6 May 2020
In 2010, Zhao Lijian, then a low-level Chinese diplomat in Washington, joined Twitter. He was later reassigned to Islamabad, where he gained local notoriety for his bellicose put-downs of Pakistani critics of Beijing. His fame went global last July, when he responded to criticism of China’s mass internment of Uighurs with tweets highlighting racial segregation in America. Susan Rice, the former US national security adviser, called Zhao a “racist disgrace”. China then promoted Zhao and he returned to Beijing to take up a senior role in the foreign ministry. More recently, Zhao has made headlines by suggesting that COVID-19 was brought to Wuhan by US soldiers participating in the Military World Games.
Zhao is a pioneer of so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, known for its resolutely nationalist rhetoric. His career advancement has sent a message to Chinese diplomats around the world that such aggressive tactics will be rewarded.
Wolf Warrior diplomacy has been on stark display during the pandemic. Governments in Sweden, Kazakhstan and France have summoned China’s ambassadors to address concerns about the tactless and aggressive behaviour of its diplomats. In Sri Lanka, China’s embassy was suspended from Twitter due to an offensive tweet.
In Australia, the Chinese embassy has breached protocol by disclosing details of a conversation between Frances Adamson, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary, and Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye. The pair had been discussing Cheng’s recent suggestion that Canberra’s call for an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a Chinese consumer boycott. When the Department of Foreign Affairs criticised the disclosure as a breach of “longstanding diplomatic courtesies”, the embassy released a statement accusing Canberra of making the initial leak. “The Embassy of China doesn’t play petty tricks, this is not our tradition”, it said. “But if others do, we have to reciprocate.”
The conduct of Cheng and his fellow members of the Chinese diplomatic corps has been appalling. Their threats and conspiracy theories add to international anxieties about Beijing’s intentions and make it harder for countries – even major trading partners – to interact with them. All of this raises concerns about how China will behave if it assumes a commanding role in global affairs.
But Australia should not take the bait or panic. China’s infantile diplomacy is irritating, but it is also backfiring. It is exposing the Communist Party’s fallibility and clumsiness, just as it is trying to convince the world of its qualifications as a global leader.
China has not reserved its aggression for Western countries. It has attacked everyone, including weaker countries and states in Africa, which it has spent years trying to befriend. It has been losing goodwill across the world. An internal Chinese report, the contents of which were leaked to Reuters this week, found global anti-China sentiment was at its highest level since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
China wants the world to focus on its success in eradicating the virus domestically and its international distribution of masks and medical equipment, rather than its cover-up of the initial outbreak. But its belligerent approach to foreign affairs is betraying its self-styled image as a tightly controlled technocratic state, which, having wondrously lifted millions out of poverty and crushed a novel coronavirus, is about to wield its power, with unstoppable effectiveness, on a global level. The lesson from these ill-advised Wolf Warriors is that the Communist Party is prone to miscalculations and self-harm. Beijing is willing to turn potential partners into rivals, but it will not necessarily outsmart them.