The Downside of China’s Online Muscle-Flexing
An offensive Weibo post about India’s coronavirus crisis highlights the limits of “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: An offensive Weibo post triggers a backlash in India, what to believe about China’s population numbers, and regulators levy a $1.5 billion fine on the technology giant Tencent.
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A Bad Post and a Bigger Problem
Indians have reacted with anger and disgust after the powerful body that oversees China’s law enforcement agencies shared an offensive post on its official Weibo account this week that contrasted images of a Chinese rocket launch with cremations in India during its ongoing coronavirus surge. The post triggered complaints from Chinese social media users who found it tasteless and others who expressed support for India, including some state media representatives.
The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission deleted the post within five hours, but the damage was already done. Lower-level official accounts, such as the Hainan Provincial Public Security Bureau, had already shared it approvingly, and other people added comments, such as a prominent university lecturer who wrote that China should “show its fury to India.” India-China relations have deteriorated sharply since border clashes last year that killed dozens of soldiers.
On its own, the crude post is a minor kerfuffle, but it points to a larger trend. The incident follows a pattern of social media aggression from Chinese official institutions and diplomats. Confrontational rhetoric that denounces any criticism of China—“wolf warrior diplomacy”—appears to please President Xi Jinping. In addition, the staff in charge of official social media accounts are often relatively junior, and have shown a tendency to make embarrassing mistakes, such as when the Chinese Embassy in Ireland tweeted a mangled analogy about “the wolf” last month that confused the RTE broadcaster for a newspaper.
The intense political mood in China explains some of this behavior, with posts aimed at bosses at home rather than a foreign audience. Junior bureaucrats often see jingoistic rhetoric online as a way to get noticed. But many of the incidents are outright blunders that reflect an underlying problem: In periods of heightened political tension, the bombastic—and sometimes the mediocre—are more likely to be promoted than the careful bureaucrats diplomacy usually requires.
These types of officials can be more willing to acquiesce with the political mood as a useful route to prominence and success. In an atmosphere of political paranoia, in which bureaucrats fear betrayal by underlings, higher-level officials are more likely to act as patrons to lower-ranking officials they know to be pliable because they pose less of a threat.
This trend toward relative mediocrity isn’t a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. The best description of it comes from this paper by the researchers Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi on the preference for low-quality work within public and private institutions in Italy. What is dangerous in China is the combination of officials adapted for domestic survival with a challenging external environment in which mistakes can wreck international relationships.
What We’re Following
Officials say population isn’t shrinking. China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has issued a statement that the population continued to increase in 2020, contrary to reports that the census data shows a decline. But given that the actual statistics have been delayed for weeks, their credibility is now even shakier than ever. China’s population numbers have always been dubious. As with other figures, central- and provincial-level data don’t remotely match up, suggesting that the provinces overreported birth rates for at least a decade.
Facing outside scrutiny, it seems likely that the NBS is busy tweaking the stats to make them seem more plausible.
May Day holiday. Chinese citizens are returning home from the May Day holiday that began on May 1 and ended Wednesday. It provided a badly needed boost for domestic tourism, one of the worst-hit sectors by the coronavirus pandemic. Spending surged during the holiday, even exceeding 2019 figures, although that is in large part due to the lack of access to international travel. State media emphasized so-called red tourism—visits to sites associated with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) history—ahead of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the party’s foundation.
Philippine Twitter feud. For once, Chinese diplomats weren’t the only ones acting like children online this week. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. tweeted at China to “GET THE FUCK OUT” on Sunday, referring to the continued occupation of a disputed reef by China’s maritime militia. Although Locsin eventually apologized, China’s aggressive moves at sea have wrecked its chance to take advantage of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s willingness to sell his country’s interests out to an authoritarian potential ally, as Derek Grossman argued in Foreign Policy.
Tech and Business
Tencent to be fined. As part of the ongoing crackdown on China’s internet giants, Tencent is facing a fine of at least $1.5 billion over antitrust violations. Although Alibaba and its co-founder Jack Ma have been the authorities’ main targets, other firms are now being reminded sharply of who is in charge. Given his political influence, regulators saw Ma as a long-term obstacle to their efforts across the entire sector. With him out of the way, they are unleashing a wave of long-planned moves.
In some ways, this regulation is a good thing. As in the United States, Chinese technology firms have taken risky moves with people’s finances and privacy, such as the wave of peer-to-peer lending services that effectively turned into Ponzi schemes. But it is also a sharply politicized assertion of CCP dominance in a sector once known for innovation.
Gaming censorship. Chinese teams in the popular online game Overwatch are threatening to boycott any event involving a star Korean player, Jong-ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park, after Park expressed support for Hong Kong and Taiwan and discussed Chinese censorship. This sort of backlash will be an increasing problem for any sport with a significant Chinese presence, as it was for the NBA two years ago after a tweet by an association executive.
Domestic pressures in China mean that Chinese teams can’t afford to neglect these ultra-nationalist performative gestures, out of fear of being attacked as unpatriotic themselves.
Corporate values? In the Financial Times, Jamil Anderlini writes about a meeting of Hong Kong executives who saw reporting on China’s crackdown, rather than the crackdown itself, as the biggest threat to business in the city. He describes this as “Stockholm syndrome,” arguing that businesses operating in China or Hong Kong have become captured into thinking the Chinese state’s interests correspond with theirs.
But that may be too generous to corporations. When operating overseas, Western businesses have often looked to China and other states for the capital advantages of authoritarianism while enjoying the benefits of a fair legal system and an open market back home. Western firms have no incentive to act for moral reasons over issues such as slave labor in Xinjiang unless they face reputational damage or government action in the West that outweighs the damage the Chinese government will inflict.
What We’re Reading
“It’s a Cold, Cold, Cold War” by Seva Gunitsky, Hegemon
This essay in the political scientist Seva Gunitsky’s newsletter is the sharpest dissection of the idea of China-U.S. conflict as a “new cold war” that I’ve seen. Gunitsky recognizes both the virtues and problems of the analogy. “It’s fairly clear that Chinese officials are not just a bunch of technocrats; they are guided by ideology. And even if they are guided by ideology instrumentally—that is, they don’t really believe it, they’re doing it to please the leader or to conform—the effects are the same,” he writes.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer