After a year of ruthlessly lashing out at their Western rivals, the belligerent “wolf warriors” of the new Chinese diplomacy are trying their own medicine. Urged to tone down, they are now the target of nationalist fury from their own ranks.
In recent years, China has brought out a new generation of diplomats who ended up receiving the name of “wolf warriors” for their belligerent, even insulting tone, against those who criticized them for violating human rights or hiding information about the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a 180-degree turn, President Xi Jinping last month asked top political officials to modify this strategy and cultivate a “trustworthy, admirable and respectable” international image to enhance China’s soft power.
The communist party leadership has realized that “the recent diplomatic strategy had not been well received abroad, including among potential allies” but this change requires a delicate balance, said Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Center in the Netherlands.
“The Chinese leaders have set themselves in a trap. On the one hand, they promised the world a temperate and benevolent China. On the other hand, they promised the domestic public a strong and decisive China, “he added.
In June, influential “patriotic” opinion leaders lashed out on the Weibo social network against prominent Chinese intellectuals who participated in an academic exchange program promoted by the Japanese government, accusing them of “traitors” for accepting Japanese money and writing positively from that country.
Beijing stepped up and defended the show as a way to “build trust and a deeper friendship” with Tokyo.
That campaign coincided with a visit by US senators to the island of Taiwan to donate vaccines against the coronavirus, to which the Chinese Foreign Ministry only issued a mild reprimand.
“Why haven’t we shot them down? They have violated our airspace! ”, Reacted a Weibo user. “So weak and incompetent,” lamented another.
Beijing has encouraged domestic nationalism when it suited it, but now even some of its staunchest advocates admit that calmer rhetoric would better fit the great power role the country claims.
Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, recently urged the government to make “the flag of humanity” on social media after a Communist Party-controlled Weibo account joked with an image comparing a special Chinese rocket launch and incineration of COVID victims in India.
“Sometimes the ‘wolf warrior’ sentiment gets out of hand,” Jonathan Hassid, professor of political science at the University of Iowa, told AFP.
“But if China tries to soften its image, the patriots at home are going to be furious,” he added.
The change in tone, however, is not reflected in the actions, as shown by the approval of a law to punish companies that obey foreign sanctions, their incursions into the air defense zone of Taiwan or the police coup against the opposition newspaper Hong Kong Apple Daily, forced to close.
For Adam Ni, an analyst at the Chinese Policy Center in Canberra (Australia), the goals of the communist regime are contradictory.
“It wants a better international image, but internal political factors, as well as the need to vindicate its interests, mean that it will continue to deploy actions in the opposite direction,” he said.