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Wolf Warrior

Will China Rein in its Wolves?

By Antti Tulonen

22 May 2020

The backlash to the China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy, brought about by Xi Jinping’s call for ‘fighting spirit’ among Chinese diplomats in September 2019, continues to mount. “Over these months China has lost Europe”, said Reinhard Bütikofer, the Chair of the European Parliament Delegation to China, in April summing up the sentiment shared by many. Since then, the criticism has only become louder. China’s pressuring of EEAS to water down its report on China’s disinformation campaign and the last-minute censorship of the op-ed by the EU ambassadors in China have only added to the slew of national level examples of ‘wolf warriors’ in action.

However, the recent public criticism from inside China could indicate that the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP) is mulling reining in its wolves. The rare internal criticism came last week from several Chinese foreign policy experts challenging China’s current mode of foreign policy. Professor Shi Yinhong, a long term advisor to the State Council, said in a seminar shared officially by Remnin University, that the bellicose diplomacy had not only failed in its intention to “promote the Chinese political system as superior and to project the image of China as a world leader combating a global health crisis” but achieved the opposite. The criticism was echoed by Zhu Feng, dean of international relations at Nanjing University, at another seminar. Even hawkish Yan Xuetong, a professor from Tsinghua University and an adviser to the National Security Commission, called for “more rationality” and warned against nationalistic thought driving China’s foreign policy. Earlier, former Chinese diplomats and lower level academics also expressed similar sentiments.

Despite these critics, the push for the narrative diverting any criticism of China on Covid-19 has so far show little signs of abating in China’s state controlled media and among the ‘wolf warrior’ cadre of diplomats. Australia became one of the latest targets this week. On Monday China announced new ‘anti-dumping’ tariffs on Australian barley that could cost the country 500 million dollars a year. The move was preceded by the Chinese ambassador to Australia issuing a tweet speculating on a boycott of Australian exports and the State media calling the country ‘gum stuck in China’s shoe’ in response to Australia joining the call for inquiry into origin of Covid-19. Many observers considered the Australia’s thinly veiled punishment essentially a warning to the EU and others looking to confront China’s narrative.

Nonetheless, what lends credence to the recent dissenting voices is the fact that they seem to be coming from top State academic institutions without censure or repercussions. Under Xi Jinping, the Party control over academic institutions has become only more stringent to ensure academics toe the official line. In 2018, the few academics speaking against the Chinese narrative on US-China trade war were quickly cracked down upon and the Universities were reformed for more effective control. Most recently in December and January, the many University charters, including those of the academics speaking out against ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats, were rewritten to remove references to academic freedom and to espouse loyalty to the Party. It is unlikely that the academics would have aired the recent round criticism it they expected there to be no welcome for it among the higher CCP echelons.

For EU-China relations the change of course would not come a moment too late. The CCP leadership had dubbed 2020 to be ‘the year of Europe’ with aspirations for closer cooperation on climate change, multilateral trade and technological innovation. China has been confident that, despite becoming more assertive in 2019, the EU irked by the uncooperative US would stay committed to working more closely with China. However, the attitudes have soured towards China in Brussels, European capitals as well as the world in a manner the CCP appears to have failed to anticipate. On its part, the EU should communicate clearly that more no-holds-barred ‘diplomacy’ and disinformation cannot change the global discourse and serve only to erode the prospects for deeper cooperation the CCP had envisioned for 2020 and beyond.

The comprehensive damage the Trump administration’s ‘America first’ diplomacy, attacking allies, enemies and the multilateral system alike, has done to the US standing in the world should have served as a cautionary tale to China. The EU must communicate to the CCP leadership that regardless of the shared interests, any hopes for deeper cooperation ultimately hinges on diplomatic decorum – as is recognized by many of China’s own top experts.