From Asia to Africa, London to Berlin, Chinese envoys have sparked diplomatic firestorms with a militant defense when their country is accused of not acting fast enough to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
They belong to a new generation of “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, named after patriotic blockbuster movies starring a muscle-bound Chinese command that kills American bad guys in Africa and Southeast Asia with his bare hands.
The tougher approach has been building for years under President Xi Jinping, who has effectively thrown off former leader Deng Xiaoping’s approach to hiding China’s ambitions and biding its time. His government has urged his diplomats to pursue “diplomacy of the major countries with Chinese characteristics” – an appeal to China to reaffirm its historic status as a world power.
“The time for China to be put in a submissive position is long gone,” said an editorial in the Global Times, a state newspaper known for its outspoken views. The Chinese people said they were no longer satisfied with a weak diplomatic tone.
Ambassador Gui Congyou has belittled journalists in Sweden and compared them to a lightweight boxer who wants to go from toe to toe with a heavyweight China. A comment on the embassy website last month attacked a Swedish reporter for an article on the impact of China’s one-party system on its virus response.
“Using this epidemic for political purposes, carrying out ideological attacks and spreading lies in the name of ‘freedom of expression’ will only lead to self-sabotage. It’s like lifting a stone and dropping it on your own toes, “he said.
Experts say Beijing views critics not only as an attack on its actions, but also on its leadership and government law.
“If anyone tries to attack China on this issue, China will fight back decisively,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of International Studies at Renmin University. “Chinese leaders may think that if China doesn’t fight back, it will hurt China even more.”
Chinese diplomats are increasingly turning to Twitter and Facebook platforms that are blocked in their own countries. They follow in the footsteps of Zhao Lijian, a trailblazing brand whose tweets stationed in Pakistan drew huge following and also led former United States Ambassador Susan Rice to call him a “racist shame” to be rejected.
Instead, China promoted him to spokesman for the State Department.
Xi has clearly expressed a preference for “wolf-warrior” diplomats, said Carl Minzner, an expert in Chinese politics at Fordham Law School in New York City.
These new style diplomats’ read the tea leaves and use bombastic language abroad as a means of drawing the attention of the nationalist public at home – both to the party elite and to society as a whole – regardless of the impact on China’s image in abroad, “said Minzner.
The new shrill tone was less appreciated abroad. The French foreign minister has summoned the Chinese ambassador after a statement by the embassy, apparently in response to Western criticism, that the French nursing home workers have been accused of desertion and “letting their inhabitants die of hunger and disease.”
The US protested after Zhao tweeted unsubstantiated speculation that the U.S. military may have brought the virus to China.
China’s envoys in Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda are scolded for reports of virus-related harassment of Africans in the city of Guangzhou, a rare public reprimand of Beijing by African countries. The Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe dismissed the rage and tweeted dismissively about “so-called racial discrimination.”
Chinese officials are angry with what they see as Western hypocrisy. They say President Donald Trump and other leaders ignored the brewing pandemic and then scapegoated China as soon as the virus hit their coast.
French President Emmanuel Macron has questioned China’s virus response by telling the Financial Times that “things have clearly happened that we know nothing about.” Britain’s top diplomat said it couldn’t go back to “business as usual” with China.
The Chinese embassy in Berlin posted an open letter to Bild accusing the mass circulation blood of “bad taste” for blaming China’s pandemic and calculating how much Germany owed it for not curtailing it. The embassy in Spain tweeted “Freedom of Speech Has Limits,” in response to a far-right politician who posted a video about “Spanish antibodies fighting the damn Chinese viruses.”
Under Xi, Beijing has launched coordinated efforts to shape China’s image abroad. It takes a page out of the Russian playbook and has mobilized thousands of bots to tweet the line of the Communist Party, Twitter said. China has pumped money into state media that broadcast in Swahili, Arabic, Spanish and dozens of other languages.
“In the past, China’s diplomacy was far from the people,” said Chu Yin, a professor at the Chinese University of International Relations. Now Chinese diplomats feel “it is safe for them to show that they are strong. At least being tough will not be wrong.”
In Thailand, the embassy on Facebook called critics “disrespectful” and accused them of “betraying history” in a battle on social media over the origins of the virus and the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Sri Lanka, the mission erupted this month after Twitter suspended its account, demanded ‘free speech’ and accused the tech giant of ‘double standards’. Twitter reversed the suspension the following day.
Beijing diplomats see the virus as an opportunity to assert leadership among countries that criticize the West. Many leaders have praised China for sending medical equipment and teams, with one flight greeted by the President of Serbia kissing the Chinese flag.
In the 1990s, some in China dismissed their diplomats as the “Ministry of Traitors,” irritated by alleged reverence for Western powers. Not anymore.
“We have approached the center of the world like never before, but we still don’t have full control of the microphone,” said Hua Chunying, the chief spokeswoman for the State Department. “We must assert our right to speak.”
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