Is China’s New U.S. Ambassador a ‘Wolf Warrior’—or a Fox?

Although close to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Qin Gang doesn’t quite fit the mold of hostile Chinese diplomacy.

By , Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief.
Qin Gang speaks in Beijing.
Qin Gang speaks in Beijing.
Then-director of China’s Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, Qin Gang, speaks during an event in Beijing on Dec. 25, 2013. CNS/AFP via Getty Images

BEIJING—At the end of his first week in Washington, Qin Gang, Beijing’s new ambassador to Washington, tweeted out a message that did not quite measure up to his reputation as another fearsome diplomatic “wolf warrior.” With the COVID-19 delta variant surging, Qin wrote: “How about our two countries working together on solutions, e.g. more effective vaccines & helping other countries?”

BEIJING—At the end of his first week in Washington, Qin Gang, Beijing’s new ambassador to Washington, tweeted out a message that did not quite measure up to his reputation as another fearsome diplomatic “wolf warrior.” With the COVID-19 delta variant surging, Qin wrote: “How about our two countries working together on solutions, e.g. more effective vaccines & helping other countries?”

That was quite a change in tone, considering what Beijing has been throwing at Washington lately. Qin’s appointment to the key post triggered headlines like “Wolf Warrior Lands in D.C.”—and many observers assumed he would be the alpha in the pack of aggressive Chinese diplomats who have taken their cues from Chinese President Xi Jinping and delivered hostile diatribes in the United States’ direction. Most recently, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman caught an earful late last month from Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng in Tianjin, China, who demanded the United States stop “demonizing” China.

And indeed, Qin cannot risk deviating markedly from his senior colleagues’ tone. The 55-year-old diplomat, a fluent English speaker, is expected to be more pugnacious than his predecessor, Cui Tiankai, a veteran specialist in U.S. affairs. At the same time, those of us in the press corps who have known Qin for years have seen a deft, wily player who is not necessarily anti-American (before joining the diplomatic corps in 1992, he was a news assistant at United Press International, a major U.S. wire service) but who knows how to bend with the prevailing wind from Beijing. Most importantly, Qin is seen to be a confidante of Xi’s. Thus, Qin may well play a critical role in finding a way forward for a U.S.-China relationship that often seems irremediably broken but is necessary to solving some of the biggest problems of the day, including COVID-19 and climate change.

What makes Chinese diplomats so snarly these days, and where did so-called wolf warriors come from? The question is taking on greater urgency. Sino-U.S. ties are their most toxic in decades. Now, NATO warships are navigating near China’s maritime backyard while Beijing hosts Russian soldiers for joint war games in northwest China. Both Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden have amped up the rhetoric to nearly Cold War levels; both leaders are using the supposed threat from their rival nation—one, the world’s rising superpower; the other, the established superpower—to justify a new nationalism and economic mobilization.

​​In the specific case of Chinese Foreign Ministry diplomats, their rhetorical tone “began to shift after Xi came to power,” said Peter Martin, author of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. “Nationalism has gone more mainstream under Xi.” 

“The advent of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy means nothing less than a revamp of the Communist Party’s social contract with the Chinese people,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute. “It used to be that the party delivered better living standards. But Xi has upgraded it to making China strong and powerful and commanding respect in the world.” 

Those attitudes went into overdrive after Donald Trump became U.S. president and began attacking China, first on trade and then on human rights issues—a policy Biden has largely continued. In 2019, Xi sent a handwritten memo to the diplomatic corps asking for more “fighting spirit,” and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated the message, according to Reuters. Since then, more than 60 Chinese diplomats or diplomatic missions have set up Twitter or Facebook accounts.

One was Hua Chunying, who began tweeting last year. As the Foreign Ministry spokesperson and head of its Information Department, Hua played a role in a November 2020 spat, when Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted an edited image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat in reference to an Australian military inquiry that concluded Australian troops were involved in the wartime killing of 39 Afghan civilians and detainees. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Zhao’s post “repugnant,” asking for an apology. Hua refused. She said Canberra should engage in “soul searching” over the war crimes probe, adding, “Afghan lives matter.” 

Another perceived “wolf warrior” is Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye. In March, Lu made headlines in China’s Global Times, which often reflects nationalistic views, for his pushback against French “politicians and pseudo-scholars” alleging human rights abuses in Xinjiang. A couple weeks later, the same paper reported Lu had taken his French interlocutors to task for allowing Taiwanese representatives in France to travel in cars with diplomatic plates, a violation of Beijing’s “One-China” principle. It quoted an unnamed eyewitness saying Lu’s “very angry” exchange with his French counterpart “got highly intense, with ‘a strong smell of gunpowder.’” 

The actual term “wolf warrior” first came into use in 2019, when China’s then-ambassador to Pakistan, Zhao, engaged in a battle of tit-for-tat tweets with former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Zhao rebutted criticism of Chinese policies in Xinjiang at the United Nations by claiming on Twitter that “white [people] never go to the SW [southwest] area” of Washington due to its minority population. Rice called Zhao a “racist disgrace” and “ignorant.” He responded in kind. The exchange was later deleted. But his combativeness raised Zhao’s profile—and he became known as the first wolf warrior.

One reason Chinese diplomats seem surprisingly vocal now is they used to be seen as particularly muted. This dates back to the 1980s, when then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reformed his nation’s moribund economy with an injection of foreign expertise and capitalistic practices. Deng adopted a foreign-policy stance translated as “biding your time and nurturing your strength,” and he relegated the military to China’s last priority in its modernization drive. At times, Deng was also brutally candid about China’s blunders. At a 1979 White House dinner, he sat next to actress Shirley MacLaine, who burbled about meeting a Chinese nuclear scientist who claimed he was happier and more fulfilled working on a tomato farm. Deng interrupted her: “He lied. … That was what he had to say at the time.”

Even for years after Deng’s death, Beijing’s diplomats modestly recoiled at the thought of reviving China’s glory days as an empire spanning key Silk Road trade routes. During a sort of diplomatic “charm offensive” before Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Chinese officials fell over themselves to deny Beijing aspired to topple the United States and reclaim China’s ancient imperial glory. “It’s not possible for China to be a superpower—a power, maybe, but not a superpower,” one Chinese diplomat told me in 2005, on condition of anonymity, over coffee at Starbucks. “We don’t talk about empire.” In those days, some diplomats joked they were being sent calcium tablets so they could develop spines.

Over time, Chinese diplomats became more globalized, more proficient at foreign languages, and more street savvy. More spiny. Their defense of China’s interests began to feature charm as well as combativeness long before the term “wolf warrior” existed. (The phrase is derived from a 2017 film Wolf Warrior II in which a Chinese special operations hero defeats evil rebels and white mercenaries in Africa while saving international medics and waving the Chinese flag.)

Above all, Beijing’s envoys must master the art of “information management” and detecting policy shifts. Take climate change. In 2009, when world leaders met in Copenhagen to discuss the topic, Beijing was so opposed to mandatory targets for emerging nations that its negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, burst into a tirade and wagged his finger at then-U.S. President Barack Obama. Afterward, it was up to then-Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin to declare “important and positive outcomes” had emerged from the gathering. Yet, a few years later, Xi reset his government’s position by announcing a (voluntary) goal of capping rises in China’s carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030—the first time China, or any developing country, explicitly declared a peak emissions date. That positive step is one reason climate change is seen as a rare area Washington and Beijing can find common ground in—a goal that is far more necessary now in the face of this week’s dire “code red” warning by the U.N.-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

What about now? Will Qin fulfill expectations in Washington as Beijing’s latest lupine addition to the diplomatic corps? Although his tone can be sharp and combative—he once chided Western journalists “not to report based on your delusions”—Qin isn’t quite the wolf warrior many imagine; at least, not yet. And he’s shown many other faces over the years. In 2008, I had a chance encounter with Qin, then-spokesperson as well as a rising star at the Chinese Foreign Ministry. I was a bit wary of his tough reputation when, shortly after the horrific Sichuan earthquake, I ran into him with a few aides at the devastated epicenter. Rather than rebuffing my questions, he suggested I stay around: “If you’re still here tomorrow morning, you might see something interesting,” he said. After we parted ways, I immediately found a cot and a tent in which to spend the night.

Early the next day, I ventured out to find Qin and a hand-picked gaggle of foreign reporters waiting by a collapsed school where many students had perished. The media was preparing to take part in a press conference with then-Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who arrived by helicopter. Qin let me join the press pool. Quickly, though, reporters began to veer off script. Some scampered off to film the apocalyptic ruins. Others didn’t ask the questions they were expected to ask. 

The rest of us began asking whatever came to mind (which almost never happens with China’s top leaders today). Without blinking an eye, Wen and Ban patiently answered just about every question. Perceiving Wen was at ease with the free-wheeling exchange, Qin went with the flow as well. Today, I remember that to be one of the most spontaneous press conferences with a Chinese premier I’ve seen since the 1980s.

The encounter tells less about Qin than about his boss Wen, of course—and that’s precisely the point. Qin takes his cues from the top. Of course he’ll be expected to engage in the verbal parry and thrust of the Washington cocktail circuit. But his international experience runs much deeper than that, and this could make a difference in the years to come. Even his critics acknowledge Qin’s rhetorical tone isn’t as extreme as that of some of his colleagues. When Qin arriving in the United States in late July, he sounded remarkably even-handed, especially given the tattered state of Sino-U.S. ties. He said they face “not only many difficulties and challenges but also great opportunities and potential” and vowed to “endeavor to bring China-U.S. relations back on track.” 

That is likely a veiled message from Xi as well. Both Xi and Biden know some cooperation on critical issues will be necessary. If there was ever a moment for skillful diplomacy, this is it. Yet for the world’s two biggest economies to manage their rivalry and perhaps cooperate on finding international solutions, first they need a certain degree of communication and, ideally, trust. That won’t be easy; recent high-level meetings have been rancorous. And for a month until late July, neither country even had an ambassador from the other in residence—which makes Qin’s arrival so potentially important. 

The Chinese diplomat’s job is a perpetual high wire act. Today, it’s made more perilous by surging nationalism back home and a proliferation of new responsibilities overseas, such as repatriating huge numbers of Chinese civilians when conflict or calamity erupts abroad. Diplomats who tweet are the talk of the town these days, but balancing what goes viral against what is true and appropriate is a relatively recent skill they’re expected to master. For Chinese diplomats, “there’s no such thing as low-stakes encounters. It’s all high stakes,” Martin said.

This is important, given the mixed messages emanating from Beijing over the past few months. To mark the recent 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding, Xi warned emphatically that China’s people “will never allow foreign forces to bully, oppress, or enslave us. Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood.” However, just a month earlier, Xi had exhorted senior party leaders to help China “continuously expand its circle of friends” and project a more “lovable” image. 

Some U.S. media reported Beijing authorities were planning to shorten the leash on its “wolf warriors” and hold official workshops on “how to tweet” because unfettered stridency had alienated not just diplomats and journalists but members of the business community too. (Pew Research Center polling recently showed perceptions of China had plummeted to historic lows in most of the 17 developed countries surveyed.)

How China and the United States each managed the pandemic at home has influenced Beijing’s diplomatic tone too. Last March, when Chinese authorities perceived the COVID-19 threat to be receding, Xi praised Beijing’s anti-pandemic efforts by saying, “China can now look the world in the eye. It’s not like back in the day when we were still bumpkins.” 

For some, this marked the genesis of a new catchphrase exhorting Chinese diplomats to “view the world from an equal footing” or “pingshi shijie.” Subsequent official statements have echoed this concept, such as when Yang Jiechi, a seasoned specialist in U.S. affairs and China’s top diplomat under Xi, blasted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Alaska by saying, “the U.S. is not qualified to talk to China in a condescending manner.” The phrase in Chinese also happens to be a homophonic pun on Xi’s name. Precisely what it means will be crucial to the outside world—and up to people like Qin to ensure nothing gets lost in translation.

For hints as to whether Xi wants to smile or snarl when (or if) China engages with the United States, Qin’s every word will be scrutinized. We’ll be listening.

Melinda Liu is a Beijing-based foreign-policy commentator, Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief, and the co-author of Beijing Spring.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.