From the bookshelf: ‘China’s civilian army: the making of wolf warrior diplomacy’
20 Jul 2021|

When Zhou Enlai, China’s newly appointed premier and foreign minister, in November 1949 addressed the initial recruits for China’s Foreign Ministry, few of the 170 assembled graduates, local administrators and peasant revolutionaries spoke a foreign language. Twelve of China’s first 17 ambassadors were former military officers, including nine survivors of the Long March. Only three had previously been abroad.

Seven decades later, China’s vast network of embassies and missions is matched in global coverage only by the foreign service of the United States. Today, China’s diplomats are fluent in foreign languages, are well versed in international affairs and assertively pursue their country’s interests.

They have also recently demonstrated significant overreach, earning themselves the moniker ‘wolf warriors’. Recent examples range from China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom threatening his host country with retaliation for banning the Chinese telecom giant Huawei from bidding for the country’s 5G network to Chinese diplomats in Fiji gate-crashing the Taiwanese national day celebration and beating up the hosts for ‘openly displaying the flag of a “false country”’.

Several of China’s most prominent diplomats have gained notoriety for their overt aggression. In March 2020, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian suggested that the Covid-19 virus originated in the United States and had been brought to Wuhan by the US Army. ‘Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!’, he famously tweeted.

In China’s civilian army, Peter Martin, a political reporter for Bloomberg News, examines how China’s diplomatic service has evolved from its modest beginnings into the current corps of wolf warriors. Martin’s book is ambitious, covering the seven decades from the founding of China’s foreign service to the present day.

When Zhou set up the Foreign Ministry, he wanted China’s diplomats to be professional, regimented and obedient to the central leadership. ‘Foreign affairs cadres are the People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing,’ he told the assembled recruits, making it clear that he expected military-style discipline. This mantra is still cited by China’s diplomats, who are generally required to avoid informal contact with their counterparts.

Martin highlights key turning points in China’s diplomacy. The 1954 Geneva Conference of the ‘big five’ to discuss the future of Korea and Indochina marked a diplomatic coming out for Zhou, who invited Charlie Chaplin to dinner at the villa rented by the Chinese delegation. At the 1955 Non-aligned Conference in Bandung, Zhou’s extemporaneous speech gained him a standing ovation and laid the foundation for relations with the developing world.

Even the Foreign Ministry wasn’t immune to the vagaries of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Youthful diplomats ganged up on their senior colleagues, and many were recalled to Beijing for self-criticism and re-education. By 1967, only one ambassador remained in post.

Two recent turning points stand out. While the West was struggling to respond to the 2008–09 global financial crisis, China implemented a massive economic stimulus that gave its economy—and its self-confidence—a boost. The following year, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi famously reminded an ASEAN forum that ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact’. Xi Jinping’s assertiveness has further empowered China’s diplomats. In 2019, he called on them to show more fighting spirit. The message was clear. The most outspoken wolf warriors have been rewarded with rapid promotion.

Martin has done his homework, including wading through the memoirs of over 100 Chinese diplomats. The task wasn’t much fun, he concedes, but it yielded fascinating results. When China’s diplomats arrived in New York in 1971, they might as well have landed on another planet. Martin describes the delegation’s shock at the city’s neon signs, shop fronts and strip clubs. When China set up its embassy in Canada in 1970, its diplomats initially thought that the well-appointed old-age home next door was a ruse to deceive them about living conditions in the West. It took them a while to grasp the reality of the economic gap between China and market economies.

The book brims with little-known facts about China’s top diplomats, and the personal and family relationships that have advanced their careers. In 1936, Huang Hua, who would succeed Zhou as foreign minister, served as interpreter when Edgar Snow interviewed Mao for his book Red star over China. In the 1970s, Yang, who would go on to become China’s top diplomat, interpreted for George H.W. Bush when he was head of the US liaison office in China, establishing a relationship that would serve him well decades later as ambassador in Washington.

China’s traditional diplomatic tools include using well-researched flattery to win over counterparts; putting on a show for foreign visitors; displaying theatrical anger to exert pressure on the other party; and insisting that responsibility for the relationship lies with the other side. ‘It is up to the United States to take the initiative,’ Deng Xiaoping told a visiting (and retired) Richard Nixon when the US froze relations following the violent suppression of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

Wolf warriors are effective at making China’s position clear. However, they are patently ineffective at the diplomatic art of convincing the other party to act ‘because they come to see doing so as in their own best interest’. A senior European diplomat lamented that after dealing with China for four decades, he had no Chinese counterparts he could genuinely call friends.

Despite the vast literature on China that has emerged in recent years, little has been written about China’s diplomatic corps. Martin’s thoroughly researched book fills a major gap, and should be required reading for all diplomats dealing with China. The ‘PLA soldiers in civilian clothing’ have come a long way since Zhou set out his initial vision, but in a way little has changed.