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China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy looks set to continue under Xi Jinping

President Xi Jinping delivers remarks at U.S. Department of State. (U.S. State Department/Released)
January 04, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The recent promotion of former U.S. Ambassador Qin Gang, one of China’s most prominent “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, suggests that the country’s aggressive approach to international affairs isn’t likely to fade as long as President Xi Jinping remains in power, analysts told Radio Free Asia.

Qin, whose term in Washington saw a sharp deterioration in bilateral ties over trade, Taiwan and human rights, was likely promoted for being a good exponent of Xi’s vision of leading China to a position of global power and influence, said Wang Weizheng, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Adelphi University in the United States.

“Obviously, Xi has promoted Qin Gang because he trusts him and has high expectations of him,” he said. “As the ambassador to the United States, Qin is someone who understands Western affairs … which would be a fairly new situation for China’s diplomatic system.”

“If the era of Western hegemony has [supposedly] passed, then China has to come up with its own plan,” Wang said. “Xi Jinping has ambitious expectations of China’s future position in the world order, which is linked to his notion of the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,’ the foundation of his foreign policy.”

“They might soften their stance a bit, but the underlying strategy will remain the same: Xi Jinping’s vision … is all about conducting diplomacy like a major power,” Wang said.

Qin is the first ambassador to Washington to be directly promoted to foreign minister in 20 years, as well as the first to be appointed outside of a National People’s Congress annual session. His predecessors Li Zhaoxing and Yang Jiechi both served as vice ministers of foreign affairs before being promoted to minister.

On Jan. 1, U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that he spoke by phone with Qin.that morning. “We discussed [the] U.S.-PRC relationship and maintaining open lines of communication,” he wrote.

China’s foreign ministry said Qin “looks forward to maintaining a close working relationship” with the United States, as he left Washington to take up his new post.

Outspoken on Taiwan

Media reports depicted Qinas keeping a relatively low profile as ambassador, while meeting with many different people and groups during his tenure.

But he adopted a much more assertive stance on the democratic island of Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party but which Beijing has threatened to annex by military force if it can’t be pressured into peaceful “unification.”

Qin sought out a number of U.S. media outlets, asking to be interviewed, during the August visit to the island of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her visit to Taipei “total political provocation” and “a farce” orchestrated by the U.S. government.

He told the media on Dec. 12 that the bilateral relationship had deteriorated in recent years due to “misunderstandings and miscalculations” in Washington that had spawned a large number of “extreme and unfriendly policies toward China.”

Stephen Young, former director of the Taipei office of the American Institute in Taiwan said that whoever succeeds Qin will only serve as a conduit for policy decisions in Beijing.

“The Chinese ambassador to the United States doesn’t have that much power compared with U.S. ambassadors, who have considerable flexibility in their diplomatic decision-making,” he said.

“China puts its diplomatic authority in the hands of Beijing, especially for extremely important relationships like the one with the United States,” he said. “All the decision-making power will be in the hands of the foreign minister, and of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.”

Growing public unrest

Former 1989 student leader and democracy campaigner Wang Dan said Xi’s political star could be on the wane following the abandonment of his favored zero-COVID policy, however.

“From his insistence on [a third term], to ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy, to zero-COVID … Xi Jinping’s dictatorial style and [poor] governance have caused widespread public dissatisfaction,” he wrote in a Dec. 30 commentary for RFA’s Mandarin Service.

“When Xi Jinping took power in 2012, a lot of people had hoped that he would implement political reform, and supported  him out of respect for his father [and veteran revolutionary] Xi Zhongxun,” he said. “Now, there is pervasive dissatisfaction not just within party ranks, but among the general population.”

“Everyone is keeping quiet … but very few are now likely to have genuine respect or expectations of him,” Wang Dan said, after arguing in a Dec. 16 commentary that “major power” diplomacy hasn’t worked, forcing Xi to forge alliances with smaller countries instead.

“[Such ties] still rely on massive amounts of investment … so even if they yield some superficial results, they will all be short-lived,” Wang Dan said. “Xi Jinping’s path to the international stage may turn out not to be a smooth one.”

Bad press

U.S.-based legal scholar Chen Guangcheng said Wolf Warrior diplomacy had also gotten China plenty of bad press in recent weeks, citing the attacks on Hong Kong protester Bob Chan, who was dragged into the grounds of the Chinese Consulate and beaten up by a group of men. 

The consulate general later admitted to having pulled Chan’s hair during the melee. All six diplomatic staff were later withdrawn from the U.K. after refusing to waive diplomatic immunity and submit to questioning by the police.

Describing the Manchester attacks as “a vicious example of how the Chinese Communist Party exports violence through its diplomatic institutions,” Chen said the violence isn’t always obvious and physical, citing the recent indictment of a U.S.-based Chinese national Wu Xiaolei by the Department of Justice for stalking Chinese nationals who took part in anti-government protests on American soil.

Wu, a 25-year-old student at the Berklee College of Music, was arrested and charged with stalking in connection with threatening and harassing communications he allegedly made towards an individual who posted fliers in support of democracy in China, the department said in a Dec. 14 statement.

Wu’s actions, which included threatening the person with having their hands chopped off if they posted anything more, had targeted a person who posted fliers bearing the slogans, “Stand with Chinese People” as well as, “We Want Freedom” and “We Want Democracy” on campus, the statement said.

Wu also said the person’s actions had been reported to the state security police in China, who would be paying a visit to the person’s family, the statement said.

“This alleged conduct is incredibly disturbing and goes completely against our country’s democratic values,” FBI Special Agent Joseph R. Bonavolonta said in a statement.

Chen wrote in response: “Faced with Beijing’s ongoing use of various methods to create fear and export violence, the free world must deal this practice a head-on blow.”

He called for more serious consequences for “wolf war-criminals” and lauded the “legitimate crackdown on red infiltration” by the U.S. government.