In 2015, Chinese film-makers produced a blockbuster film called the 'Wolf Warrior', a Mandarin version of a Hollywood Rambo genre film. It was followed by a sequel in 2017, which became the highest grosser ever in China.
The films give an insight into the psyche of a resurgent, macho China that is not shy of using violence to exhibit its clear superiority over others, including the Americans (the principle villain in the movies being a creepy American mercenary plundering poor Africans). It depicts the inner desires of most Chinese, the kind of country they would like to see in reality. In the movie, Leng Feng, an ex-PLA Special Forces, sneers as he bludgeons the American villain to death, saying, "People like you will always be inferior to people like me." The China of the film is unbeatable, and is respected.
THE AGGRESSIVE APPROACH
Taking a page from the script of the super-hit movies, Chinese diplomats take pride in labelling themselves as 'Wolf Warriors' to match their aggressive style of diplomacy. This nickname is now popularly used in Chinese media, with more than a hint of pride and chauvinism.
The Chinese response to the criticism generated the world over by its perceived complicity in the birth and consequent spread of the coronavirus, was true to the script, with diplomacy going on the offensive. The Global Times, Chinese analysts, diplomats, and media honchos have been insulting and threatening countries, leaders, and even picking on commentators and news anchors. They are spinning their own conspiracy theories, and blaming the CIA for the Wuhan fever. The U.S. has been the favourite target and even Australia came under scathing attack when its media called for an independent inquiry into the Chinese complicity in the spread of COVID-19.
It is not only the larger western democracies that are being targeted; Japan, Taiwan, and of course India, are also regularly in its cross hairs. Chinese diplomacy is no longer low key and passive, with a penchant for issuing verbose statements. It is now aggressive and proactive, unapologetic and devoid of diplomatic niceties, resorting to Twitter and other social media to take on anyone criticising the PRC or the CPC.
Amongst seasoned diplomats in China, there is a sense of unease at this belligerent display of national intent, contrary to the Chinese character and culture. They blame the transformation on the inexperience of the legion of young diplomats which today are the public face of China.
The new breed of diplomats is well-educated, well-travelled, presents a suave front, and prefers macho statements, and has the backing of the CPC. It is all a game of messaging in which the world at large is being told that China is now a strong nation and will not hesitate to demand respect and deference. With the U.S. perceived to be looking inward into its internal affairs, the Chinese are conveying to countries like India and Australia not to bank on the support of the reigning power.
The leading star amidst the new generation of Wolf Warriors is Zhao Lijian, who came into the limelight in 2019 as a counsellor in the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan. He had criticised the U.S> administration on human rights violations on Twitter, a platform which is denied to the common Chinese. He was especially critical of the U.S. record on racism, unequal distribution of wealth, and love for guns. Within a year, Zhao had progressed to being one of the high-profile government spokespersons based in Beijing. His boss, Hua Chunying, the Director-General of the Foreign Ministry's Department of Information, with over half a million followers, is also a frequent Twitterati who lambasts Chinese critics. Another well-known Wolf Warrior is China's ambassador to the U.K., Liu Xiaoming, who has taken it upon himself to deal with any criticism in Europe. "Where there is a 'wolf,' there is a warrior," Liu posted on Twitter.
During the recently concluded National People’s Conference, Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, was asked about 'Wolf Warrior Diplomacy'. His reply, while not fully endorsing it, was not apologetic either: “We will push back against any deliberate insult to resolutely defend our national honour and dignity."
REEL IS FAR FROM REAL
Chinese soft power is not as benign as is being projected. Its hard power, while increasing at a blinding pace, remains untested. The last major action the PLA had was with the diminutive Vietnam, which brought them more grief than glory.
As regards their soft-power outreach, the truth is out. The world knows that Chinese BRI and OBOR are not as magnanimous as they appear, especially in the developing countries where the projects are spreading relentlessly. The contracts go entirely to Chinese firms and the debt payments are virtually placing these countries into a debt trap that is likely to last for generations.
The screen Wolf Warriors fight and die to protect Africans who are terrorised by Americans. In real life, media reports have shown that African traders and businessmen, operating from Guangzhou, were literally thrown out on the streets during the pandemic, and any mention of them was heavily policed on social media platforms. The official stance was “alleged discrimination never happened [...] these are fake news".
Zhiqun Zhu, professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University, writing in The Diplomat, explains the phenomenon. When China overtook Japan’s GDP in 2010, Chinese diplomacy took on an assertive tone, drifting away from Deng Xiaoping’s 'taoguang yanghui ' dictum. To the China of 2020, the CPC has been feeding “four confidences”— in the chosen path, the political system, the guiding theories, and in the culture. With rising economic and military power, nationalism in China has risen and the Wolf Warriors are nothing but an extension of the same. With his frequent calls for a national “fighting spirit”, President Xi Jinping has encouraged the new style, placing its most active protagonists on high-profile platforms.
Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, speaking to the Financial Review, says that this type of diplomacy is in line with Jinping’s view “that it needs to be more assertive and more intolerant of any criticism”. McGregor has also been quoted as saying that there is an ongoing debate within China as to how aggressive their foreign policy should be. "There's clearly a split about how China should conduct its diplomacy. It might only be a tactical split, but at the moment, the 'wolves' seem to have the ascendancy," he says. "I'm not sure that will last. The Foreign Ministry and its diplomats are displaying fealty to Xi Jinping.... Is it effective? You would have to say no. It might be effective inside China, but what works inside China doesn't work outside China. The language it uses is rough and abusive and doesn't work well outside the Communist Party."
Diplomacy and action films have nothing in common; films follow an imaginary script while diplomacy deals with reality. The Wolf Warriors are not winning any friends; in fact, it may only reinforce the image created by the western world for so many years that a rising China is a threat to the world, unlike the image of the U.S. which is by and large a benevolent one.
Post-Galwan, India is in the cross hairs of the Wolf Warriors, who are sparing no effort to belittle India and calling it a blundering developing country which has made a military mess in Galwan. This is far from the truth. India has to counter it on the ground, with its battle-hardened military as an immediate response, and by rebalancing the military asymmetry over a longer time to ensure that India makes the wolves dance to its tune.
Author; MAJ. GEN. AJAY SAH, Chief Information Officer, Synergia Foundation