With comments such as, “It’s possible that the US military brought the [COVID-19] virus to Wuhan” and, “Racism against ethnic minorities in the US is a chronic disease of American society”, former Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian was one of the most ardent of China’s so-called wolf warrior diplomats.
Although criticised by Western diplomats, Zhao’s combative rhetoric drew a huge audience on social media platform X, where he built up a following of more than 1.9 million, and other Chinese diplomats rushed to adopt his forthright approach.
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But then at the beginning of January, Zhao was abruptly reassigned to a much less public role the Chinese Foreign Ministry that manages land and sea borders.
Since then, little has been heard from him, and he has not posted on X since.
Before Zhao’s transfer, the Chinese government had made few attempts to rein in its wolf warrior diplomats. But when Beijing’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, questioned the sovereignty of post-Soviet states in a French interview in April, prompting outrage among several European countries, Beijing quickly distanced itself from Lu and his remarks.
The wolf warriors have been pushed aside, according to associate professor Chong Ja Ian, who teaches China’s foreign policy at the National University of Singapore.
So too has another animal that has long symbolised the softer side of Chinese diplomacy.
Chinese pandas in zoos across the West have returned to China this year with no immediate plans for the animals to be replaced.
According to Rutgers University’s Shaoyu Yuan, who is a scholar of Chinese diplomacy, the departure of wolf warriors and pandas suggests a shift in Beijing’s diplomatic approach.
“They are currently trying to find the sweet spot between hard and soft diplomacy,” he said.
‘More strident sense of nationalism’
Wolf warrior diplomacy draws its name from the 2017 Chinese movie Wolf Warrior 2 – about a former Chinese soldier who volunteers to go to an unnamed war-torn African country to rescue Chinese citizens trapped by fighting between rebels and government forces.
According to NUS’s Chong, wolf warrior diplomacy had its roots in growing tensions in the South China Sea amid a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that China’s expansive maritime claims in the disputed waters were without legal basis.
In that context, wolf warrior diplomacy was a way to demonstrate resolve to both external and domestic audiences and convey that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was serious about defending its interests, Chong told Al Jazeera.
“It also dovetailed with increasing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promotion of a more strident sense of Chinese nationalism that included strong ethnic and cultural elements,” he added.
While Chinese diplomats of previous decades were known for a more cautious and bureaucratic diplomatic tone, rarely engaging with foreign media or posting on social media, wolf warrior diplomats have brazenly defended Beijing from foreign criticism and proactively launched rhetorical attacks of their own across media landscapes against perceived hostile forces.
Although wolf warrior diplomacy is a relatively recent phenomenon, panda diplomacy is far more established.
In its modern format, it goes back to the 1950s but picked up in the 1970s with United States President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to China and the end of Beijing’s international isolation. Following the visit, then-Chinese leader Mao Zedong gave two pandas to the US as a gift. Two years later, the United Kingdom was also given two of the animals.
“The pandas provided a friendly and cuddly perspective on the PRC at a time when negative impressions of the PRC stemming from the Korean War and the Cultural Revolution were still relatively fresh,” Chong explained.
Since the 1980s, Beijing has adapted the programme to instead provide pandas on loan – for a fee and a limited period – as a sign of friendship to countries around the world.
As of 2023, Beijing had leased pandas to about 26 zoos in 20 different countries.
But Beijing’s animal diplomacy has in several ways outlived its usefulness, according to Chong.
In terms of the pandas, the cute and friendly image of China they were meant to convey has been replaced by a more nuanced view after decades of the country being open to the outside world, the associate professor said.
Yuan from Rutgers University sees pandas leaving Western zoos without new ones replacing them as a sign of the current frosty ties between China and countries in Europe and North America.
“Pandas are in some ways a diplomatic thermometer,” Yuan said.
“It can be a way for Beijing to give a subtle notch that it is not satisfied with the way a bilateral relationship is developing.”
Meanwhile, Western institutions are not necessarily eager to acquire symbols of Chinese friendship at a time when Western sentiment towards Beijing is far from positive.
Yuan sees wolf warrior diplomacy as partly to blame.
“The approach is definitely one of the reasons behind the more negative sentiment,” he said.
“The wolf warrior diplomacy can be seen as a challenge to the values and principles that many in the West uphold such as open dialogue, mutual respect in international relations and adherence to international law and norms.”
But according to Chong, that was not necessarily a problem for Beijing as long as the combative rhetoric could assist in cowing other countries into accommodating the CCP.
Such attempts were not limited to the US or China’s immediate neighbours.
Harsh rhetoric along with economic coercion was directed at Australia following its government joining calls for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 after Beijing was accused of not being transparent about the initial outbreak.
A similar Chinese barrage struck Lithuania in 2021 when the Baltic country allowed Taiwan to set up a representative office in Vilnius under the self-ruled island’s name. Beijing considers Taiwan an inseparable part of China and is sensitive to any developments that suggest otherwise.
But the pressure tactics failed to force a change.
Australia was able to find new markets for many of the goods no longer going to China, while the European Union, which includes Lithuania, united behind Vilnius and launched a case against China at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), accusing it of discriminatory trade practices.
“Beijing has since realised that its more aggressive diplomacy is not working,” Chong said.
“The over-the-top abrasiveness has created more apprehension towards the PRC.”
The Chinese government is normalising relations with both Australia and Lithuania.
Beijing has also struck a more conciliatory tone with the US since Chinese President Xi Jinping met US President Joe Biden in San Francisco in November – a sharp contrast to the beginning of the year when the shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon that was discovered flying across the US sent bilateral relations to a new low.
Experts say Beijing’s diplomatic shift is also connected to the economic headwinds it currently faces.
Growth has been struggling to reach the government’s target, youth unemployment hit 21.3 percent in June before the authorities stopped publishing the numbers and China recorded its first-ever foreign direct investment deficit in the July-September period of 2023.
“Right now, access to foreign investments and technology is especially important to China’s economic growth,” Chong said.
“China cannot survive economically on its own,” Yuan noted.
“Its global economic plan requires a less aggressive diplomatic style that reduces confrontation.”
That does not mean it is gone forever, however.
“Wolf warrior diplomacy is a means to an end, and should Beijing expect it to be useful one day, it could come back again,” Chong said.