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Why did China remove its ‘wolf warrior’ spokesperson?

Beijing’s diplomacy has been portrayed as ‘aggressive’ and even if it’s just a defence mechanism, China wants to move away from it

China has reassigned Zhao Lijian, known to the Western world as the face of Beijing’s assertive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, from the post of its Foreign Ministry Spokesperson.

The words “wolf warrior” (derived from a Chinese action movie) appear in virtually every media headline about the transfer, with the BBC, for example, explaining the term as a “confrontational, combative approach [in diplomacy], a stark contrast to the previously restrained brand of Chinese diplomacy.” In practice this is a derogatory and highly biased description of Zhao’s and others’ efforts to defend China against critics.

In listing why Zhao was deemed controversial, the media usually mention a number of instances where he attacked the United States, or Australia. This included accusing Washington of having manufactured the virus in a laboratory (a response to a similar attack on China by US senator Tom Cotton), posting an artist’s rendition of documented Australian war crimes against Afghanistan children, and attacking the United States over its racial inequalities, which triggered a response from Susan Rice.

Reading many of the articles about him and “wolf warrior diplomacy” in general, you will be led to believe that Zhao is a one-sided provocateur who spent his time in the Foreign Ministry post senselessly trolling other countries. There is usually little mention of why he said what he did, who he was responding to, or the political context these exchanges took place in, leaving the reader with the impression that his “combativeness” had little rationale behind it.

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The label “wolf warrior diplomacy” has thus become a convenient descriptive tool, a set of shared ideas and understandings, which are used to present Chinese diplomats’ attempts to defend their country from foreign attacks as highly aggressive and irrational. Observers acknowledge that China’s diplomacy had been more restrained before, but rarely is any reason given as to why it changed, beyond general criticism of Xi Jinping.

Rather than being “aggressive,” “combative” or “coercive,” Chinese “wolf warrior diplomacy” is a defensive mechanism. Western media refuse to look into what changes in the world around China triggered this. Instead, they use generalizations to continually attack and undermine China’s image, projecting fear and drawing contrast between Beijing and the West. Many Western diplomats and officials have vilified China repeatedly over the past few years, with few reservations. Still, their rhetoric is assumed to be the norm by default, and Beijing’s defence against it is portrayed as irrational, aggressive, uncivilized, angry, thus obscuring from the public’s eye any logical merit behind what the Chinese are saying.

While China is getting accused of grave crimes, with images of Tiananmen never far from the public memory, Zhao’s posting of a meme about Australian war crimes in Afghanistan was condemned as obscene and despicable. The contrast drawn is both hypocritical and superficial as such, hence even rhetorical responses from Beijing are erroneously portrayed as an act of aggression. Was the behaviour of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo any less aggressive in essence? The US was allowed to weaponize conspiracy theories to undermine Beijing (such as the lab-leak conspiracy) but it was “misinformation” if Beijing subsequently retaliated.

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Despite this, the reassignment of Zhao Lijian to an obscure department is not without political meaning. Even if we can critique the discourse of “wolf warrior diplomacy,” impressions matter. Zhao is seen as very nationalist and combative irrespective of how Western media choose to portray him. The fact that China has realigned its diplomatic team recently, including promoting the very conciliatory (and non-combative) Wang Yi, is a set of signals that beyond the US, China is seeking to re-engage diplomatically with the West. This signals a shift away from the highly charged era of 2020-2022, the “Covid era” when tensions with Beijing were very high.

Therefore, although Zhao’s legacy is misrepresented, it cannot be denied that his reassignment is a political move. China is ultimately not happy to be defined by “wolf warrior diplomacy.” With many US allies unhappy with Washington benefitting at their expense and asking them to comply with costly sanctions, in particular when it comes to the Ukraine conflict and in its technology war against China, some nations have begun to reengage with Beijing. Beijing ultimately sees that “cooler heads must prevail” and will seek to restrain the US through diplomacy, not combative behaviour, especially as it reopens again to the world and Washington strives to do all it can to raise tensions.

January 10, 2023 at 07:07PM

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