Why Did China Banish Its Chief ‘Wolf Warrior’?
Zhao Lijian’s move from foreign ministry spokesperson to a backroom role reflects a diplomatic shift.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Prominent Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian gets moved out of the public eye, the U.S. Congress forms a new committee on strategic competition with Beijing, and China-South Korea relations deteriorate after Seoul restricts visa applications.
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China’s “Wolf Warrior” Chief Leaves the Podium
Prominent Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian, known for his so-called wolf warrior approach at the lectern and on Twitter, was recently moved from his position as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson into a backroom role handling border disputes. The change keeps him at the same level but takes him out of the public eye.
Zhao first found attention by building a Twitter presence as China’s deputy chief of mission in Pakistan from 2015 to 2019. At first, he catered to a mostly Pakistani audience, praising local culture and defending China’s role in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. He even changed his Twitter name to Muhammad Lijian Zhao. (It’s not uncommon for Chinese diplomats to adopt localized names.) His stance resonated with the Pakistani public, but the name change eventually backfired when he reversed it in April 2017 amid a ban on Islamic names in Xinjiang as part of the repression of Uyghur culture.
Zhao’s anti-American comments on Twitter became a greater part of his brand by 2017, leading the way in an aggressive style of public diplomacy that quickly gained the wolf warrior moniker—after a Rambo-style Chinese movie released in 2017. Many of his tweets were a mixture of denial or whataboutism over China’s atrocities in Xinjiang; these won a promotion to the prestigious spokesperson post in 2019. Zhao also inspired a wave of imitators in the diplomatic service.
All of this was a change for Zhao himself, whose U.S. counterparts remember as an unaggressive junior staffer when he served in Washington from 2009 to 2013. Zhao’s moment peaked in November 2020. Amid rising tensions between Australia and China over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the spokesperson posted a computer-generated image of an Australian soldier killing an Afghan child—attracting global outrage and winning approval at home.
Earlier in 2020, Zhao was one of the pioneers in spreading conspiracy theories blaming the pandemic on fictional experiments at the U.S. Army’s Fort Detrick in Maryland. His aggressive and paranoid style seemed to fit the mood of a China increasingly isolated from the world. It was matched by Chinese government actions, such as the sanctions on European Union politicians in March 2021 that blew up a long-negotiated trade deal.
Although he had a nationalist following, Zhao also faced hearty criticism on the Chinese internet. Some people found him smug and were jubilant when photos from his wife’s Weibo account emerged showing her unmasked during Beijing’s COVID-19 outbreak and traveling abroad while most Chinese were stuck at home. The minor scandal hit a sore spot for prominent nationalists, many of whom attack foreign countries while taking advantage of what they have to offer.
In recent months, it seems that some Chinese leaders have realized that wolf warrior diplomacy poses a problem for the country’s global image. There is a concerted effort to convince counterparts elsewhere—especially in the United States—that China is now willing to play nice. This stems in part from the shocks caused by serious U.S. attempts at decoupling, along with the economic damage from China’s zero-COVID policy. One possible result: It looks likely that China will name a relative moderate as its new ambassador to the United States.
However, it’s not clear that this diplomatic shift alone cost Zhao his spokesperson job. As exiled journalist Wang Zhi’an pointed out last month, Zhao faltered during a press conference about the zero-COVID protests in November, shuffling his papers and giving stumbling answers. It’s also not clear that China’s shift away from aggressive diplomacy represents an actual policy change as opposed to being a strategy change. China’s position on Ukraine, for example, has remained fundamentally pro-Russian since the start of the war, despite Beijing’s suggestions that it wants to disavow the conflict.
Although it may be easy to convince Europeans who desperately want it that China is back to being a good business partner, this line will face more resistance in Washington, where officials see China as the grand strategic opponent. Also, Chinese domestic media continues to exhibit an anti-U.S. stance. Chinese officials seem to forget that their U.S. counterparts can easily watch Chinese TV and read Chinese newspapers.
What We’re Following
Congress forms China panel. On Tuesday, the U.S. Congress voted 365 to 65 to form a new select committee on strategic competition with the Chinese Communist Party. All the nays came from Democrats, mostly on the left wing of the party and from those concerned the committee might stir xenophobia. The establishment of the committee is a big symbolic move, but its ultimate end remains uncertain. Will it spur meaningful government initiatives, or could it be used to go after institutions seen as deviating from a tough line on China? The committee might also be used to push conspiracy theories such as the lab leak theory or failed policies like the Justice Department’s China Initiative.
The committee is chaired by Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, but newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has promised it will be a “bipartisan effort” with “serious, sober” members. That implies McCarthy views the far-right lawmakers he just made concessions to as not serious on foreign policy. (Many of them are fans of China’s main autocratic ally.)
A genuinely bipartisan effort is rare in U.S. politics, but the committee’s view of China as the main opponent of the United States represents an end to the role of business advocates in determining China policy.
South Korea quarrel. China’s relationship with South Korea continues to deteriorate after Seoul blocked short-term visa applications and demanded PCR tests for people traveling from China, fearing new COVID-19 variants. China imposed similar measures on South Korean visitors in return. At the start of the pandemic, China put pressure on other countries not to restrict Chinese visitors, only to then adopt one of the world’s strictest quarantine policies.
The latest measures are just one step in an extremely tense relationship with South Korea, which was once relatively friendly to China. In 2015, 37 percent of South Koreans reported holding a negative view of China, while today the figure is 82 percent. (For comparison, about 53 percent of South Koreans have a negative view of Japan, which brutally occupied Korea for decades.)
A dispute over Seoul’s participation in a U.S. missile defense program played some part in this, but the main factors are the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s crackdown in Hong Kong.
Protest season begins. The village banks involved in a financial scandal that sparked big protests in Henan province last year have started paying back depositors, although some smaller investors are complaining they’re last on the list. Despite arrests, the protests produced meaningful results—not an uncommon pattern in China.
Between this highly publicized case and the success of the zero-COVID protests at the end of last year, I expect the usual protest season ahead of the Spring Festival on Jan. 22 to be particularly hectic. One crowd has already challenged police in Chongqing and gotten their demands met over unpaid wages. (Migrant workers often receive a substantial part of their annual pay just before the Chinese New Year, and companies often attempt to cheat them.)
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Tech and Business
Costly deaths. China is in the middle of a wave of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations, but the country’s abrupt changes in policy are also likely to cause misery of a financial nature—especially now that multiple cities are no longer providing free COVID-19 treatment. Treatment costs up to $3,000 a day, beyond the means of most families in a middle-income country.
The government’s denialism about the number of deaths in China has also allowed insurance companies to deny most claims, because doctors are reluctant to even name COVID-19 in official paperwork. Since the start of the pandemic, poor health coverage for much of the Chinese public has been a looming danger; Beijing has dropped financial protections at a time when the public needs them most.
Alibaba gets relief. E-commerce giant Alibaba, which is at the center of Chinese efforts to take greater control of the technology sector, appears to be back in the government’s good graces. Officials in Hangzhou, Alibaba’s home city, have recently signed an agreement with the company and called it resilient and irreplaceable. The once-popular co-founder, Jack Ma, has said he will give up control of the company entirely; he appears to be living in Japan.
The peace deal has come at the price of a much greater government role in Alibaba, as with the rest of the Chinese tech industry—and likely backdoor deals handing profits to the best-connected officials. When a company or industry faces political trouble in China, there is always a share of it left for the vultures.
Property restraints to be lifted. China may be giving up any attempt to rein in real estate companies’ debt. Instead, it’s encouraging lending in a desperate attempt to get the property market moving and restart the economy after a dire 2022. Repeatedly kicking the can down the road on the real estate bubble is paying diminishing returns, though. After decades of over-investment, a hard landing for homeowners and an over-inflated real estate sector seems likely.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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