history teaching in China today endangers the country’s mature and rational participation in the global community. He recalled that the xenophobic violence of the Red Guard generation was bred by just such a biased education.

Victor Mair, “1900 & 2020–An Old Anxiety in a New Era” at China Heritage, Viral Alarm (April 28, 2020)

Yuan describes such young people as having been brought up on “wolf’s milk,” alluding to those who were brought up in hardship following the Cultural Revolution. But the phrase has acquired an additional meaning as these children have grown into the aggressively nationalistic “Wolf Warrior” diplomats.

But is the wolf charming enough to be a diplomat?

Unfortunately for the young diplomats’ aims, life is neither the movies nor the rewritten history they were brought up on. According to a Yale study, the Wolf Warrior strategy isn’t working as well as the warriors believe it is: “the results show strident methods pale in comparison to traditional public diplomacy.” (June 11, 2020)

Even among CCP loyalists, one hears condemnation of President Xi Jinping and the Wolf Warriors. The new aggressive approach goes against China’s previous global ethos, as set forth by President Deng Xiaoping, who called on diplomats to “Observe unfolding events with equanimity; remain secure in our stance; remain unperturbed in the face of challenges; hide our capacities and bide our time; avoid claiming leadership while advancing our cause.”

A recent video of former CCP professor, Cai Xia, has been making the rounds online. In it, she ardently condemns the Chinese government, calling it a political zombie, and calls for the resignation of President Xi. (June 12, 2020)

When the Wolf Warriors started roaming on Twitter…

Some of China’s Wolf Warrior diplomats have used Twitter to sow disinformation and to target anyone who speaks out against China or a narrative preferred by Beijing. Departing from prior practice, diplomats have been aggressively targeting users who do not have a large social media presence.

For example, the Wall Street Journal talked to Sri Lankan activist Chirantha Amerasinghe, who had called the Chinese government “low class.” He has fewer than 50 followers. Yet the Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka tweeted in response, “Total death in #China #pandemic is 3344 till today, much smaller than your western ‘high class’ governments.” Amerasinghe expressed surprise that an embassy to a country would respond by mocking it because it had suffered higher death counts from the disease.

Additionally, the Chinese government has used Twitter to spread disinformation on COVID-19, apparently to “undermine Western democracies, sowing internal division and projecting a distorted view of Chinas response to the global pandemic.” (Politico, June 10, 2020)
One result was that the European Union, which has been soft on China in the past, made its most forceful statement to date:

Foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighbourhood, and globally.

European Commission, “Coronavirus: EU Strengthens Action to Tackle Disinformation” at Press Release (June 10, 2020)

Twitter, forced to respond, shut down 23,750 accounts deemed to be state actors from China:

The U.S. social media company suspended 23,750 accounts that were posting pro-Beijing narratives, and another 150,000 accounts dedicated to retweeting and amplifying those messages.

The network was engaged “in a range of coordinated and manipulated activities” in predominantly Chinese languages, including praise for China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and “deceptive narratives” about Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, the company said.

Kelvin Chan, “Twitter Removes China-Linked Accounts Spreading False News” at Associated Press (June 12, 2020)

The 150,000 accounts that were “dedicated to retweeting and amplifying these messages” turned out to have very few, if any followers, which suggests that they mainly gamed the Twitter algorithm.

The wolves are not winning many hearts or minds

China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy has backfired in the global community in general. In May, 122 countries called for research to identify the origin of the virus, a call China has resisted. Recently, an inter-parliamentary commission on China was formed, whose stated mission is “to promote a coordinated response between democratic states to challenges posed by the present conduct and future ambitions of the People’s Republic of China.” Those challenges include Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, the interment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the handling of Covid-19 in Wuhan, and the security threats posed by Huawei’s 5G technologies (The Guardian, June 5, 2020). At the time of this writing, 100 countries had joined.

Additionally, Australia and India signed two military agreements, the Australia-India Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement and the Defence Science and Technology Implementing Arrangement, in response to the increasingly aggressive actions by China’s military in the South China Sea.

While China’s Wolf Warriors may have hoped to advance strategic objectives during the distractions and confusions around the pandemic, the reality is that wolves, real or imagined, have never been popular in human societies. The natural human reaction is self-defence.

Editor’s Note: For a discussion of China’s strategy and AI, see Denise Simon’s “China Aims at Global AI Dominance by 2030.” Simon argues that China’s systematic use of AI for social surveillance and control should cause us to think carefully about what that means.


Further reading on COVID-19 in China (Heather Zeiger)

The Dragon’s Deception: Conspiracy theories and false numbers. China’s global attempt to rewrite the history of coronavirus (COVID-19) is running up against incriminating evidence

Coronavirus in world without trust In China, medical heroism thrives despite both paranoia and justified mistrust of authorities.

Censorship? But coronavirus doesn’t care! Back when SARS was a threat, social media wasn’t the giant it is today. Censorship, secrecy, and detention are less effective tools of control now.

and

Serious media in China have gone strangely silent. With a compulsory new app, the government can potentially access journalists’ phones, both for surveillance and capturing data. Liu Hu sums up the scene in a few words: “Outside of China, journalists are fired for writing false reports… Inside China, they are fired for telling the truth.”


Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

The Age of the Wolf Warrior: China’s Post-Pandemic Strategy