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When a Wolf Warrior Howls

The Chinese ambassador to France went off message, and Beijing can’t apologize.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Lu Shaye, China's ambassador in France
Lu Shaye, China's ambassador in France
Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, speaks in Paris on Feb. 1, 2020. Florent Bardos/ABACAPRESS.COM/Reuters

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: China grapples with fallout from questionable comments by its ambassador to France, Malaysian fugitive Jho Low could be sent home in a rumored backroom deal between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, and a liberal-leaning Chinese newspaper columnist faces espionage charges.


Chinese Diplomat Goes Off Message

This week, China is dealing with the diplomatic fallout from ill-judged comments made by its ambassador to France, Lu Shaye. During a TV interview last Friday, Lu seemed to question the sovereignty of former Soviet states such as Ukraine. “Even these ex-Soviet countries don’t have an effective status in international law because there was no international agreement to materialize their status as sovereign countries,” he said. The remark prompted immediate outrage, especially among the Baltic states.

European politicians already skeptical of China seized on Lu’s comments. Despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent red-carpet visit to Beijing, China’s relationship with much of Europe has declined since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—and even more so since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. A stalled trade deal between China and the European Union now appears dead. Beijing’s reputation has especially suffered in Eastern Europe, thanks in part to its attempt to bully Lithuania over its relations with Taiwan.

Yet Lu’s remarks diverge from China’s official position: Beijing has never questioned the legitimacy of former Soviet states and has enjoyed relatively good relationships with them for much of the last three decades. When asked about Lu’s comments on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said, “China respects the status of the former Soviet republics as sovereign countries after the Soviet Union’s dissolution.” The Chinese Embassy in Paris removed the online transcript of Lu’s comments and said he spoke in a private capacity.

So, how did Lu make such a slip-up? The ambassador has a record of aggressive nationalist comments. Last year, Lu referred to the need to subject the Taiwanese public to “reeducation” after a hypothetical Chinese conquest; he also accused “foreign forces” of being behind the mass protests that eventually helped end China’s strict zero-COVID policy. In 2019, while he was ambassador to Canada, Lu accused Canada of “white supremacy” for detaining Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request.

Lu has openly boasted about his so-called wolf warrior status, and so far the aggressive posturing seems to have boosted his career. After all, he landed the cushy post in France. But unlike some instances of wolf warrior diplomacy, Lu’s recent statement doesn’t align with any Chinese goal. He may have intended to say something more moderate, such as that post-Soviet territorial disputes are not fully resolved.

Russia’s war in Ukraine puts China in an awkward position. Beijing supports Moscow both because of their long-standing near-alliance and shared anti-Western sentiment, while its diplomatic language has stressed sovereignty and self-determination. However, China defines sovereignty on its own terms; its conception has never included Taiwan or Tibet. (It also sees the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale.) It’s possible some Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials see the sovereignty of post-Soviet states as not fully determined—an idea that Lu could have repeated.

Ultimately, leaders in Beijing—and particularly Chinese President Xi Jinping—remain responsible for appointing figures such as Lu to key positions. (Last week, China faced backlash after its ambassador to the Philippines implied that Filipino workers in Taiwan might be at risk amid rising tensions.) Although the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs seemed to disavow Lu’s statement, it hasn’t apologized—and it almost never does to foreigners.

Beijing may be institutionally incapable of fully walking back the comments since it could be seen as humiliating and would likely require approval from the very top. That’s a big problem when the government is sending wolf warriors such as Lu out to howl.


What We’re Following

A backroom deal over Jho Low? Malaysian financier Jho Low, the alleged mastermind of the 1MDB scandal that saw more than $4 billion stolen from Malaysian state investment funds, has been widely believed to be taking refuge in China for years. Beijing denies it is harboring Low, but he may be returned to his home country as part of a rumored backroom deal following Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s March visit to China. (In 2018, the 1MDB scandal led to the fall of then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.)

Any deal between China and Malaysia would likely restrict the questions Low is publicly asked about his connections to the Chinese state. Low appears to have acted as a Chinese agent, particularly in helping to establish an influence network in the United States that allegedly included casino magnate Steve Wynn and Republican financier Elliott Broidy, who was pardoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump. Low aimed to persuade Trump to return fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui to Beijing; Guo is charged with fraud in a separate case.

Meanwhile, one of Low’s contacts, founding Fugees member Pras Michel, is on trial facing 10 charges associated with his alleged work as an unregistered agent for Low and China. Michel was reportedly paid more than $100 million to lobby for the release of Guo; in this case, Low seems to have mistaken the rapper’s moderate connections to the Obama campaign for wider influence.

Newspaper columnist charged with spying. This week, reports emerged that liberal Chinese commentator Dong Yuyu faces charges of espionage and has been in detention for more than a year. Dong, a well-known columnist for a CCP newspaper, was sidelined for his relatively liberal views during the Xi era; his detention appears to be the result of his regular meetings with foreign diplomats and journalists—a routine part of any informed pundit’s job.

Paranoia about espionage within the party has risen under Xi, with any meeting with foreigners viewed as potentially dangerous. That makes any investigative work in China, such as corporate due diligence, especially risky. Western diplomats, academics, and journalists have seen their Chinese colleagues reduce contact or convey that they have to report any meeting to state security agents.


FP’s Most Read This Week

Ukraine’s Longest Day by Franz-Stefan Gady

The West Is Preparing for Russia’s Disintegration by Anchal Vohra

In Sudan, U.S. Policies Paved the Way for War by Justin Lynch


Tech and Business

Propaganda gets a boost on Twitter. Last week, Twitter dropped the “state-affiliated” label and algorithmic restrictions previously imposed on Chinese state outlets, among others. Twitter is banned within China, but the site introduced the label in 2020 in an attempt to prevent the spread of disinformation on the site. Its removal appears to have followed new Twitter owner Elon Musk’s disagreement with NPR, which led him to incorrectly label the U.S. outlet as state-affiliated.

Chinese and Russian propaganda outlets had already benefited from an apparently purchased boost in visibility in recent weeks, according to a DFRLab report. This could be part of Musk’s strategy to prop up Twitter’s diminishing finances, but it’s worth noting that Musk has promoted conspiracy theories and pro-Russian propaganda on his own Twitter account.

Guizhou struggles with debt. As Chinese provincial governments face a long-running financial crisis, richer and more connected provinces are better positioned to receive aid from the central government. By contrast, the isolated province of Guizhou in China’s mountainous southwest is struggling so badly that it put out a public appeal for assistance. This week, Guizhou signed an agreement with a major state-backed manager of distressed assets to dispatch a team to help.

Guizhou has a population of 38 million, but it remains economically marginal within China. Unlike neighboring provinces, it hasn’t capitalized on its ethnic diversity and natural beauty for tourism. Once China’s poorest province in terms of per capita GDP, Guizhou overtook three others in the last decade thanks to Xi’s anti-poverty push in the 2010s—although that data should be taken with the usual grain of salt. But those boom years were also an era of bad loans, bad assets, and rising debt.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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