Flag-waving rhetoric has seeped into China’s diplomacy in the war of words with other nations. Photo: AFP

For the past five months, Covid-19 carnage has wrecked lives and infected more than 4.1 million people across the planet. It has also attacked the DNA of diplomatic discourse among the world’s major players.

At times, the caustic geopolitical atmosphere has proved as corrosive as the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But even before the crisis, there were signs of a seismic shift in international relations with China ramping up the rhetoric. 

Ultranationalism in the form of “Wolf Warrior” dialog had drowned out the moderates in Zhongnanhai, the central headquarters of the ruling Communist Party. The loudest voice in the room was now the unwritten edict from Beijing.

Brash and bombastic, “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy is named after two fiercely patriotic Chinese movies. But the shrill language harks back to the period of the Boxer Rebellion between 1899 and 1901, according to one eminent academic.

“Who could have guessed that things would get exponentially worse during the coronavirus epidemic? Numerous absurd rumors have been doing the rounds, although they all feed into one overriding sentiment to ‘bolster China and disparage the West’,”  Zi Zhongyun, the former head of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, wrote in an essay for China Heritage

“Moreover, anyone who does or says anything construed as offering a defense of the ‘enemy’ is readily denounced as a ‘race traitor’. The most significant difference between the unfolding crisis at present and that of the past [Boxer Rebellion] is that this time around, foreign invaders did not unleash the disaster that is sweeping over us. Quite the opposite: now we are an exporter nation,” she continued in the English translation by Geremie R Barmé.

“In the past, we wanted to expel the Foreign Devils. Nowadays, they are packing up and leaving in droves of their own accord; to persuade them to stay will be a downright challenge,” Zi added.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak at the start of the year in the city of Wuhan, Beijing has “stoked” the furnace of “nationalism” after rolling out a high-profile propaganda campaign amid the global pandemic.

First, it was aimed at a domestic audience after social media uproar about the way President Xi Jinping’s administration handled the initial response when the virus was officially reported ahead of the Spring Festival holidays in January.

Read: How China hid ‘tens of thousands’ of virus deaths

Read: Inside Wuhan’s secretive National Biosafety Lab

Allegations of a cover-up followed as the epidemic became a pandemic. By now, “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy was taking center stage, aided by an army of Twitter trolls.

“Although it is not embraced by all of China’s foreign policy mandarins, it does appear to reflect the current zeitgeist in Beijing. The aggressive style is characterized by triumphalism – equal parts eagerness to assert the superiority of China’s approach to Covid-19 and enthusiasm for pointing out the shortcomings of Western countries’ responses,” Ryan Hass, of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, wrote in a commentary for the Brookings Institution.

“This brash new approach is helping China’s leaders stoke nationalism and shore up support at home amidst a spike in unemployment and a sharp economic downturn. The same messages that are playing well at home, though, are having the opposite effect abroad,” he added on the Washington-based think tank’s website.

Overseas, the reaction has become more vocal with Australia calling for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus in China. France and the United Kingdom have also demanded answers about the source of the outbreak, while Canadian politicians have joined the chorus for an inquiry.

But the United States has been the most critical nation of China’s foreign policy approach. In turn, this has fueled a row with Beijing insisting that US President Donald Trump has tried to deflect the blame for the climbing death toll of more than 80,000 with anti-Chinese sentiment. 

Amid the war of words, economies across the world have gone into meltdown with rising employment creating a second-wave of misery. 

“China’s propaganda push to assert the superiority of its response to Covid-19 is arousing antipathy on nearly every continent. So, too, are its efforts to push countries that receive Chinese health assistance to praise China’s response to the virus while staying silent on its negligent initial response to it,” Hass, of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said.

Finding a way through this diplomatic minefield, entangled in barbwire soundbites, will not be easy. 

China has become highly sensitive to criticism after being accused of reverting to “bullying tactics,” an allegation that has been vehemently denied. On Monday, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, the Xinhua News Agency, issued another lengthy rebuttal, entitled, Truth in China’s pandemic battle smashes absurd US allegations.

Still, concerns have been raised that Xi’s government has tried to suppress a less than flattering European Union report. Accusations have also been made that Beijing has used medical aid and economic threats in equal doses.

“What this shares in common with that last time [the Boxer Rebellion] is that yet again, Chinese anti-Westernism is retracing a direct path to ideas that are in their essence anti-human, anti-science and a wholesale rejection of our shared humanity,” Zi, the 89-year-old academic, said in an essay released last month. 

“This is so much the case that, even as the deep hurt caused by the virus has yet to be fully addressed, there are those in China who have been celebrating the agonies of others,” she added, referring to a banner hanging outside a Shenyang restaurant in March, which read: “Enthusiastically celebrate the coronavirus in America … wishing the virus a long and successful journey in Japan.”

Incidents of racism have also surfaced elsewhere in the world. Only this time against ethnic Chinese people. So, this is not just a problem in the world’s second-largest economy. 

Yet like the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it appears the DNA of diplomacy is mutating into a more bruising form of foreign policy that could have catastrophic consequences.