Yes, there is a problem with being a wolf warrior

Recent extreme acts by Chinese diplomats have recast the spotlight on China’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy”, or brand of brash and offensive tactics. Han Yong Hong points out that the damage this haughty diplomacy is doing is nothing to be laughed away. The term evolved from a Chinese patriotic movie after all. When Chinese officials blur the line between a movie scenario and reality, they run the risk of getting trapped in tautologies.
Chinese soldiers march past security guards before a reception at the Great Hall of the People on 30 September 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP)
Chinese soldiers march past security guards before a reception at the Great Hall of the People on 30 September 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP)

Following the controversy over a satirical image directed at Australia*, Chinese foreign ministry officials and politicians are embroiled in another war of words with other countries, this time over “wolf-warrior diplomacy”.

At an academic seminar last Saturday, Chinese Foreign Vice-Minister Le Yucheng said China must find a way to stop getting the blame and losing its voice in global discourse. He countered that China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy as spoken of internationally is a rehashing of the “China threat” theory, and a “discourse trap” which “aims to make China give up and never fight back”.

Right after that, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “I don’t see any problem in living with that ‘wolf-warrior’ title, as long as we are fighting for China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, national dignity and honour, and international fairness and justice.” On the same day, Nicolas Chapuis (Yu Bai), the EU ambassador to China, said at a separate event that the US and the EU should “have a common understanding to say ‘no’ to bullying and intimidation, coercive diplomacy, ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy.”

China's attitude is to deny that it is adopting wolf-warrior diplomacy, while arrogantly and firmly declaring that there is nothing wrong with being a wolf warrior if outsiders are being unreasonable.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying holds a news conference in Beijing, China, 30 November 2020. (Thomas Peter/ REUTERS)
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying holds a news conference in Beijing, China, 30 November 2020. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

This exchange has made “wolf-warrior diplomacy” a big issue. In itself, it is a term with no theoretical basis, but it has been played up by the media. China's attitude is to deny that it is adopting wolf-warrior diplomacy, while arrogantly and firmly declaring that there is nothing wrong with being a wolf warrior if outsiders are being unreasonable.

In the debate over wolf-warrior diplomacy, China and its detractors each see the other side as being unreasonable, bullying, and threatening. The divide between China and everyone else is obvious, as is the lack of mutual understanding.

How the term wolf-warrior diplomacy became toxic

But what exactly is wolf-warrior diplomacy, and how did the term come about? What does it represent, and for whom?

Wolf Warrior and Wolf Warrior 2 are patriotic Chinese movies released in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Wolf Warrior 2 tells the story of Leng Feng, a maverick soldier who is expelled from the Chinese military but finds himself embroiled in a rebellion somewhere in Africa and single-handedly rescues his compatriots. At the end of the movie, a Chinese passport appears with the caption: “...if you are in danger overseas…remember a strong motherland is behind you!”

Apparently, this scene drew tears and applause from many Chinese viewers, and elevated the idea of the wolf warrior to the level of China’s national image. However, there is a price to be paid for blurring the line between a movie scenario and reality.

Chinese media declared that such wolf-warrior patriotism was uncalled for, while commentaries said wolf-warrior propaganda has led to some Chinese acting like “giant babies”.

The repercussions also came swiftly. A few months later, in late January 2018, Chinese tourists were left stranded in airports in Japan and Iran due to flight delays. These tourists, in their strong belief that a strong motherland was behind them, made international headlines as they sang the national anthem and shouted "China" at the airports. Chinese media declared that such wolf-warrior patriotism was uncalled for, while commentaries said wolf-warrior propaganda has led to some Chinese acting like “giant babies”.

The dispute involving the Swedish police supposedly “insulting Chinese” in September 2018 pushed Chinese diplomats even further to the frontline.

A Chinese family on holiday had a dispute while checking in to their hotel in Sweden.** Chinese netizens swooped in to support them and to vent their dissatisfaction on social media. The Chinese embassy in Sweden stepped in, leading to a diplomatic incident. In a wolf-warrior environment, Chinese embassies overseas have to show “political correctness” by getting tough on foreign parties, although information revealed later showed that the Chinese tourists were likely taking advantage of the situation and “acting out” to demand special treatment.

And this is how Wolf Warrior became linked to Chinese diplomacy. And when top Chinese officials stressed “fighting spirit” in 2019, coupled with the deterioration of China’s relations with the rest of the world given this year’s pandemic amid Chinese diplomats hitting back strongly on issues such as the origins of the coronavirus, the term wolf-warrior has become an increasingly popular catchphrase.

Le Yucheng, undated. (Internet/SPH)
Chinese Foreign Vice-Minister Le Yucheng, undated. (Internet/SPH)

Le Yucheng is right in saying that wolf-warrior diplomacy is a “discourse trap” and a convenient label for critics to attack China. It seems that whoever uses the term wolf-warrior diplomacy in their comments gains the moral high ground, simply because it conjures up China’s aggressive attitude. Are there complicated reasons behind this attitude? That becomes a secondary issue of no concern.

Really wise to embrace wolf-warrior diplomacy?

The baffling thing is, not all Chinese diplomats have rejected the label of wolf-warrior diplomacy. Some have even attempted to justify the label by making claims such as “wolf warriors exist because wolves exist”. But one must realise that daring to fight is one thing; if that does not help to win more support, one cannot be called a skilled warrior, and would-be supporters may be scared off instead.

It is unfair to simply hurl accusations at China for the complicated issues pertaining to Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as well as accountability for the coronavirus. While China does need to address the problem of “getting blamed”, it can adopt a softer approach, because responding head-on would only mean falling into “discourse traps” set by others. What would be the good of that, other than boosting nationalistic sentiments at home? Besides, nationalistic sentiments have also been running high in Europe and the US, and provoking one another would only increase the risk of the situation spiralling out of control.

But at the same time, I hope China will clearly reject wolf-warrior diplomacy in word and deed, and not use humiliation as a weapon — that does not befit the stature and image of a big power.

Protesters gather with flags and placards at an event organised by Justitia Hong Kong to mourn the loss of Hong Kong's political freedoms, in Leicester Square, central London on 12 December 2020. (Justin Tallis/AFP)
Protesters gather with flags and placards at an event organised by Justitia Hong Kong to mourn the loss of Hong Kong's political freedoms, in Leicester Square, central London on 12 December 2020. (Justin Tallis/AFP)

Going into 2021, I hope people can be rational and factual in discussing China’s diplomacy, and avoid labels like wolf warrior. It is irresponsible to simply accuse others of wolf-warrior diplomacy in formal settings. But at the same time, I hope China will clearly reject wolf-warrior diplomacy in word and deed, and not use humiliation as a weapon — that does not befit the stature and image of a big power.

There is a problem with being a wolf warrior. Does this ancient Eastern civilisation really want its national image to be built on a movie?

 

*Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian recently tweeted: “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts & call for holding them accountable.” The tweet was accompanied by an image depicting an Australian soldier holding a knife to a child’s throat, with the following caption: “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!”.

**The family had arrived one night earlier and hoped for an early check-in but their request was denied. They were later removed from the premises by the Swedish police.

Related: Exemplary punishment: How China's using wolf-warrior tactics on Australia to warn the rest | ‘Wolf-warrior diplomacy’: China's new normal? | The problem of inappropriate language in China's diplomacy