Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin is one of the people tasked with defending the country's reputation and responding to criticism. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker

When Deng Xiaoping visited Washington in January 1979, US president Jimmy Carter asked him to show some flexibility in allowing more Chinese to emigrate to the United States. 

Deng would have had good reason to reply that the request was an interference in China’s domestic affairs, but he did not. According to reliable sources, he replied: “No problem. How many do you want? One million, two million, ten million?”

President Carter, reportedly, did not pursue the subject.

Some 40 years later, within the framework of the ongoing controversy regarding Hong Kong, the British government floated a proposal according to which Hong Kong residents holding British National Overseas Passports would be given the right of abode in the United Kingdom.

Had Deng been alive today, there is reason to assume that he would have commented that if the British wished to take every Hong Kong inhabitant who was not happy with his lot, they were welcome to do so. Instead, at the news, Beijing went ballistic, denouncing an “interference” in China’s internal affairs and threatening retaliation.

Accusations by China regarding foreign “interferences” in the country’s “internal affairs” have now become almost routine, as well as clashes between Chinese diplomatic missions abroad and the media of the host countries.

To wit, in January 2020 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran a caricature depicting a Chinese flag on which the five stars had been replaced by five coronaviruses. The Jyllands-Posten was known to promote controversy and had gained international visibility when it published a series of caricatures mocking the Prophet Muhammad that provoked the ire of the Islamic world.

Demands for an apology

The caricature of the Chinese flag would have passed unnoticed had the Chinese Embassy in Copenhagen not erupted into spasms of agitation. Letters of protest from the Chinese ambassador and demands for an apology ensured that a non-event acquired a level of visibility that extended far beyond Denmark.

A similar occurrence happened in neighboring Sweden. Over the past two years, the Chinese Embassy in Stockholm has issued no fewer than 57 public statements denouncing Swedish media coverage of events in China.

Occurring in countries that had traditionally looked positively on China, these efforts were, to say the least, counterproductive: Some 70% of the Swedish population now profess to have a negative opinion of China

While these two cases stand out, they are certainly not unique.

When St Lucia, with a population of 168,000, was enticed to switch diplomatic recognition from Beijing to Taipei in 2007, the Chinese government went apoplectic and accused the island of “brutal interference in China’s internal affairs.”

How could what was possibly the poorest island in the Caribbean “brutally interfere” in China’s internal affairs was left to anyone’s imagination.

Likewise, China and Australia are now involved in a major spat that has spilled over from the realm of the media into the political sphere and has escalated into a major irritant in the relations between the two countries.

Reacting, not to say overreacting, to foreign taunts is a new phenomenon in China’s long history. Traditionally for China, the outside world was exactly that: the outside world, inhabited by Barbarians and at best ignored and left to their own devices.

Over the centuries it would never have occurred to Imperial China either to try to understand them or, even less, react to their jeering. 

Inward-looking

This was a pattern of behavior that came naturally to the People’s Republic during its first 50 years and which was enhanced by the relative isolation imposed on China by the West. This was compounded by the waves of ideological struggle to which China was submitted and the consequent disruptions that resulted from Mao Zedong’s political vision.

Thus, ultimately, a society that was by nature inward-looking was further induced to be so by being essentially focused on domestic developments. 

This situation has changed radically over the past 20 years. With the global economy and thus the outside world having become a component of the environment in which China operates, the setting was no longer “China” versus the “Barbarians” but China and the Barbarians, sharing the same ecosystem while retaining many of their own social characteristics. 

For both China and the West the challenge now was how to co-exist, not only side by side, but in a partly interlocked relationship and on an equal footing. A challenge that neither side seemed particularly well equipped to meet. 

It took barely 20 years for China to become a household name in the West. What previously had been the “land of the living devils,” not to say a mystery wrapped in an enigma, was now part of everyday life.

The “Made in China” label became an everyday occurrence and some 140 million Chinese tourists a year gave a humane face – albeit occasionally loud and pushy – to what had been until then a rarely encountered reality.

In parallel, China’s physical presence abroad skyrocketed. This included not only tourists but businessmen, students, scientists, foreign residents and, last but not least, diplomats. This increased visibility, not to say presence, in a Western society where criticism is endemic and disparagement the rule brought about a level of scrutiny that China had never been subject to. 

Unequipped to fight back

Traditionally China, whatever the regime, was never primed to handle disagreement. Granted, Mao had made a theoretical distinction between “antagonistic” and “non-antagonistic” contradictions, but in practical terms, the system viewed dissent as sedition to be mercilessly crushed.

The regime thus proved unequipped to address the level of foreign scrutiny, or criticism, to which it was now exposed. And when it attempted to do so, it lacked the tools to do so successfully.

The genesis of a more vocally assertive Chinese foreign projection lies within the uppermost echelon of China’s political pyramid. There is no doubt that at the top level of the leadership, there was a feeling that China was being systematically abused, not to say disparaged, by the foreign media as well as by components of the political establishment.

Viewed in a historical perspective, this was an inexorable development. Not only had a sizable component of the American establishment never reconciled itself to the fact that China was no longer under American tutelage, but having to deal with China as an equal proved downright traumatic.

Cultural differences compounded by the face-off of two incompatible systems were further exacerbated by an international environment in which freedom of expression knows few limits and mocking authority is more the rule than the exception.

With China becoming altogether more assertive, it was felt at the top levels of the Chinese leadership that the time had come to react to what was perceived as a policy of systematic vilification, in particular by the foreign media.

As for the implementation of this policy, it was logically assigned to the Foreign Ministry, and more specifically to the Foreign Ministry spokespersons in Beijing and to China’s foreign missions abroad.

‘Letters to the editor’

Nothing prepared China’s diplomats to embark on the path of what was defined as “wolf warrior diplomacy” and confront adversarial – real or perceived as such – foreign media. Compounding the problem is the fact that the “Barbarians” were not one specific well-defined group but a multiplicity of tribes, speaking different languages, having different values and reacting to different stimuli. 

The end result is that “letters to the editor” originating from various Chinese embassies are all written and configured in the same style, rather than being tailored to the cultural makeup of the recipient.

And while “Barbarians,” seen from Beijing, might all look alike, little attention seems to have been given to the fact that, if one wants a message to get through, one does not address in the same way an uncouth American senator as one does the staid readership of a Swedish daily.

Ultimately, the decision by China’s top leadership to embark on a more vocally assertive foreign presence raises two questions: namely for what purpose, and by whom.

If the purpose of China’s new “wolf warrior diplomacy” is to bark back at China’s critics, it has certainly been a success, with one caveat. As of today, it is all bark and no bite.

And while it has certainly raised the level of the decibels of the current tiff between China and its detractors, none has either been silenced, converted or even embarrassed. Conversely, it has probably contributed to drawing attention to that which would otherwise have passed unobserved. So when all is said or done, it serves no useful purpose. 

Assuming that “wolf warrior diplomacy” will endure for some time, the question of which organ of the Chinese state should implement it is not of little consequence. With internal matters that require a communication strategy coming under the responsibility of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party, there are a number of good reasons that a foreign communication strategy should actually not be entrusted to the Foreign Ministry. 

China’s Foreign Ministry is staffed by diplomats whose task is to represent China abroad and report on foreign developments to the central government. In other words, diplomats perform as diplomats.

By volition, they are not communication strategists and are not trained as such. They are even less qualified to implement such an effort when an overall strategy is subject to diverse local tactical implementations. 

To this end and operating on the principle that to get through to a Barbarian you need the services of another Barbarian, there is no substitute for local public relations agencies who can tailor a message to the specific audiences it is directed to.

Pending such a realignment, “wolf warrior diplomacy” is liable to remain a temporary hiccup of little substance on the difficult road of the relationship between China and the West. A relationship somewhat marred by the fact that the greater the interaction between the two, the less they seem to understand one another.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.