TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The tongues of China’s wolf warrior diplomats have been the proverbial tip of the spear of China’s sharp power in recent times, yet as China seeks to lower tensions and makes overtures about cooperation with the U.S., the rift they have driven between the two may prove too wide to close.
If Xi Jinping (習近平) is serious about China’s diplomats becoming more "thoughtful" or even "lovable," he will have to take stronger action to tame the wolves that he has reared. Recent crackdowns on the private sector and other elements of Chinese society show he has the capability to do so.
Curiously, wolf warriors as a metaphor can be explained by what is called "reification" — the mind’s natural tendency to connect closely aligned lines and dots into a single whole.
Draw 18 dots or more to mimic a circle — short of connecting one to the other — and the mind will not see the dots separately; it will see a circular pattern. One of the first schools of psychology to expound on this subject was Gestalt in Germany.
Wolf warriors are, in more ways than one, proverbial dots in human form. The spokesmen of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Qin Gang (秦剛), who just arrived to fill the gap in Washington, D.C., left by former ambassador Cui Tiankai (崔天凯), show similar aggressive temperaments.
Professional diplomats or political appointees are supposed to be humble, thoughtful, and polite, affirmed Ernest Satow, the classical author who fleshed out the elements of modern engagement in "A Guide to Diplomatic Practice." Yet, when operating in a group, the abrasive Chinese diplomats may reinforce one another and together ride roughshod over the norms of diplomatic conduct.
First to ‘cry wolf’
But when did the phenomenon of wolf warrior diplomacy really begin?
While many scholars attribute it to the blockbuster Chinese movie by the same name, one can also attest to the precise incident when it was triggered by Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) himself.
When in 2016 Wang was questioned about human rights in China in a press conference alongside Canada’s foreign minister, his infamous repartee was casual yet unfortunately caustic.
A short sample of his answers underscores the point:
“Your question towards China seems to be filled with contempt.”
“How you acquired that attitude is beyond me. But I can sense the malice."
”Do you know China has saved 600 million people from absolute poverty?”
“Do you know we are working to ensure another 800 million Chinese are spared the fate of sheer deprivation?”
“Have you been to China?”
The rapid-fire questions left the reporter feeling bruised and bullied, but over the last five years, spokespeople for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs have all embraced this abrasive style.
Among the key ones are Hua Chun-ying (華春瑩), Zhao Lijian (趙立堅), and Geng Shuang (耿爽). They all take turns using the above method, including on social media platforms such as Twitter or Weibo, to underscore their points.
Hence, this turn in Chinese foreign policy is not so much the work of one man as the collective effort of a group of wolf warriors.
Drag on trade
When China concluded the first round of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with the heads of the EU last December, both sides emerged from the meeting in great rapture.
A month earlier, after eight years of intense negotiation, Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) immediately welcomed the breakthrough on the CAI.
Xi went far ahead of praising the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which China has suggested it would like to join.
In both contexts provided by Xi and Li, the wolf warrior wave was but a cathartic phase China has had to go through.
Besides, one must remember the final process of ratifying the CAI is subject to the votes of more than 704 European Members of Parliament, and even before the deal was frozen over Beijing's sanctions on five MEPs, signs were showing it would come crashing down due to suspicions China could not live up to the basic labor rights requirements.
When one side assumes China must adopt the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights first, the proverbial mountain seems to be out of reach. Structural adjustments aside, the aggressive diplomatic language used by Chinese diplomats toward their European counterparts has exacerbated differences between them and eroded trust.
Xi knows anti-China feelings are on the rise, as captured by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in the U.S. Invariably, out of 14 industrialized countries, nine showed a dramatic jump of almost 25% to 30% in their anti-Chinese Communist Party sentiments in 2020 alone, a statistical leap that had not been observed since the research center started tracking the opinions 15 years ago.
Things got worse for China this year. Majorities in 15 of the 17 advanced economies surveyed by Pew in 2021 now hold an unfavorable opinion of China, including record highs in Canada, Germany, South Korea, and the U.S.
This is why, according to Bill Bishop of Sinocism, XI has requested that diplomats be more "thoughtful" or even "adorable."
But the proverbial “wolves” have already bolted out of the “cave” — Qin and Geng have been promoted to senior positions with nary a complaint from Xi. The issue for Beijing is that the churlish howls of wolf warrior diplomats have reverberated throughout the world.
With 17 of its 31 provinces facing an outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19 as of last month, one might hope that China — whether as an ancient civilization or a growing economic juggernaut — will not revert to the anachronistic practice of expecting everyone to kowtow to its power.
Just as the world is not out of the woods with the Delta variant, China’s diplomats have not yet found their way back to the path of honorable conduct.
A tad of humility would go a long way to repair the damage done globally.
Phar Kim Beng, PhD, is the current Founder CEO of Pan Indo-Pacific Arena; (Strategicpipa.com) with official representation in Istanbul; Kuala Lumpur; Tokyo; Seoul and Indonesia. He had previously received multiple teaching distinction awards as the Head Teaching Fellow in Modern Chinese; Asia International Relations; International Conflict and Cooperation since 15th; and Modern Global Economy.