China's Zhao Lijian is among the nation's so-called "wolf warrior" diplomats. Image: AFP/Getty Images

China’s combative “wolf warrior” diplomacy is hitting a new fever pitch as its envoys become less and less diplomatic in their words and manners vis-a-vis Western counterparts. 

One recent case in point: “Boy, your greatest achievement is to have ruined the friendly relations between China and Canada, and have turned Canada into a running dog of the US. Spendthrift!!!”

The comment, aimed at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, would be par for the course for a nationalistic Chinese internet troll. But in this instance, it was tweeted by a senior Chinese diplomat who is not even involved in Beijing’s policymaking toward Canada. 

Li Yang, China’s consul-general in Rio de Janeiro, has become a social media star in China due to his cyber-outburst against Canada’s leader. His tweet, posted on Monday, is now doing the rounds among patriotic Chinese who admire his snark and straight-talking style, never mind that Canada is outside Li’s ambit of duty as Beijing’s envoy in Brazil. 

Yet on Twitter, which is inaccessible to ordinary Chinese citizens due to Beijing’s social media blocking, a commotion is now raging and Li’s account has become a virtual staging ground for fierce polemics.

Amid the hefty backlash from many Canadian Twitter users, Li has shown he is not averse to engaging in long tirades, hitting back at a hail of brickbats reminding the “wild and woolly” Li to uphold diplomatic protocols and not to get involved in Canadian politics. 

“Do not mess with Canadian politics? Fine. Free [Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer in house custody in Vancouver] Meng Wanzhou first,” replied Li.

The Chinese diplomat was also trolled by some who posted in Mandarin, likely Chinese netizens using VPNs to circumvent the nation’s Great Firewall. They told Li to learn and respect basic etiquette as shouting gruffly will only make him an international laughing stock and do a disservice to Beijing’s global image and interests. 

Before being posted to Brazil, Li was a member of the Chinese mission to Geneva. He also took part in China’s negotiations with Portugal over Macau’s handover to Chinese rule in 1999, according to his official resume on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website. 

A cultural affairs attache in Beijing’s embassy in Mexico City, who previously worked at the Foreign Ministry’s North America division, told Asia Times on condition of anonymity that it could be the first time that a senior Chinese diplomat in his official capacity had called out a foreign state leader using such abrasive language. 

“Personally, I don’t think Li’s words are appropriate… Venting his anger this way is not what a diplomat is expected to do, but numerous Chinese people would certainly want diplomats to talk tough and speak up against the West,” he said.

“In the past, some Chinese sent bottles of calcium tablets to the Foreign Ministry because Chinese diplomats were perceived as too weak in defending China’s positions. That has never happened since the hawkish Foreign Minister Wang Yi took charge.”

Lu Shaye, Beijing’s ambassador to Paris and previously Beijing’s top envoy in Ottawa, has also won support at home and courted controversy abroad after the Chinese embassy’s official Twitter account referred to French senators and politicians planning a visit to Taiwan as “petite frappe,” or little nuts.

Lu did not mince words in a subsequent back-and-forth with French Twitter users and said in an op-ed about freedom of speech on the embassy’s website that French anti-China firebrands were “nuts” because they maliciously provoked China and thus they deserved the retort.  

“If there is ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, this is only because there are too many rabid dogs out there who, under the pretext of academic exchange, freedom of speech and human rights, try to stigmatize China… The time of ‘lamb diplomacy’ is long gone,” read the article. 

The French Foreign Ministry summoned Lu on March 23, only to be subbed by the Chinese ambassador, who did not show up that day citing “scheduling conflicts.” Xinhua reported that Lu called on the French Foreign Ministry a day later to lodge China’s “solemn representations.”

China’s ambassador to France Lu Shaye also served in Canada. Photo: Handout

While in Canada, Lu stirred up an outcry in 2019 by referring to Ottawa’s persistent prodding to release its two nationals jailed in China, businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat and International Crisis Group staffer Micahel Korvig, as “political grandstanding that reeked of white supremacy.”

Both are still being held on flimsy charges in what critics see as a tit-for-tat for Canada’s holding of Huawei’s CFO Meng.

Some observers say China’s lurch towards “wolf diplomacy”, a combative approach that takes its name from a Chinese Rambo-style movie, is at stark odds with the steely public visage of former leaders like Deng Xiaoping, who was known for his modest, self-effacing style. 

Communist Party patriarch Deng’s well-known diplomatic philosophy was for China to lie low, not to ruffle feathers and not to bare fangs at opponents or critics, an edict strictly obeyed by his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.       

“Chinese diplomats are now more inclined to heap blame, derision and insults on foreign officials and state leaders and since many of them open their Twitter and Facebook accounts to interact directly with foreign netizens, they seldom hesitate to shoot unsparing, unflattering shots at anyone critical of China,” said the Chinese cultural attache in Mexico City. 

He said many are now following the lead of Zhao Lijian, a charge d’affaires ad interim at Beijing’s embassy in Pakistan in 2019 who was later promoted for his tough tack.

Zhao is renowned in particular for exchanging recriminations with Susan Rice, the then-US ambassador to the United Nations, calling her remarks on alleged state abuses of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang “disgraceful, shockingly ignorant.”

Many in China’s foreign service no doubt noted that Zhao was promoted to Foreign Ministry spokesman later that year.

Soon thereafter, Zhao tweeted that he suspected the US military originally brought the coronavirus to Wuhan, the reputed initial epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, an unproven accusation that sent shockwaves worldwide.

Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party’s high-powered Politburo and China’s most senior official in charge of foreign affairs, recently consolidated the “wolf warrior” trend.

The Chinese delegation led by Yang Jiechi (C), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office and Wang Yi (2nd L), China’s Foreign Minister, speak with their US counterparts at the opening session of US-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, 2021. Photo: AFP/Frederic J Brown

At last month’s summit meeting in Alaska, Yang responded to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s initial critical remarks, including US’ “deep concerns” about the situations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, with a wolf warrior tirade that some have suggested will go down in history. 

“For China, what we have asked for, from other countries, is to follow a path of peaceful development and this is the purpose of our foreign policy. We do not believe in invading through the use of force, or to topple other regimes through various means, or to massacre the people of other countries, because all of those would only cause turmoil and instability in this world.

“And at the end of the day, all of those would not serve the United States well. So we believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world,” Yang said.

Those strong words have resonated across China’s increasingly combative foreign service. “When the US and the West have abandoned courtesy to smear and attack China, how can you expect our diplomats to be gentle and courteous anymore?” asked the attache in Mexico City.