by Peter Martin (Oxford University Press, 272 pp., $27.95)
In the past couple of years, international observers have noticed an increasingly harsh tone from Chinese diplomats. These “wolf warriors,” named after a blockbuster Chinese movie, are known for their nationalist rhetoric and calculated harangues. As the many articles about them have noted, their performance is a marked departure from the behavior of their predecessors in the early 2000s. The new Chinese ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, exemplifies the trend. With little to no direct experience in U.S.-China relations, he seems to have no less earned the confidence of President Xi Jinping to carry out his role thanks to being “willing to ruffle feathers” and ensure that China is treated with the utmost respect.
The “wolf warrior” phenomenon is explored by Bloomberg reporter Peter Martin in his new book, China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, based on more than a hundred Chinese memoirs and hours of interviews. The wave of wolf warriors, says Martin, reflects a combination of historical identities, nationalist confidence, and professional posturing.
In 1949, after decades of civil war, European intervention, and Japanese aggression, mainland China was finally unified under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chairman Mao Zedong tasked the seasoned revolutionary Zhou Enlai with heading the new regime’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Since most of the country’s previous diplomats had sought refuge in the safe haven of non-communist Taiwan, Zhou’s new diplomatic corps was made up of peasants, college students, and former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals.
At the first gathering of the recruits who would become China’s new diplomats, Zhou outlined the ethos of the CCP’s enterprise. He declared, “Foreign affairs cadres are the People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing.” “[C]hanging from military to diplomatic struggle,” Zhou explained, “is simply a matter of changing the front on which one conducts conflict.”
In many ways, Zhou was the progenitor of today’s wolf warriors. His model would guide and inspire Chinese diplomats for decades. Chinese diplomacy would alternate over the years from periods of international engagement to stretches of aggressive nationalism. But Zhou’s mantra—the PLA “in civilian clothing”—would form the critical identity of generations of diplomats.
Martin tells the story of the modern wolf warrior diplomats’ reliance on this identity to guide them through the tumults of China’s rise. As one Chinese diplomat wrote in 2009, “We haven’t worn military uniforms, but we’ve always used this principle to guide our work.” Chinese diplomats throughout the years have consistently alluded to Zhou’s proclamation; the diplomatic corps has gained honor and prestige from its identity as the PLA in civilian clothing. Today, this identity still lends them confidence and energy.
The historical identity laid out by Zhou Enlai helped facilitate the second cause of the new wolf warrior diplomacy: the resurgence of Chinese nationalist confidence. Under Xi, even apart from the identity of its diplomats, China has generally taken an assertive nationalistic tone in recent years. Whether the vehicle is a speech by a CCP official, a PLA white paper, or an editorial in the party’s English-language tabloid, the Global Times, the tenor has clearly shifted to a more confident, assertive posture.
Martin argues that the catalyst for this resurgence occurred in 2008, when Chinese observers saw the financial meltdown in Western countries as a sign of secular decline. America’s slow recovery, the difficulties in extricating ourselves from the Middle East, and the January 6 insurrection have cemented this idea in Chinese minds. When it is combined with rapid Chinese economic development, the building of a world-class military, and an increasing role as an international power, Chinese leaders cannot help feeling confident about their country.
Moreover, they want their diplomats to convey this confidence abroad. Leaders like Xi seek validation and recognition from other countries. When other countries withhold such validation—or, worse, criticize Chinese policies—Xi expects a resolute defense by the MFA.
MFA figures like Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying, appealing to nationalism, have won celebrity in China for their invective tweets and unapologetic diatribes aimed at foreign journalists. In some ways these nationalistic tirades are intended more to appeal to a domestic audience than to promote substantive diplomatic accomplishments. Top diplomats like Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi promote these harsh denunciations; if they don’t, they will face public and political censure.
As Martin notes, Chinese nationalism is not a new phenomenon. During the early 2000s, when the country’s diplomats courted Western countries to gain admittance to the World Trade Organization and host the 2008 Olympics, Chinese leaders frequently criticized these diplomats for not being nationalistic enough. Diplomats would be sent calcium tablets in the mail, presumably to strengthen their weak backbones.
By now, the diplomatic corps has placed the public’s nationalist attitudes in a full embrace—and the MFA’s leadership encourages it. “You have entered the diplomatic corps at a special and important time in our history,” Foreign Minister Wang recently told rank-and-file diplomats, “Our country is closer to the goal of national rejuvenation than at any other time and closer than ever before to becoming a global power. History has handed you the final baton.”
China’s wolf warrior diplomats believe they are on the cusp of the Chinese century. Their attitude and tone reflect this confidence.
The final reason why Chinese diplomats espouse this new approach is professional. They operate in a challenging bureaucratic environment. The government, like other Communist regimes, takes extraordinary steps to hamper their independence. For example, Martin explains the ways in which the government forces a buddy system on diplomats. They rarely attend meetings alone: Another Chinese official must be there to ensure that the first diplomat maintains the Party line.
This system inhibits the flexibility often needed for successful diplomacy. Moreover, Chinese diplomats are rarely given the independence to negotiate freely. Instead, in keeping with their strict PLA-like discipline, Chinese diplomats usually repeat pre-approved talking points. Such behavior most often comes across as bullying, and it is certainly not effective.
Because the diplomats cannot do their job effectively, their role and the expectations around them have begun to change. The rigid structure imposed on them directs their energy away from the craft of diplomacy and into the harsh rhetoric that gains favor with their superiors. As Martin explains, the incentives for Chinese diplomats have been completely rearranged. What is conducive to career advancement is not refined negotiating skills but unwavering tenacity against Western powers.
This perverse incentive structure produces not skilled diplomats but an army of propaganda mouthpieces and, ultimately, international backlash. The Chinese ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, once threatened on Swedish public radio, “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.” This comment produced a robust condemnation from Swedish politicians and international observers, but it gained Gui praise in China.
Finally, the MFA is considered a relatively weak institution within China. The PLA has always been the organization most favored by Chinese leaders, while MFA diplomats struggle to get adequate funding and access. Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, explained at a recent event that China’s top diplomats, Yang and Wang, are “nowhere near—within a hundred miles”—of Xi’s inner circle. Like toddlers seeking attention from their parents, they lash out at foreign nations to gain favor with Xi.
In a speech this past June to top Chinese leaders, Xi called on officials to present a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” image on behalf of their country. Faced with growing international opposition and a recent drop in China’s global favorability ratings, Xi may be looking to constrain the country’s wolf warriors and depict a kinder, gentler China. However, what Xi outlines is nothing more than a new communications strategy. The underlying structure of China’s diplomatic corps, with its perverse incentives, will not change without systemic reform.
While it remains to be seen whether the wolf warriors will be muzzled, Martin shows that the fundamental nature of China’s diplomatic activity has been reasonably consistent and is poised to remain so.
Connor Fiddler is a graduate student at George Washington University researching Chinese foreign policy, East Asian politics, and U.S. national security. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, Real Clear Politics, and Fair Observer, among other publications.
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