Coronavirus: they’re only answering Xi Jinping’s call but are China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomats doing more harm than good?

China has come under heavy attack for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but its diplomats are answering Xi Jinping’s call to fight back. Photo: AP
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With much of the world still in the grip of the

Covid-19 pandemic

, China’s diplomats are fighting an uphill battle to fend off criticism of the country’s initial handling of the crisis and reset the narrative about the origins of the deadly coronavirus.

Elsewhere in the world, Beijing’s critics and opponents are redoubling their efforts as they go in pursuit of justice and reparations, or at the very least, a scapegoat.

In recent weeks, some of China’s most seasoned ambassadors have found themselves embroiled in a war of words with their host countries. But rather than adopting the traditional approach of managing tensions through diplomatic protocols, as the storms have raged, many of them have risen to the call of

Chinese President Xi Jinping

and displayed their “

fighting spirit

”, often at the expense of the country’s global image, pundits say.

Last week alone, at least seven Chinese ambassadors – to France,


, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and the African Union – were summoned by their hosts to answer charges ranging from spreading rumours and misinformation to the “racist mistreatment” of Africans in the south China city of Guangzhou.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has urged diplomats to show their fighting spirit amid growing adversity over the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Xinhua

The clashes correspond with a shift in gear in the wider coronavirus blame game, with ever more countries – Germany, France, Britain, Australia and Canada among them – joining the United States in pressing Beijing for greater transparency regarding its initial cover-ups and other missteps.

Last week, the Chinese embassy in Berlin sparred publicly with German newspaper Bild after the bestselling tabloid demanded more than US$160 billion in compensation from China for its failure to contain the virus within its borders.

At the same time, Beijing’s diplomatic missions in Australia and Canada accused local politicians and media of parroting US propaganda, after they too called for massive reparations and independent inquiries into the pandemic.

Previously, senior Chinese diplomats in Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, Singapore and Peru made international headlines by trading barbs with media, officials and academics they considered critical of Beijing’s handling of the health crisis.

The sight of so many professional statesmen – each one of them trained, under normal circumstances, to shun the limelight – caught up in high-profile spats around the world is perplexing, even for China watchers like Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.

“The aggressive Chinese propaganda and diplomacy will antagonise other countries which will review their China policy after the Covid-19 crisis is over, and some will backtrack from the globalisation process that has benefited China so much,” he said.

“This will of course hurt the best interests of China and the citizens of China, as they have been the biggest beneficiaries of globalisation.”

The nationalist shift in China’s diplomacy in recent months spawned the rise of the “

Wolf Warrior

” ambassadors and senior diplomats, named after the hit 2015 patriotic war film. It also coincided with repeated warnings from the top leadership that a rapidly deteriorating relationship with the US – brought about by a prolonged trade war and intense competition for technological supremacy and geopolitical influence – had left China facing unprecedented adversity and challenges.

China’s ambassador to France Lu Shaye is no stranger to controversy. During his earlier, two-year stint as ambassador to Canada he was well known for his blistering criticism of Ottawa, especially in relation to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive at Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.

Last week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned Lu to express his deep disapproval of an anonymous article published on the Chinese embassy’s website accusing French nursing home workers of abandoning their jobs and “allowing residents to die of hunger and illness”.

Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre, a Washington-based think tank, said that the rise of fiery ambassadors and mid-level diplomats, like foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, was evidence that China’s policy change was being driven by its most senior leaders, Xi included.

Zhao is well known for his controversial Twitter outbursts, including last month when he promoted the conspiracy theory that the US had smuggled the coronavirus into China, a move that backfired terribly, fuelling more distrust and further complicating the two sides’ deeply fraught relationship.

“Under Xi, the top-down approach is absolute, meaning that the leader’s decision is the order that has to be implemented. The diplomats don’t get to make decisions, only implement them,” Sun said.

“For their careers, it makes perfect sense for the diplomats to echo and magnify what they see as the leader’s wishes,” she said.

“The top leader doesn’t get down to the tactical level to decide every move. He decides on the overall strategy and tone, then the diplomats follow.”

Tsang agreed that China’s approach to international relations had changed under Xi, with the old idea of diplomacy replaced by “a desire to ingratiate oneself with core leader Xi, who demands the rest of the world pay due respect to China under his leadership”.

“Whether their conduct backfires on China’s relations with other countries or not is now a secondary consideration for many of them,” he said.

Care or not, recent studies suggest the diplomats’ hard-nosed approach has been damaging to China’s global image.

According to a survey released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Centre in Washington, almost two-thirds of the Americans polled had an

unfavourable perception of China

due to the rancorous wranglings between the two superpowers over the coronavirus crisis.

A study by the same think tank published in December found that in 24 of the 34 countries across six continents polled the respondents’ perception of China was generally negative.

Pang Zhongying, a visiting senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said that despite Beijing’s efforts to revitalise its diplomatic corps with increased funding and a new breed of younger, more professional statesmen, there remained a dearth of suitable talent.

“It’s sad that there are not more competent diplomats available when the country needs them the most,” he said.

“It’d be a grave mistake to believe that the provision of masks and medical supplies or emulating [US] President Donald Trump’s notoriously impulsive Twitter diplomacy are a substitute for real diplomacy.”

George Yeo, geopolitical principal at strategic advisory firm Brunswick and a former foreign minister of Singapore, said that the level of anti-China sentiment in Western countries had gone from bad to worse in recent years, partly over fears of its rise as a global power and partly because of a clash of values.

Beijing “must curb the tendency of its officials to be overly truculent in their defence of China’s position or condescending in their treatment of lesser powers”, he said.

In an article published on Brunswick’s own website last week, Yeo said that “even among those who admire China’s success in overcoming Covid-19 there is antipathy towards China’s authoritarian ways”.