Peter Martin is a reporter for Bloomberg News, based in Washington D.C., where he writes on China and U.S.-China relations.
This interview focuses on Martin’s latest work, “China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” (Oxford University Press, 2021). In this book the author uncovers truths about China’s politics and foreign policy through memoirs and interviews with former Chinese diplomats, archives, and other sources.
Young China Watchers (YCW): Please give us an introduction to wolf warrior diplomacy and its goals.
Peter Martin (PM): Wolf warrior diplomacy has become this term that really encapsulates the new generation of Chinese diplomats who are willing to speak very frankly, very assertively, and sometimes even very aggressively to their counterparts around the world; who expect from other countries a degree of deference that they have not received before, which they think is in line with China’s new status. It’s diplomats like Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian who have become the face of that generation. We have seen an explosion of commentary on social media, sometimes including insults to other leaders or instructing people to shut up.
YCW: You draw many parallels between current Chinese diplomacy and Mao-era demands for political purity and Communist Party loyalty. Are we observing history repeating itself or are there certain characteristics that make wolf warrior diplomacy unique even in China’s historical context?
PM No, I could not say it is unique. I think some of the tactics used and certainly the use of social media is something that has not been widespread by Chinese diplomats before. But I think that the general approach is actually something that we have seen repeat itself time and time again in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the early 1950s, when the Chinese government was new, it had a very strong sense of paranoia about the outside world and was very aware of how fragile the new state was. Chinese diplomats acted in ways that we would now describe as wolf warrior diplomacy. In the 1960s when China’s political system was consumed with Chairman Mao’s cult of personality and was overwhelmingly focused on domestic politics, ideology and mass mobilization, Chinese diplomats also acted on cases that seemed bizarre and truly aggressive to the outside world. We did not have a word for it then. We did not describe it as wolf warrior diplomacy. Even in some of the tactics — handing out copies of Mao’s Little Red Book — we can see real parallels with the Xi era. So, I see it as something that has popped up again and again over time.
YCW: Wolf warrior diplomacy has emerged in line with China’s top leadership ambition to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and regain its “rightful place” on the world stage. Do you see diplomacy as part of this comprehensive policy making?
PM: I think the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has been a goal of Chinese leaders since before the PRC was even established. Sun Yat-sen believed in that goal and Chiang Kai-shek was consumed with the idea of national humiliation and the need to win respect on the world stage. I think what is different under Xi Jinping is that idea that the timeline has shifted. It was a longer-term goal that Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao worked towards, and Xi seems to have a sense that China’s time has come. The U.S. and the West are in precipitous decline and this opens space for Chinese leadership. China is now powerful enough that the world needs to accept its system and accept its expectations around things like Taiwan, South China Sea, domestic policies on human rights. There is no need for China to make compromises or apologize in any way for those policies.
YCW: Does this contrast with China’s long self-described “peaceful rise”?
PM: I think there are certainly a lot of Chinese diplomats and members of the Chinese foreign policy establishment that feel it clashes with the promise of peaceful rise. Wolf warrior diplomacy has really put a face on this previously nebulous idea that China was a threat, a problem.
“Wolf warrior diplomacy has really put a face on this previously nebulous idea that China was a threat, a problem.”
I think it’s important to remember that while we have seen many periods in PRC’s history where this behavior has emerged, we’ve also seen that the PRC is capable of periods of charm diplomacy. At times it has done that incredibly effectively — the 1950s era with the Bandung Conference. Perhaps most impressively in the decades after the Tiananmen massacre when China won friends across Asia and much of the world in a process that ultimately culminated in hosting the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
YCW: Wolf warrior diplomacy seems to be hurting China’s reputation, making it look like a bully at times. What would you say are the benefits and strengths of this approach?
PM: There are benefits in terms of being seen as the country that is willing to stand up to the United States. This has definitely helped China and made smaller nations aware of the costs of crossing China or making China’s leadership angry. But I would say on the whole there are not really tremendous diplomatic gains for China. That should not be surprising, as I do not think the main audience for this type of behavior is actually international at all; I think it is domestic. I think these displays are aimed at demonstrating to Xi Jinping that Chinese diplomats are politically loyal and demonstrating to the Chinese public that China would not be bullied or intimidated anymore.
YCW: Would you describe this kind of diplomacy as trailblazing? Does this redefine the rules for diplomatic efforts by other countries?
PM: I do not really know the answer. I think there are some other nations, Russia for example, which have been comfortable with confrontational actions on social media and some of the elements of wolf warrior diplomacy for longer than China has. But I am not convinced that many people will look at this and see it as something that they want to emulate just because it seems to have been so damaging to China’s reputation if we look at polling in Western nations, the backlash against China in India,… Look at the controversies which diplomats have created in Brazil, Papua New Guinea, and Venezuela and the list goes on and on. It is hard for me to image how countries could look at that and think that they want to follow suit.
YCW: What would you recommend as further reading on this topic?
PM: I think Ke Hua’s memoir is really great, I really enjoyed it. I would recommend “China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China” by John Garver for PRC’s foreign policy. “Mao’s China and the Cold War” by Chen Jian for some of the historical context. And “Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750” by Odd Arne Westad for even more historical context.
— Interview by Mirela Petkova