On the Asian Century, Pax Sinica & Beyond (X): Coronavirus: Why Beijing’s ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ will fail
Relations with China are complex, particularly since the Presidency of Xi Jinping and the launch of his signature project the Belt and Road Initiative/BRI (Joshi, 2020, April 4; Wolf, 2019). With the outbreak and global spread of the Coronavirus, a critical perception of China as an international actor gained momentum (Wolf, 2020, April 22; April 20).
China’s foreign policy and diplomacy underwent a tectonic shift from being publicly calm, tactful, conservative, and low-key towards becoming openly assertive and combative (Griffiths, 2020, April 22). Moreover, there has been a rising nationalism among Chinese officials, especially during the past three years. One must note a significant ‘change in the behaviour and rhetoric’ (Jiangtao, 2020, April 18) within China’s Diplomatic Corps prompting observers to describe the actual Beijing’s foreign service members as ‘bullying’ other nations (The Economist, February 20). This new, strident tone among many senior Chinese diplomats is also increasingly described as a ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ (Wong, Rosenberg & Barnes, 2020, April 23; Global Times, 2020, April 16).
The term ‘Wolf Warrior’ in this context refers to a Chinese patriotic movie (also described as the Chinese counterpart to the Hollywood movie sequel Rambo) released in July 2017. It Portrays China as a country able to look after its own affairs by killing American (western) mercenaries in Africa with the blessing of the United Nations (UN). Critics of the divisive blockbuster claim that it creates ultra-nationalist sentiments among its audience and serves as a propaganda instrument of the Chinese government (The Economist, 2017, November 30).
The ‘Wolf Warrior’ style among Chinese diplomats is linked to Hua Chunying, Spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who called on the country’s foreign service personal to be more ‘effective and aggressive’ in ‘telling the China story, to get the message across to the world’ (Jiangtao, 2020, April 12).
Hua’s article doesn’t come out of the blue; nor is it a single, isolated incident. Such comments are systematic rather than linked to individual initiatives to attract the attention of superiors or show loyalty to the Communist Party of China (CCP) (Griffiths, 2020, April 22). They reflect the official line of Beijing. A proof that the ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ is ‘a result from a dictate from above’ is that ‘diplomats known for their assertive tone are receiving promotions’ (Griffiths, 2020, April 22). Chinese-controlled media publicly defends the new diplomatic style and actually appreciates the expression ‘Wolf Warrior’ (Global Times, 2020, April 16.
As a consequence, diplomatic incidents caused by China are multiplying worldwide. Local governments, media, and general public complain about insults and inappropriate rhetoric by representatives of the People’s Republic. The Chinese Embassy in Venezuela criticized the country’s officials for referring to the coronavirus as the ‘Chinese’ or ‘Wuhan’ virus and ‘ended an angry Twitter thread’ by telling them to ‘put on a face mask and shut up’ (Allen-Ebrahimian, 2020, April 22). Also, in Europe, several governments received their own taste of China’s new type of diplomacy. French President Emmanuel Macron and his administration were displeased over publications by the Chinese Embassy discrediting the country’s health sector and its workers (roughly summarized, claiming that France had left its older citizens to die), which sparked wide public outrage (Wintour, 2020, April 15). The most remarkable diplomatic éclat involved the Chinese Ambassador to Sweden H.E. Mr. Gui Congyou stating in November 2019 in an interview with a Swedish public radio that ‘We [Chinese officials] treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns’ (The Economist; 2020, February 20). Making things worse, instead of relativizing his statement, Gui continued his ‘shotgun diplomacy’ by further insulting Sweden for being ‘not important enough to threaten’ (The Economist, 2020, February 20).
Considering the tension between China and Sweden over the unexplained detention of a Hong Kong-based Swedish national (Taylor, 2020, January 21), such an infelicitous wording by an ambassador is a clear, open and unequivocal threat to a European government.
This ‘new’ Wolf Warrior Diplomacy is not a temporary defensive mechanism answering international criticism on China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. It is part of a broader foreign policy strategy encompassing the use of coercive force, influence operations, economic warfare (economic espionage, exploitation of weakness of foreign states, among others), disinformation campaigns and the undermining of international institutions such as the World Health Organization/WHO (Casaca, 2020, April 20). Sweden experienced only a verbal foretaste of China’s willingness to use coercive instruments to pursuit of foreign policy objectives whereas South East Asian nations like Vietnam or the Philippines are already facing China’s ‘shotgun diplomacy’ in the South China Sea.
In sum, we need to ask two questions: How ‘hot’ is our own conflict with China and how will China react when its new ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ meets increasing resistance by European states? We think any coercive strategy by Beijing is doomed to fail, mostly due to several misinterpretations by China:
(1) Xi Jinping’s thinks his country will get away with his policy of disinformation and aggression. But China crossed a red line. Suffering from human, economic, social and political consequences of the virus outbreak, the international community will hold China accountable.
(2) Until recently, European societies had an ‘indifferent stand’ on China. However, this situation has changed drastically, even if media and governments are still hesitating to recognize these societal transformation processes. The increasing frustration and anger over China’s responsibility on the spread of the pandemics will function as a push and pull factor for governments to reassess their future policies towards Beijing.
(3) When Beijing states that it ‘will not bow to international bullying’ it is reverting causes and consequences. The international community is aware of the Chinese aggressive attitude in Hong Kong and Taiwan; its economic freeriding in conflict zones, from Africa to Afghanistan; the ‘unconventional’ outbidding of Western companies; domestic human rights violations at home, especially in Xinjiang; and China’s support for autocrats worldwide.
As such, China is using an ‘offensive tactic to defend the indefensible’ (Joshi, 2020, April 20); in the new Chinese ‘Wolf Warrior diplomatic language’: By using a ‘pump-gun diplomacy’, China is shooting its own foot.
How Sweden copes with Chinese bullying. (2020, February 20). The Economist.
How the private sector is helping China to modernise propaganda. (2017, November 30). The Economist.
West feels challenged by China’s new ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy. (2020, April 16). Global Times.
Allen-Ebrahimian (2020, April 22). China’s “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” comes to Twitter. Axios. Blog.
Casaca, P. (2020, April 20). South Asia and the crisis of the international health governance. SADF Comment, No. 178. Brussels: South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).
Griffiths, J. (2020, April 22). For China’s aggressive new diplomacy, coronavirus is both a crisis and an opportunity. CNN
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Jiangtao, S. (2020, April 12). China wants its diplomats to show more fighting spirit. It may not be intended to win over the rest of the world. South China Morning Post.
Joshi, M. (2020, April 20). Coronavirus Has Made China’s Diplomats Turn Into ‘Wolf Warriors’. The Quint.
Taylor, A. (2020, January 21). China’s ambassador to Sweden calls journalists critical of Beijing lightweight boxers facing a heavyweight. The Washington Post.
Wintour, P. (2020, April 15). France summons Chinese envoy after coronavirus ‘slur’.
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Wolf, S. O. (2019). The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative. Concept, Context and Assessment. Cham: Springer.
Wong, E., Rosenberg, M., & Barnes, J. E. (2020, April 23). Chinese Agents Helped Spread Messages That Sowed Virus Panic in U.S., Officials Say. The New York Times.
 Actually, there are two Wolf Warrior Movies, the predecessor was released in 2015.
 The movie has grossed almost 5.7bn yuan ($870m) making it to the biggest box-office hit ever in China (The Economist, 2017, November 30).
 Hua’s piece appeared as ‘a front-page article of Study Times, the flagship of the CPC’s Central Party School’ (Jiangtao, 2020, April 12).
 Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian and China’s former ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian are serving as examples