For more than a year, they have stoked outrage against the West, but as Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats are urged to calm their fury, they face an unexpected source of opposition: the nationalists at home. them.
Under fire in recent years over issues ranging from human rights violations to responsibility for the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing has unleashed a new breed of diplomats who have come to be known as ‘wolf warriors’ – a popular term for belligerent nationalism inspired by a Chinese blockbuster movie.
Foreign Ministry spokespersons and officials abroad have adopted a shrill and indignant tone to speak out loudly for the Communist-ruled country and even promote conspiracy theories or openly insult their foreign counterparts.
But in a sort of about-face, President Xi Jinping this month urged key political leaders to help cultivate a “reliable, admirable and respectable” international image in an effort to improve China’s soft power.
Officials and state media, he said, should help “tell China’s stories better.”
For some analysts, the comments signaled a growing realization that years of stoked nationalism at home have left Beijing with little room for more complex diplomatic maneuvers.
While the change shows a “wider awareness at the top of the party that China’s recent diplomatic strategy … has not been well received abroad, including among potential allies,” said Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Center in the Netherlands, the new approach requires a delicate balance.
“The Chinese leadership has kind of put themselves in a trap. On the one hand, they promised the world a gentle and benevolent China – on the other, they promised the national public a strong and assertive China. “
– ‘Traitors’ –
Policymakers and intellectuals calling for more subtle messages have faced nationalist pushback – leaving them torn between their national and international audiences.
In June, “patriotic” Weibo influencers turned on prominent Chinese intellectuals who participated in a Japanese government-sponsored study exchange program, calling them “traitors” for accepting money. Japanese and wrote positively about the country.
# photo1Pekin finally stepped in, calling the program a way to “build trust and deepen friendship” – in stark contrast to Weibo users who called one writer an “unfriendly Japanese dog race” .
The online campaign against the swap program coincided with a visit by US senators to the democratic island of Taiwan to donate coronavirus vaccines, to which the Foreign Office issued an unusually soft rebuke that prompted contempt for nationalist internet trolls.
“Why don’t we shoot them down, they’ve violated our airspace! Wrote one furious Weibo user, a sentiment shared by a number of other users.
“So weak and incompetent,” lamented another.
Beijing has often encouraged nationalism when appropriate, including online campaigns that erupted this year to boycott foreign clothing brands that have made claims about avoiding cotton from Xinjiang in China, due to allegations of forced labor.
But even some of China’s most outspoken apologists have admitted that toned down rhetoric would better suit the country’s claimed great power status.
Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, wrote last month that the government’s social media accounts should “carry the banner of humanitarianism” after a Weibo account operated by the Communist Party published an mocking comparison between a Chinese rocket launch and the cremation of Covid -19 victims in India.
“Sometimes that ‘wolf warrior’ feeling can get out of hand,” Jonathan Hassid, professor of political science at Iowa State University, told AFP.
“(But) if China tries to soften its image, the patriots at home will be furious. If it plays with the patriots, the world community reacts negatively. “
– Conflicting objectives –
A change of tone is not the same as a change of approach.
Beijing enacted a law in mid-June that will allow it to retaliate against companies that comply with foreign sanctions, and has stepped up incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
China also made headlines this week after a Beijing-imposed national security law was used to crush a popular Hong Kong tabloid that offered unwavering support for the city’s pro-democracy movement.
Senior executives at the newspaper were arrested, along with owner Jimmy Lai.
Adam Ni, an analyst at the China Policy Center in Canberra, said Beijing was grappling with goals “in tension with each other.”
“Beijing wants a better international image,” he told AFP.
“But domestic political drivers, along with the need to assert his interests, mean he will continue to take steps in the opposite direction. “
© 2021 AFP