In early 2017, China appeared to be on the rise. Its economy beat estimates. President Xi Jinping implemented the country’s belt and road infrastructure initiative and was about to open China’s first foreign military base in Djibouti. Most importantly, Xi seemed ready to use President Donald Trump’s determination to instigate disputes with US allies and international institutions. In a speech in Davos in January of the same year, Xi even compared protectionism with “locking oneself in a dark room”.
Almost five years later, Beijing is facing the biggest international backlash in decades. Negative views of China according to a June survey by the Pew Research Center that showed that at least three-quarters of respondents in Australia, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the United States now have broadly negative views about the country. The European Union, which took Beijing to court during the Trump era, officially designated China as “systemic rival,“And NATO leaders have begun coordinating a joint response to Beijing. On China’s doorstep, the heads of state and government of Australia, India, Japan and the United States have the “Quad“Grouping Nations in Response to Concerns about Beijing’s Intentions. And recently, the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to share sensitive nuclear secrets with Australia to counter China’s naval ambitions in the Pacific.
However, Beijing is showing no signs of changing course. In contrast to earlier periods of backlash against China, such as that following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, this one in Beijing has not resulted in a recalibration. For now, China’s leaders seem to have decided that their newfound national strength, combined with the general malaise of the West, means the rest of the world will have to adjust to Beijing’s preferences.
In recent years, China has faced increasing international criticism of everything from the apparent incarceration of more than a million Muslim Uyghurs in “re-education camps” to its extensive raid on Hong Kong, its controversial industrial policies and its role in the COVID outbreak. -19 pandemic. But it is increasingly China’s diplomats who are doing the most damage to the country’s reputation. Popularly known as “Wolf Warriors”, after a series of blockbuster films starring Chinese heroes defeating foreign enemies, they have fought all over Fiji to Venezuela. In March 2020, State Department spokesman Zhao Lijian outraged US officials when he claimed the COVID-19 pandemic only started after American athletes brought the virus to Wuhan. Last November, Zhao tweeted an illustration of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child, prompting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to apologize. And in September China’s new ambassador to the UK, Zheng Zeguang, was banned from the UK Parliament for Chinese sanctions against UK lawmakers.
ChinaForeign policy elites have noticed the problem. As early as 2018, Deng Pufang, the son of former Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping, warned that China should “know its place” and “stay sober” in its foreign policy. In May 2020, Reuters reported that the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations – a think tank affiliated with China’s top intelligence agency – had warned the country’s leadership that anti-Chinese sentiment was at its highest since the crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989. And in September 2020, Yuan Nansheng, China’s former Consul General in San Francisco, warned of “extreme nationalism“In Chinese foreign policy. Xi himself has at least tacitly acknowledged the problem and warned in a study session of the Politburo in June that China must present the world with a “lovable” image.
Increasingly, it is China’s diplomats who are doing the most damage to the country’s reputation.
Even more noticeable than the backlash against China, however, was the country’s inability to recalibrate. Beijing’s response to the rapidly deteriorating relationship with Canberra was to present Australia with a list of demands that it believed were prerequisites for improving relations. China’s leadership has also repeatedly stressed that any improvement in relations with the United States must begin with concessions from Washington, and presented a similar list of demands to Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman when she visited Tianjin in July.
Washington officials have begun to see Beijing’s inability to change course as an advantage in the emerging competition between the two countries. During bilateral talks in March, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi told his US counterparts about the moral failings of the United States, including the police murder of black citizens. In response, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reminded Yang of what he called the “United States.”secret sauce“: The ability to identify and correct errors. “A confident country,” said Sullivan, “is able to look closely at its own shortcomings and constantly strive to improve.” It followed, of course, that China, at least in its foreign policy, did not appear to be able to do the same.
FEAR AND AMBITION IN BEIJING
It is tempting to view Beijing’s inability to adapt as an essential feature of the Chinese system. Certainly, individual Chinese officials often fear the consequences of admitting mistakes. But in the past Beijing has been quite adept at correcting course. In the 1950s, China embarked on a charm offensive that made friends in the developing world and helped support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the internationally recognized government of China. In the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese diplomats helped rehabilitate their country in the eyes of the world, starting a streak of nearly two decades of success that culminated in China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Instead of an inherent flaw in China‘s model of government, the failure to recalibrate this time is a product of the current political atmosphere in Beijing. Overconfidence is an integral part of the problem. After the 2008-09 global financial crisis, Beijing began a shift towards a more confident style of diplomacy, supported by the belief that its quick response to the financial crisis had vindicated its system. This change accelerated dramatically after Xi became the head of the CCP in 2012: in 2017, top Chinese politicians pointed to “changes unseen in a century,” and Xi had publicly stated that China was “nearing the center of the world stage” and “[stood] big in the east. ”
Paired with Beijing‘s newfound self-esteem was a belief in Western – and especially American – weakness and decadence. Washington’s foreign policy mistakes in the Middle East, its indecisive response to the global financial crisis, and its fiddly response to the current pandemic have all reinforced that view. In February 2020, Xi told party cadres that the COVID-19 crisis had shown the “remarkable benefits of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.”
The surest way for Chinese foreign policy makers to follow Xi’s example and add a little extra zeal to be on the safe side is the surest way.
Xi has long favored a more confident attitude for China on the world stage. Even before he became president, Xi complained about “full bellied foreigners who have nothing better to do than point a finger” at China‘s human rights record. One of his first acts as the CCP leader in 2012 was to set an agenda for the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” which signaled his ambitions for the country to regain its rightful place in the world. Since then, he has repeatedly directed diplomats to defend China more aggressively and has even made handwritten notes instructing them to show more “fighting spirit”. The message for any ambitious Chinese diplomat or propagandist is clear: in order to move forward, it is important to work with Xi ‘s confident tone.
But Chinese officials followed Xi’s lead out of both fear and ambition. Since 2012, more than 1.5 million officials have been fined in a widespread anti-corruption campaign that treats political disloyalty as a kind of transplant. Diplomats had to sit through “self-criticism” sessions in the Foreign Ministry and “Sightseeing tours“That put their loyalty to the party and willingness to obey orders to the test. Old secrecy and disciplinary rules were also implemented with renewed zeal: One from 1949, which forbids Chinese diplomats from meeting foreigners alone, was imposed on everyone from ambassadors to junior diplomats in foreign study programs.
Chinese diplomats know how to interpret these signals. Over the decades, China’s foreign policy apparatus has weathered several rounds of purges in which colleagues informed each other and were sanctioned for not being sufficiently loyal to the regime’s agenda. During the Cultural Revolution, ambassadors were locked in basements, forced to clean toilets, and beaten until they spat blood. Many Chinese diplomats have been sent to re-education camps in rural China. The surest way for Chinese foreign policy makers to follow Xi’s lead and add a little extra zeal for safety is the safest way.
IN XI‘S HANDS
The rise of wolf warrior diplomacy in China has rendered regular diplomatic channels with the United States ineffective. Formal meetings have become little more than opportunities for Chinese officials to publicly disguise their US counterparts, while return channels through former officials or on the sidelines of official meetings are also less effective, as Chinese officials recite worn-out topics of conversation for fear of being faintly labeled or even in getting into political trouble. Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to Washington until the beginning of the year, In the last few years of his posting, he stopped meeting with foreign counterparts alone and always met with another diplomat who was there to keep track of things. Today, most face-to-face contacts have been suspended because of the pandemic, and the online dialogues on Track II between former officials involve little more than stilted repetition of topics of conversation.
Not that China’s diplomats alone have the ability to restore China’s global reputation. Earlier realignments of Chinese foreign policy were supported by domestic policy changes that made the country more attractive to the outside world. Their charm offensive in the 1990s, for example, went hand in hand with a commitment to economic liberalization before joining the World Trade Organization, a willingness to settle border disputes and even tentative steps towards it domestic Political reform.
But XiThe government has shown no sign of willingness to change government-led industrial policies that have alienated multinational corporations, to moderate the raids in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, or to compromise on territorial disputes from the Himalayas to the South China Sea. That leaves a difficult, if not impossible, message for Chinese diplomats and propagandists to sell. But as long as they use the tactics of the wolf warriors, they don’t even have to try.