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China might have a friendlier face now, but it's not giving up on its aggressive Wolf Warrior diplomacy, experts say

Liu Jianchao, Minister of the Chinese Communist Party's International Liaison Department, shakes hands with a French diplomat. Former Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian speaks at a press conference.
Liu Jianchao, Minister of the Chinese Communist Party's International Liaison Department, shakes hands with a French diplomat. Former Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian speaks at a press conference.Gao Jing/Xinhua via Getty Images and GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images
  • Recent shifts in China's foreign ministry and tone have fueled speculation that Wolf Warrior diplomacy may disappear.

  • But experts told BI that it's unlikely we'll see Beijing's aggressive ways go for good.

  • It's a mistake to think that China has deliberately highlighted aggression as its default strategy, they said.

Speaking in New York, veteran diplomat Liu Jianchao seemed to signal a reversal in how China wants to deal with the world.

"I don't really believe that there has always been a kind of 'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy," said Liu, head of the Chinese Communist Party's International Department, at a Council of Foreign Relations talk on January 9. "And there's no talk about coming back to that diplomacy."

His words raised questions in the West. China has been known for its haughty, often hostile brand of diplomacy, known colloquially as the "Wolf Warrior" style.

But China, in the last year, also made major personnel changes to its foreign ministry, ejecting at least two Wolf Warrior diplomats. With its post-COVID economy struggling to get back on its feet, was Beijing sunsetting its aggressive ways?

That's unlikely, even if China's been adopting a friendlier tone, four experts on the country's foreign relations told Business Insider.

Liu Jianchao (fourth from right), attending a meeting with US State Secretary Antony Blinken in January.
Liu Jianchao (third from right), attending a meeting with US State Secretary Antony Blinken in January.ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

It's a misconception — and often a Western one — that Beijing has outlined a specific strategy to squabble and demean adversaries on the public stage, they said.

"The aggressive style of diplomacy that the PRC sometimes undertakes is a tool, not an ideology, belief, or doctrine," said Ian Ja Chong, who teaches about Chinese foreign policy at the National University of Singapore.

Beijing pulls out Wolf Warrior diplomacy whenever it feels the need to, sometimes to intimidate smaller countries, but often says its behavior is righteous anger instead of a bullying tactic, Chong said.

Named for the nationalistic 2017 Chinese film "Wolf Warrior 2," the term has come to encompass the litany of insults and wild claims made by Chinese diplomats in their defense of Beijing's interests. In one infamous example from 2020, Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted a photo that showed a soldier about to slit a child's throat against the backdrop of the Australian flag.

"Shocked by the murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers," Zhao wrote. The manipulated image stunned Australian leaders, who condemned the post as a "false image and a terrible slur."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian attends a news conference on December 20, 2021 in Beijing, China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian would later be reassigned as deputy head of an ocean affairs bureau, widely seen as a demotion. The move has also fueled speculation about the end of Wolf Warrior diplomacy.VCG/VCG via Getty Images

It's more about the home ground

But a Wolf Warrior diplomat's specific behaviors and level of aggression are unlikely to come at the direct instruction of their superiors.

Rather, it stems from an expectation for diplomats to protect Beijing's image fiercely, said Stanley Rosen, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California's US-China Institute.

"Anybody who's a diplomat for China who wants to be promoted cannot take the soft line," Rosen said. "They have to be defending China at all times. So you'll get in a lot of trouble and not get promoted if you seem to be too sympathetic to the foreigners."

On the other hand, a diplomat who gets too aggressive might be asked to tone it down, but would rarely be sacked or face severe consequences, Rosen added.

Perceptions at home are key to China's diplomatic approach, Rosen said.

"Number one, China's most concerned with its own domestic population, and they're playing to that population first," he said.

China's jingoistic nationalist crowd is extremely active on social media, and sometimes goes so far as to demand Beijing declares war over diplomatic slights. Zhao had been one of its most popular figures.

He pushed conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19 coming from Maryland, and Russian disinformation about US bioweapon labs in Ukraine. When government representatives began boycotting the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, Zhao dismissively said, "No one cares."

In return, he commands a strong, loyal following on Chinese social media, with 8.6 million followers on Weibo, China's version of X,

Pro-China supporters protest against U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan on August 11, 2022 in Hong Kong, China.
Pro-China supporters protest against U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan on August 11, 2022 in Hong Kong, China.Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Rosen said Beijing's secondary target audience is the Chinese diaspora, particularly Chinese students studying overseas, followed by the global South, which includes Beijing's potential and current partners in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

And coming in lower on China's priorities is the Western public, Rosen said, though it has a stake in opinions from the Western world.

"The reason they care is they want the technology, they want the investment, they want to trade, they want to sell their goods," he said.

The cost of tongue-lashing and knocking heads

While it's true that China has shown signs of dialing back its rhetoric, that's more of a recalibration than an overhaul, the experts said.

Pan Chengxin, who teaches international relations at the University of Macau, said Beijing started using its Wolf Warrior style in light of a more hostile global environment, such as former President Donald Trump's loudly confrontational policies toward China.

"It takes two to tango in international relations," Pan said.

Other mounting challenges for the West, like the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, mean confrontation with China is taking more of a backseat, said Dylan Loh, who teaches Chinese foreign policy and international relations at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore.

Meanwhile, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is likely refocusing on rescuing a struggling domestic economy and fixing internal issues, he said.

"Both China and the US know that it would not be possible to get along happily all the time, but the focus will shift toward managing conflict and distrust," he said.

Biden and Xi met in person at the APEC 2023 summit, a positive note in US-China relations as both countries continually clashed  in recent years.
Biden and Xi met in person at the APEC 2023 summit, a positive note in US-China relations as both countries continually clashed in recent years.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

China is also aware that the shock value of Wolf Warrior diplomacy brings diminishing returns. Countries would simply get used to its aggression.

"I think the limits of wolf warrior diplomacy are apparent," Loh said. "No one country, not China or even the US, can completely bully or shout their way through every single time."

"If Beijing wants the same effect, they will have to escalate," said Chong of the National University of Singapore. "That brings with it additional risks, situations getting out of control."

The Wolf Warrior will be back

That said, Wolf Warrior diplomacy will return, depending on the issue at hand, said Loh.

"The fact of the matter is that assertive diplomacy was present before even the term was coined, but it was certainly accelerated by Xi Jinping," Loh said.

Former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang shakes hands with US State Secretary Antony Blinken in June 2023.
Former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, known for building up Wolf Warrior diplomacy, was fired from his post and disappeared from the public eye amid corruption and an affair scandal. HIs ejection prompted some suspicion that Wolf Warrior diplomacy was no longer China's strategy.LEAH MILLIS/Getty Images

So why did Liu tell reporters and academics in New York that Wolf Warrior diplomacy would never return?

For one, Rosen said, the West coined the term, and Beijing doesn't use it.

And the name now carries so many negative connotations that China is likely pushing harder for the world to drop the concept, he said.

But it would just be the name that China tries to scrub away, not the behavior that created the Wolf Warrior reputation.

To the Chinese government, "when something develops what I might call a bad smell, you try and change the wording," Rosen said.

For example, China seems to have abandoned the name "Made in China 2025" for its plan to develop its advanced manufacturing sector, as Western countries grow more wary of its tech industry. But even without the name, Beijing is still driving hard to expand its AI and tech capabilities.

"You may not change the behavior, but you change the wording," Rosen said.

March 5, 2023: This story was updated to reflect an update to Pan Chengxin's academic affiliation. He is now teaching at the University of Macau, and was previously teaching at Deakin University in Australia.

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