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Xi Jinping's hard-line stance on foreign policy stands in stark contrast to that of Deng Xiaoping. (Source photos by Ken Kobayshi and Reuters) 
China up close

Analysis: China's 'wolf warriors' take aim at G-7

Xi's tough foreign policy resonates with younger generation

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

TOKYO -- After the Group of Seven foreign ministers issued a joint statement criticizing many of China's recent actions last week, a computer-generated graphic depicting an event from 120 years ago was widely shared on the Chinese internet.

The aim of the young Chinese CG artist, who goes by the name Wuheqilin, was to brand the G-7 as an invader and to recall the Boxer Rebellion.

The 1900 uprising attempted to expel all foreigners from China and was supported by the Empress Dowager Cixi. That prompted forces from the Eight-Nation Alliance (the U.K., the U.S., France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Italy and Austria-Hungary) to enter Beijing and liberate the besieged foreigners.

As a result, the Qing dynasty was forced to sign the humiliating Boxer Protocol in 1901, which imposed backbreaking compensation obligations.

The satirical image took the commemorative photo of the G-7 foreign ministers standing on the steps of Lancaster House in London and replaced the figures with people dressed in old-style military uniforms from the Eight-Nation Alliance, similarly posing for a commemorative photo at the same place.

The "G7 -- United Kingdom 2021" sign behind the ministers had been rewritten "G7 -- Invaders United Kingdom 1900."

One more provocative though less visible element in the image is a soldier from India -- a guest participant at the G-7 -- wearing a white face mask and connected to an IV drip. The caricature ridicules India as it battles a tsunami of COVID infections.

Above: A Chinese artist's sendup of the G-7 "invaders." Below: The G-7 foreign ministers after their meeting in London. (From Wechat page, above, and Reuters, below)

Wuheqilin, who calls himself "a wolf warrior artist," is said to be in his early 30s, which puts him in the range of China's post-80s/90s generation.

Unlike their parents, China's new young adults have no direct knowledge of the dark and painful period of China before paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978 launched the economic policy of "reform and opening-up."

For them, the 1958-1961 Great Leap Forward, during which a vast number of people starved to death, and the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, which purged intellectuals, are a part of history, not personal experiences.

State-led patriotic education of the late 1990s has also taken root in their world view.

One Chinese intellectual who belongs to the generation of Wuheqilin's parents expressed strong concern.

There is a widespread view among the young that China should counter Western nations and Japan with force, now that it has become big and strong, the intellectual said.

Deng's foreign and security policy of tao guang yang hui, conceal ambitions and hide claws, is already a thing of the past.

Those in the generation of Wuheqilin's parents are in their 50s and 60s. They either experienced the Cultural Revolution directly or grew up listening to horror stories from the generation before them.

They went to school while the U.S. and China were drawing closer. They also remember the pro-democracy movement that led to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Through their upbringing, these parents have a sense of balance when they look at politics and international affairs.

While paying respect to Mao Zedong, communist China's founding father, they have never forgotten the negative aspects of the dictator who led the nation into the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

They harbor strong empathy for Deng, who put an end to Mao's disastrous policies.

There is nothing wrong with Wuheqilin expressing his political views through satirical images. The issue becomes more than that, however, when media outlets affiliated with the government and Chinese Communist Party begin to quote them and circulate his sendups on social media.

Zhao Lijian, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Information Department and a prominent wolf warrior diplomat, in November tweeted out another Wuheqilin graphic satirizing Australia. It depicts a smiling Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of an Afghan child.

Since the era of President Xi Jinping began, wolf warrior diplomacy has been conspicuous. It has also resonated with the young generations.

Increasingly, academics who advocate a get-tough policy, one that goes down well with the public, are being given preferential treatment by media outlets.

Some inside the party have flagged the dangers of the current trend. Yuan Nansheng, a diplomat-turned-scholar who served as head of the party committee at the China Foreign Affairs University, a diplomat-training school, warns that public opinion may be abducting Chinese diplomacy.

In an article published in the fall, he pointed out that "having enemies on all sides means a failure of diplomacy."

As a typical example of having enemies on all sides, Yuan cited the case of the Qing dynasty pushing ahead with antiforeignism along with the Boxers under Empress Dowager Cixi.

While Wuheqilin used the Boxer Rebellion to attack the G-7, Yuan used it as something China should learn from. As things stand now, such sensible arguments by the foreign policy experts are unlikely to prevail in China.

That is because wolf warrior diplomacy is a tool to achieve President Xi's domestic political agenda.

There is another development in Chinese politics that is worrying the generation of Wuheqilin's parents.

In late April, remarks by Zhuang Rongwen, deputy head of the party's Publicity Department and director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, sent shock waves through the party.

Zhuang called the span from 1949 to 1976 -- from the foundation of the People's Republic of China to the end of the Cultural Revolution -- "the 27-year period during which great achievements were made."

What is the problem? Zhuang's declaration included the 10-year nightmare of the Cultural Revolution in the period of China's "great history."

Mao Zedong's portrait goes through Tiananmen Square on Oct. 1, 2019. Mao's era, including the Cultural Revolution, has now started to be heralded as "the 27-year period during which great achievements were made."   © Reuters

This calls into question the whole premise of reform and opening-up, which was launched based on the lessons from the Cultural Revolution.

It is safe to say that the remark was made in accordance with Xi's wishes.

Zhuang delivered the statement during a meeting held as part of a party-history study campaign that was launched ahead of the 100th anniversary, in July, of the party's establishment.

Xi is fully aware of how disastrous the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were but is turning a blind eye.

Why is Xi denying the achievements of Deng? Why does Xi need to find fault with Deng, the man who raised millions out of poverty?

Because it was Deng who established the party's traditional rules, including a collective leadership system to prevent dictatorship and a 10-year limit on the top Chinese leader.

Xi three years ago pushed through a revision to the national constitution, scrapping the limit of two five-year terms Chinese presidents were allowed to serve.

But if the Deng-era rules are not destroyed, Xi will have to overcome obstacles if he is to remain as China's top leader beyond the party's next national congress, in 2022, and further concentrate power in his hands.

If Xi is to usher in a "new era" in every sense of the term, undermining Deng's authority is necessary.

The review of the party's history from 1949 onward is a strategic move ahead of the national congress.

Deng was the de facto leader of China for 19 years, from 1978 when he initiated the reform and opening-up policy until his death in 1997. Xi aspires to catch up with and overtake Deng in terms of reign. Doing so would bring Xi a step closer to the kind of authority Mao possessed.

In China, a new leader starts by denying his predecessors. Xi has begun to target Deng, not Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao, who were hand-picked by Deng and inherited Deng's policies.

The party's 100-year history is not merely a description of the past. It is an important tool to influence future politics. As the current top national leader, Xi has the authority to rewrite it.

Wolf warrior diplomacy, the end of Deng's "hide claws" strategy and the high praise for the period from 1949 to 1976 are all part of a single, cohesive campaign.

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