Chinese Communist Party and government leader Xi Jinping generated global media attention earlier this month when he gave new instructions to China’s diplomats and propagandists for “strengthening China’s international communications capacity.” During a Politburo “study session” on the topic, he told them to “pay attention to control the tone, be open and confident as well as modest and humble, and strive to build a credible, lovable, and respectable image of China.”
This was seized upon as a possible indicator that Xi was ordering a retreat from Beijing’s recent embrace of “wolf warrior diplomacy”—a combative and polemical style nicknamed after the title character of a patriotic Chinese blockbuster action movie. Many analysts and commentators have judged that Beijing’s obnoxious and aggressive approach has been counterproductive to China’s interests and its communications strategy, by undermining Beijing’s image and inviting a backlash from many other countries. Perhaps Xi had reached the same conclusion and saw the need for a course correction toward a more “lovable” approach. Most commentators, however, quickly dismissed this possibility after absorbing the rest of Xi’s speech, which was laden with the usual Chinese Communist jargon about “the persuasive power of Chinese discourse,” “why Marxism works,” and how China’s example “contributes wisdom to solving human problems.” Xi also reiterated the need to “oppose [US] unilateralism and hegemonism,” and affirmed that this was all part of the global “struggle for public opinion.” None of this suggests a retreat from Beijing’s hard-line in its ideological and strategic competition with the United States.
Some Western experts further discounted the possibility that Xi’s speech would yield a retreat from “wolf warrior diplomacy” by noting that the featured speaker at the Politburo session (aside from Xi) was a Chinese scholar and former diplomat named Zhang Weiwei, who is well known as a strong proponent of the superiority of the Chinese Communist system over democratic capitalism. According to David Bandurski of the China Media Project, Zhang advocates making this a core and confident theme in the “Chinese discourse” of public diplomacy. Indeed, this is a common refrain among Beijing’s “wolf warriors.”
But equating Zhang’s views with “wolf warriorism” risks blurring the distinction between the form and the substance of Chinese foreign relations—of equating some of China’s messengers with its message. “Wolf warrior diplomacy” is a rhetorical style, and not all Chinese diplomats exhibit it. On the other hand, Beijing’s strategic ambitions and its diplomatic agenda are the substance of Chinese foreign policy, which can be pursued with or without the acerbic embellishments of “wolf warrior diplomacy.” Chinese external behavior has obviously become increasingly confident, assertive, and even coercive for multiple reasons; but that would be the case regardless of whether some of Beijing’s diplomats had become more obnoxious or nasty in their interactions with foreign audiences. Even Zhang Weiwei has highlighted this distinction: Bandurski quotes Zhang as observing last year that “confrontation does not mean you shout yourself hoarse . . . confrontation is about stating your principles clearly.” Accordingly, Chinese diplomats can and often will clearly state Beijing’s principles—such as the superiority of the Chinese system—in pedantic rather than polemic terms. This may have been what Xi was advising at the Politburo study session.
“Wolf warriorism” has itself become a stereotype: a shorthand for any Chinese statement or action that is aggressive, arrogant, or bullying; and a description of the modus operandi of Chinese diplomats and leaders in pursuit of Beijing’s expansionist and/or hegemonic ambitions. But not all Chinese diplomacy is “wolf warriorism,” and not all “wolf-warriorism” is Chinese. A new book by journalist Peter Martin, China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, chronicles the origins and characteristics of Beijing’s “in your face” diplomacy, but Martin also notes that Communist China has an overlapping, episodic history of charm-offensive diplomacy when Beijing calculated that a softer or subtler approach suits its purposes.
Moreover, “wolf warrior” diplomacy is not unique to Beijing; and China’s version has been fueled in part by its counterparts elsewhere. Perhaps the most frequently-cited example of Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy was the assertion by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian via Twitter in March 2020 that U.S. Army personnel may have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan when they participated in the Military World Games there in October 2019. Zhao’s assertion, however, was reportedly prompted in large part by the emergence of assertions in Washington that the virus had been created at the Wuhan Institute for Virology and may have leaked from the lab either accidentally or deliberately. Zhao’s conspiracy theory was thus arguably a response to an American conspiracy theory, with both sides dabbling in misinformation or disinformation. In any event, both the United States (at least under the Trump administration) and China have engaged in combative and polemical diplomacy. And both sides are prone to react strongly to critical rhetoric from the other, as was seen during the initial exchange between senior Biden Administration officials and their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage in February.
The stereotype of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats no doubt mirrors Beijing’s impression of foreign officials who are similarly combative or uncompromising in meetings, do not diverge from well-worn talking points or appear in their diplomatic interactions to be grandstanding for the benefit of domestic audiences or superiors back home. In this respect, “wolf warriorism” may not be as much a strategy as simply a tactical means of dealing with diplomatic pressure and frustration. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy clearly has intensified and become more prevalent during a period in which U.S.-China tensions and competition have heated up. It is wholly predictable that Chinese officials will get their dander up when Beijing is the target of strong external criticism—valid or otherwise—or when China’s policies and views are deemed unacceptable or illegitimate. Under such circumstances, diplomats from the United States and other countries also become verbal “warriors” on their countries’ behalf.
For these reasons, China’s rhetorical “wolf warrior diplomacy” should not be conflated with the hard substance of Beijing’s actual foreign policies and strategic objectives. These are the real and a profound challenge to the United States, regardless of the language or emotions through which Beijing’s views are delivered by its diplomats. Xi’s speech at the Politburo study session almost certainly did not portend any change in the content of those policies and objectives. Indeed, it probably reflected instead a doubling down on them, with a particular emphasis on improving China’s “message” and the effectiveness of Chinese communications strategy for conveying that message. Xi stressed the importance of “telling a good China story” while trying to promote multilateralism, “shape a new international order,” and “build a new type of international relations”—all phrases that reflect Beijing’s goal of increasing China’s global influence relative to that of the United States.
But this may yet involve a tactical adjustment to China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Neither Xi’s goals nor Zhang Weiwei’s views (about the superiority of the Chinese system) are inconsistent with the notion that Beijing could make its case and pursue its objectives less obnoxiously and with fewer polemics. China’s goal is to win hearts and minds by convincing other countries that its strategic ambitions are benign and reasonable; and that its model of governance and development is legitimate and appealing. Presumably a soft sell—in Xi’s words, a more “modest and humble . . . credible, lovable, and respectable” China—would be more effective than a hard one, and more difficult for the United States to compete against.
Dismissing the possibility that Xi will effect a retreat from “wolf warrior diplomacy” suggests a reluctance to allow for the possibility of Chinese leaders learning to recalibrate at the United States’ expense. It would be easier for Washington if Beijing remained in central casting as the “wolf warrior,” because the alternative would be a subtler but no less (and probably) more assertive and clever pursuit of China’s international agenda through a more sophisticated communications strategy. The logic and the incentive are there for Beijing to make this adjustment because a wolf in sheep’s clothing would be a bigger challenge for the United States than a wolf in wolf’s clothing.
Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).