Deploying Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy and Social Media to Achieve the Chinese Dream

On April 26, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian retweeted a post showing Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” from the “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” and its parody version side by side.

By Fukushima Kaori


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Fukushima Kaori

On April 26, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian retweeted a post showing Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” from the “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” and its parody version side by side.

A 1990s-born Chinese illustrator created the satirical image. He replaces Mt. Fuji with a nuclear power plant and depicts men in protective clothing on a boat pouring green water into the sea from a bucket with a radioactive mark. It is a protest, or rather a mockery of Japanese government’s decision to release treated radioactive water into the ocean.

Zhao Lijian even added the comment, “An illustrator in #China re-created a famous Japanese painting The Great Wave off #Kanagawa. If Katsushika Hokusai, the original author is still alive today, he would also be very concerned about #JapanNuclearWater.” The Japanese government protested for the tweet’s removal, but Zhao Lijian has pinned the tweet at the top of his Twitter page. It remains there as I write this in mid-May.

Before this tweet mocking Japan for the treated water, Zhao Lijian had a tweet (posted November 30, 2020) containing a computer graphic image of an Australian soldier killing an Afghan child pinned on top of his Twitter page. The Australian government demanded an apology for this, but Beijing turned totally defiant and continued to provoke Australia. The artist behind the computer graphic image was Wuheqilin, known in China as the “patriot artist” and “wolf-warrior artist.”

On Weibo, a major social media platform in China, an account related to China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission made a posting with the picture of China’s Long March-5B carrier rocket’s blast off, alongside a picture of bodies cremated in India. A caption, “Lighting a fire in China vs lighting a fire in India” and a hashtag stating India’s COVID-19 cases exceeding 400,000 a day, accompanied the post.

Zhao Lijian tweeted this on Twitter. The Indian government and the international community voiced anger, saying it is a vulgar tweet mocking victims of COVID-19 that erupted from Wuhan in China. Chinese internet users also thought this was going too far, and the tweet was later deleted.

In addition, as the Chinese embassy in the U.S. denied reports of forced sterilization on Xinjiang women, the embassy posted a tweet claiming that Uyghur women were “emancipated” from extremists and no longer “baby-making machines.” Twitter later removed the post.

Not only Zhao Lijian but also many other Chinese diplomats are making provocative postings in succession, on overseas social media like Twitter and Facebook inaccessible by the public in China. Such degrading social media postings by diplomats are not merely problems with their individual characteristics or personalities. They represent the policy of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Xi Jinping administration.

President Biden called President Xi Jinping an autocrat. In response, on April 29, the Chinese embassy in Japan posted on Twitter a cartoon image featuring the Grim Reaper clad in Stars and Stripes, going from door to door labelled Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc., and blood trailing from the open doors. The comment said, “This is what happens when the U.S. brings ‘democracy.’” This was an official tweet from the official embassy account. They later deleted the tweet.

Meanwhile, Beijing demands civility on provocative tweets from other countries.

Frustrated with the Chinese vessels stationed in the South China Sea, Philippine foreign minister Teodoro Locsin tweeted on May 3, “China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see… O…GET THE F**K OUT.” Beijing gave this a gentlemanlike criticism, saying that they hope comments have basic decency and be suitable for their status.

Yet, it was China that caused this, dispatching over 200 maritime militia vessels disguised as fishing boats near Union Banks (China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam are claiming sovereignty) in the South China Sea, and keeping them there for over two months, while building the eighth artificial island. First they provoke, then mock as the other side explodes in anger. Undoubtedly, Beijing knows exactly what it is doing, and these are also part of the provocative diplomacy tactic.

The Reason Behind the Shift to Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy

Provoke the other party, arouse their anger, make them lose their cool, and steer the situation to its favor.

Such aggressive diplomatic approach is the so-called “wolf-warrior diplomacy.” It is relatively new, with the name taken from “Wolf Warrior 2” (2017), a Hollywood-style propaganda movie by the people’s liberation army. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, China has escalated such provocative diplomacy.

The diplomatic policy during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao administrations was basically multipolar and balanced. This was the continuance of Deng Xiaoping’s “low profile strategy” that encouraged hiding their capacity, putting others off guard, while secretly gaining true strength to open up the way to become a powerful nation.

Or, this is an application of China’s traditional diplomatic policy “associating with the distant and attacking the nearby countries” (The Art of War by Sun Tzu). Even though China has tensions with the adjacent countries of Vietnam, Russia, and India, it tries to have relatively good relations with Europe and the U.S. The attitude towards Japan which is close in distance but have no land boarders, is unique, and Beijing considers Japan in combination with U.S. relations.

Under a pro-Washington stance, China takes an anti-Japan policy, but during confrontations with the U.S., it makes advances to Japan. Japan is a wonderful neighbor that remains friendly with China however you treat the country. Whichever way, China has taken great pains to establish their position within the international community by keeping balance without critically souring relations with any (especially major) countries.

Such balanced diplomacy became more sophisticated since China won the bid for the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing and considered itself as a power nation. China was most conscious of its image in the international community during the Hu Jintao administration. 

The diplomats of this time, including Yang Jiechi who was the youngest Chinese ambassador to the U.S. from 2001 to 2005, and Wang Yi, then Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, who chaired the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program from 2003 to 2004, acted as diplomats that represent the image of a sophisticated power nation.

I was the Beijing correspondent back then, and had exchanged words with Wang Yi several times. He was friendly with Japanese reporters and even gave briefings in Japanese, and I saw him as a competent diplomat with an elegant posture.

This changes drastically from the Xi Jinping administration.

Those that came to be known as wolf-warrior diplomats include not only spokesman-level personnel like Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying, but extends to high-ranked persons such as the former Chinese ambassador to the U.K. Liu Xiaoming (current Korean Peninsula affairs representative) and ambassadors in advanced nations such as former Chinese ambassador to France Lu Shaye, Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi, and Politburo member Yang Jiechi. The diplomats are repeatedly making harsh and provocative statements, as if competing to be the ultimate wolf warrior.

A recent example is the U.S.-China talks in Alaska on March 18. Politburo member Yang Jiechi gave uninhibited remarks to the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and presidential aide Jake Sullivan.

In a nutshell, he said: How dare the U.S. act superior. You don’t represent the international community.

In the opening comment, Blinken said the U.S. would “discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber-attacks on the United States, economic coercion of our allies.” In response, Yang Jiechi refuted that as for the capacity to start cyber-attacks and technologies to deploy them, the U.S. would be the champion.

He also said, “the United States does not represent international public opinion, and neither does the Western world,” and whether by population size or by global trend, the Western world does not represent international public opinion. He continued that the U.S. is not the representative of the world, and when the U.S. talks of universal values and international public opinion, China hopes the U.S. would not grow anxious themselves by saying such things.

Beijing accused U.S. by mentioning the country’s deeply ingrained racial discrimination and the way U.S. abuses national security through military might and financial supremacy.

Blinken and Sullivan only spoke five or six minutes, including the interpretation. Yang Jiechi ignored the diplomatic protocol and spoke for 16 minutes at a stretch without interpretation.

Yang Jiechi has studied in the U.K. and speaks fluent British English, and was the youngest to become the ambassador to the U.S. He is one of the most sophisticated Chinese diplomats well-versed with the U.S. He must have had a long-term relationship with Blinken. Yet, I’m surprised he entirely ignored honors and started a vehement argument.

Yang Jiechi is in an uneasy position since Xi Jinping has viewed him as pro-Washington. Originally, according to the order of mutual visits by top officials, it was the U.S.’s turn to visit China. So within China, there was an impression the U.S. had summoned them to Alaska. Within that context, it seems he put on a bitter dispute to give the impression he was an uncompromising diplomat that fights for the national interest, to Xi Jinping and the Chinese public.

Traditionally, China is more concerned with internal politics than foreign affairs, and tends to conduct diplomacy for internal politics.

What the Communist Party regime fears most is not the U.S. but the Chinese people. Public dissatisfaction turning on the administration from failure in internal politics is much more dangerous than diplomatic blunder. Beijing has contained public dissatisfaction with the rule of fear such as control of free speech.

But if China shows weak-kneed diplomacy, the rule of fear will become half as effective, and the discontent will direct towards the administration. Meanwhile, if Beijing creates an external enemy and acts aggressively, people’s discontent will direct towards the enemy outside, and help enhance the unifying force towards the Communist Party.

Deng Xiaoping’s “low profile strategy,” followed by multipolar balanced diplomacy, shifted to wolf-warrior diplomacy in the Xi Jinping regime. Apparently, one reason for this change is that China turned defiant as it became a power nation, and felt no need to continue the “low profile” approach. Another aspect is that although the Xi Jinping regime began exhaustive efforts to suppress ballooning domestic dissatisfaction through surveillance systems, control of media and free speech, and anti-corruption campaigns, it is struggling to keep things under control.

If Beijing can no longer suppress people’s discontent, then it needs to steer public opinion in their favor. That is why it had to present a “powerful communist regime” by wolf-warrior diplomacy that does not hesitate to pick fights with the world’s superpowers.

Such circumstances also seemed to play a part in the intensified wolf-warrior diplomacy when the Chinese public’s discontent mounted over the failed initial response and information cover-up of COVID-19 pneumonia originating in Wuhan.

Cross-Border Propaganda

Since then, however, China has played up the wolf-warrior diplomacy to steer more wide-ranging external public opinion.

They invite frowns, heighten alert of foreign governments towards China, and amplify anti-Chinese sentiment on Western social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook where Chinese public has no access. I would like to consider why these wolf-warrior diplomats are showing presence, despite causing diplomatic failure.

The Associated Press (AP) and the Oxford Internet Institute recently released a report on a seven-month investigation from June 2020 on Twitter activities by Chinese diplomats. According to the report, China’s Communist Party sees Liu Xiaoming, the former Chinese ambassador to the U.K., as one of the most successful foot soldiers on the online battle field of Western social media.

Liu Xiaoming gained his Twitter account in October 2019. Dozens of other Chinese diplomats also began Twitter and Facebook. Estimates say the diplomats are vigorously pursuing wolf-warrior diplomacy activities on Twitter and Facebook in over 126 countries.

With 119,000 Twitter followers, Liu Xiaoming spoke on a China Central Television (CCTV) program in May 2020 of how he is an example of wolf-warrior diplomacy. “There are so-called wolf warriors because there are wolves in the world.” “Because there are wolves, we need wolf warriors to fight them. That’s why wherever the wolves are, we take initiative to attack and return fire to protect our country’s dignity and interests.”

In the seven months from June 2020, retweets of his tweets exceeded 43,000 times. The followers praised Liu Xiaoming that his tweets were defiant answers to anti-Chinese bias by the West.

On Twitter, Liu Xiaoming seems to have got massive support from the users. But the report reveals that, in fact, this is phony support. Beijing has created an army of fake accounts to retweet postings by Chinese diplomats including Liu Xiaoming and state media tens of thousands of times, covertly amplifying propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people.

According to AP, this fictitious popularity by fake accounts boosts the Twitter status of Chinese diplomats, and creates a mirage of broad support. The false impression leads more genuine users astray, exposing them to Chinese government propaganda. A single fake account may not be such an impact, but with time, the number of retweets expand, spreading false information and fake images of China.

The report does not present evidence of direct involvement between the fake Twitter accounts and the Chinese Communist Party. But according to a report by Ryan Fedasiuk, a research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), some 20 million students are involved in activities to steer public opinion on social media as “network civilization volunteers.”

Ambition to Lead International Order

Why is China is implementing such propaganda on social media in the free society? Because, its target is not only public opinion within China but also that of other countries and the world.

Of course, it is unlikely that users in the Western free society would believe in comments like “the oppression of Uyghurs is a fabrication by the U.S.,” “COVID-19 is U.S. military’s biological weapon,” or “there is democracy in China,” however much they spread on Twitter. But if the target is overseas Chinese, then we can see the intention.  

Even if they gain nationality in the Western world, overseas Chinese people maintain a strong Chinese identity. Many also feel that they receive an unjust discrimination in the society they live in. In fact, since the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crime against Asians is increasing in the West.

At such times, many overseas Chinese may sympathize with China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy, or accusations that human rights issue is more serious in the U.S. Brainwashing takes advantage of such wavering identity. If the propaganda works to divide the society and cause social instability in the Western world, or decline in public approval in Western nations, and leads to loss of confidence in the democratic system by the people in Western countries, then Beijing will have accomplished one of their big goals for external propaganda.

As of 2017, Xi Jinping was aware of the prominent role of social media in steering public opinion as he watched U.S. President Trump get elected. At an internal meeting, Xi Jinping has expressed his view that the internet is the new playing field for global reign. He said that the creating the order of the internet and gaining its supremacy would be the requisite for the Chinese Communist Party to take lead.

The ambition of Xi Jinping is to take a leading role in reconstructing a new world order, at a once-in-a-century big transition period. This is Pax Sinica through “The Great Revival of the Chinese People,” and the “Chinese dream.” To realize this, Beijing devotes itself to pursuing the new propaganda technique of steering public opinion by wolf-warrior diplomacy plus social media.

This advent of Pax Sinica is an unwelcome scenario for Japan. I hope the internet users in Japan improve their social media literacy and not let China’s new propaganda war front fool them.

Kaori Fukushima
Born in 1967. Graduated Osaka University School of Letter and joined Sankei Shimbun Co., Ltd. After studying at Fudan University in Shanghai, became the Hong Kong bureau chief, China general office correspondent, and political reporter. Became a freelance journalist in 2009. Author of many books, including the most recent “Uigurujin ni Nani ga Okiteiru no ka (What Is Happening to Uyghurs)” published by PHC Shinsho.  


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