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Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army march in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. China's foreign policy has turned aggressive under President Xi Jinping. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)
China up close

China's 'wolf warrior' diplomats roar at Hong Kong and the world

Xi Jinping's ambitious goal of overtaking the US at the heart of global tensions

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- There was a time in China when the foreign ministry was deemed so spineless, constantly flattering foreign countries, that an anonymous critic sent some calcium tablets for the diplomats. A memo was attached telling them to "strengthen their bones," a Chinese diplomatic source reveals.

Not today. China's hard line and highhanded "wolf warrior diplomacy" has captured the attention of observers both at home and abroad.

A glimpse of wolf warrior diplomacy came Sunday during a news conference given by Wang Yi, state councilor and foreign minister.

Sidestepping a question about whether China had abandoned its traditional "conceal ambitions, hide claws" diplomacy of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Wang hit back strongly at U.S. criticism over the new coronavirus. He said there was a "political virus" spreading in Washington that was pushing the two countries "to the brink of a new Cold War."

Some are calling Wang the "wolf warrior foreign minister," which, when compared with his calcium-lacking predecessors, is a compliment.

He even addressed a question about wolf warrior diplomacy.

"We've seen an increasingly heated 'war of words' between China and the U.S., a CNN reporter said ahead of asking: "Is 'wolf warrior' diplomacy the new norm of China's diplomacy?"

Wang Yi has been striking a strong and confident tone in his addresses that has helped China earn a reputation for "wolf warrior" diplomacy.   © Kyodo

Wang said that China, through its 5,000 years of civilization, has been widely recognized as a "nation of moderation" that does not pick fights or bully others but does refute groundless slander.

"We will push back against any deliberate insult to resolutely defend our national honor and dignity," Wang said.

Some Chinese media outlets reported the Q&A with great interest, writing that it was the first time 'wolf warrior diplomacy' had been discussed in such a formal setting.

The term comes from the domestic action movie "Wolf Warrior 2," a 2017 blockbuster that set numerous revenue records. The story depicts a former Chinese commando's life-risking missions to save compatriots in a war-torn African country.

With hints of Sylvester Stallone running through the movie, locals call it "the Chinese version of Rambo."

What is noteworthy is that the wild success of Wolf Warrior 2 happened in 2017.

It was the year China made clear its goal of catching up and overtaking the U.S., at least economically, in the not-so-distant future. It was a historic turning point for China's domestic and international politics.

At the Chinese Communist Party's national congress in the autumn of that year, President Xi Jinping set 2035 as the target year for "basically realizing modernization," which, in communispeak, means catching up with America.

In doing so, Xi brought forward the target by some 15 years, compared with the initial plan that had aimed for 2049, the 100th anniversary of communist China's founding.

A senior party official who visited Japan at the time met with a bipartisan group of Japanese lawmakers and clearly explained that a decision had been made to accelerate plans by 15 years.

Looking back, Chinese society three years ago was filled with a sense of euphoria. It was similar to a period in Japan after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the country emerged onto the world stage and its people were united in their will to achieve great modernization.

Late best-selling Japanese author Ryotaro Shiba captured it best when he portrayed the people's ambitions as yearning for the "Clouds above the Hill," the title of one of his novels.

"Wolf Warrior 2" was the perfect curtain-raiser for the Party's national congress.

Everything changed in China three years ago. Many of the frictions China is facing today have roots in 2017, though they are surfacing now as the scourge of the coronavirus drastically alters the world.

The U.S. administration of President Donald Trump became aware of China's ambitions at one point and in 2018 began taking economic and trade measures. The U.S.-China trade war flared up, including a battle over tech supremacy, which reached a fragile truce with a "phase one" trade deal in January.

But the U.S. and China are back to butting heads due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has dealt a serious blow to the U.S.

It was elements of China's "wolf warrior diplomacy" that led to tighter U.S. export controls on technology going to Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei, as well as calls in the U.S. to seek damages from China over the pandemic.

China claims it is not picking a fight with the U.S.

"China has no intention to change, still less replace, the U.S. It's time for the U.S. to give up its wishful thinking of changing China or stopping 1.4 billion people's historic march toward modernization," Wang said at his news conference.

But Wang's use of the term "political virus" hints at a lack of sensitivity, at a time when the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. is reaching 100,000.

Zhao Lijian, the firebrand spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, is one of the most visible "wolf warrior" diplomats.    © Reuters

Undoubtedly, there are concerns within the party that "wolf warrior diplomacy" is void of strategic thought.

The Trump administration has no illusions regarding China's ambitions. Its sense of alarm is reflected in a just-released White House report, "United States Strategic Approach to the People's Republic of China," which notes that the U.S. is undergoing "a fundamental reevaluation" of how it understands and responds to the leaders of the world's most populous country and second largest national economy.

The next crucial year is 2022. If the country is to drastically amend its basic policy, it would have to be submitted and approved at the party's national congress.

If Xi is to retain his status as the country's top leader, as widely expected, the basic policy will not change in a major way.

If there is a basic policy U-turn, however, it would mean Xi is stepping down, taking responsibility for the policy's failure.

China's wolf warriors are also baring their fangs in regard to Hong Kong.

On Sunday, the same day as Wang's news conference in Beijing, Hong Kong police fired tear gas at protesters rallying against China's move to impose a new security law on the territory. More than 180 people were detained.

"Hong Kong's 'one country, two systems' will finally end," one protester said. "It is only a matter of time before lashing out at the Communist Party in Hong Kong constitutes an offense immediately."

White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien threatened to impose sanctions on China if the bill is enacted.

It was the wolf warrior poster boy, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, who shot right back.

Calling O'Brien's comments "noises made by certain U.S. politicians," Zhao told the U.S. to stay out of the Hong Kong debate.

"The legal basis for the Chinese government's administration of Hong Kong is China's Constitution and the Basic Law, not the Sino-British Joint Declaration," Zhao said, pointing to the 1984 declaration signed between the U.K. and China that promises 50 years of autonomy.

"Then again, what on earth does the declaration have to do with the U.S.?" Zhao snapped.

President Xi has taken a hard line approach on Hong Kong, raising the potential for more large-scale protests. (Nikkei Montage/Source photo by AP, Reuters and Getty Images)

Earlier this year, Zhao spread a conspiracy theory on Twitter that the U.S. military had brought the new coronavirus into Wuhan, a central Chinese city where the outbreak began. The conspiracy theory has significantly hurt China's image abroad.

The proposed new security law for Hong Kong threatens to alter the territory's status as an international financial hub protected by freedoms. It has sent shock waves across the globe.

When and how was this major decision taken? It has all the hallmarks of a wolf warrior-style of policymaking.

The idea of strengthening security measures in Hong Kong did come up last autumn at an important fourth plenary session of the party's Central Committee. But to implement such controversial legislation would have required approval from the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body. It was clear that the bill would draw a strong backlash.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration that Zhao ripped guarantees the socialist system of China will not be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region as well as that Hong Kong's previous capitalist system and its way of life will remain unchanged until 2047.

The Hong Kong issue serves as a litmus test for whether China will continue to honor its international pledges.

One wonders if any member of the Politburo Standing Committee objected to the Hong Kong decision.

If the answer is no, the world is in for a totally unpredictable future. The wolves are howling.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has 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.

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