Over the past 40 years, China’s economic rise has been powered by the work, sacrifices and creativity of hundreds of millions of citizens. Yet its rise as a global power has come about thanks to many unsung heroes: its diplomats. There are no movies, memorials or patriotic recruitment clips dedicated to them, but some of China’s greatest international achievements, from its admission to the United Nations and World Trade Organisation , to the normalisation of relations with the United States and Japan , were the product of strenuous and interminable behind-the-scenes negotiations, conducted by brilliant diplomats. These well-trained, highly skilled and soft-spoken envoys made possible China’s reach, winning friends and opening markets in the process. They carefully took time to build personal connections and trust, listen to interlocutors and dispel misunderstandings, address concerns and find workable compromises. That was the golden era of Chinese diplomacy, where professionalism and discipline were at their highest. Today, things are changing. Chinese diplomacy is dying, in full public view. It is starting to no longer focus on external audiences, cultivating friends and opening doors, and is instead becoming an appendix of China’s propaganda apparatus, focusing on domestic audiences. Diplomats should prevent or defuse conflicts, not amplify them. While they promote and defend their country’s interests, they are not supposed to publicly fight their host government. If really necessary, that is the job of the government or other political or non-governmental actors, with diplomats conveying messages behind the scenes while being open and trustworthy partners, proposing alternatives and working out a compromise. If the government or other politicians have to be the “bad cop” to placate the domestic public, diplomats should be the “good cop”. But Chinese diplomats are now publicly fighting foreign governments, politicians and other stakeholders, from companies to the media, simply to put on a nationalist show for audiences at home. From France and Australia , to Sweden and Brazil, Chinese diplomats are criticising governments, parliaments and ministers, while threatening companies and other innocent parties with retribution for their governments’ actions, over which they have no control. All this is happening when, in the post-Covid-19 world, China should be using diplomacy to reassure friends and partners, improve its image, mend ties, prevent ruptures and fight Sinophobia. With such public and unabashed threats against economic activities, in countries from Germany to Australia, backed by a history of retribution, from Norway to South Korea , how many companies might decide that tying their fortunes to the Chinese market was a strategic mistake? With these threats and sanctions on display, how many companies will risk investing millions to enter the Chinese market, when everything can come falling down in the blink of an eye? What honest consultant, no matter how China-friendly, could still advise clients that economic ties to China are worth pursuing, when unpredictable political and geopolitical risks have become the top threat? With some foreign governments already calling for bringing back production and shifting supply chains away from China, it makes no strategic sense for Beijing to threaten precisely the companies pondering their future in China. But for now, this undiplomatic strategy seems appealing at a personal and institutional level. While some Chinese diplomats might honestly be driven by nationalist feelings, others have realised that the best way to advance their careers is by being as aggressive and nationalistic as possible, regardless of the consequences. And the political leadership in Beijing seems eager to promote this, believing that it will hype nationalism and shore up support for the Communist Party. In the short term, this might happen. But the bill will eventually have to be paid, and the economic and political costs might end up being too high for China’s current political system. It might seem impossible today, when China is the rising economic juggernaut, but after years of economic sanctions against foreign companies that played no role in their governments’ decisions – from Covid-19 investigations and ties to Taiwan , to retribution against Huawei restrictions , or a plethora of other perceived offences – China might end up decoupling from Western countries. Foreign markets will begin to close, companies will dial down or abandon China and investments will dry up. This needs to be said as clearly as possible so that 20 years from now, Beijing cannot say it did not see it coming. In shortsightedly believing that nationalism will shore up its rule, China’s leadership is jeopardising the nation’s future by undermining the true strength of its legitimacy : successful economic development. How China’s medical diplomacy is failing to win over the world Chinese diplomats have invested untold efforts in mastering foreign languages and immersing themselves in foreign cultures. They live for years away from home and, sometimes, their family. They loyally serve China behind the scenes, with little fanfare or public recognition. China’s global success is thanks to the generations of such hardworking diplomats. All this work, including that of countless Chinese diplomats who still follow the traditional rule book of diplomacy, is now in danger because of the shift from diplomacy to propaganda and aggressiveness. This shift will slowly damage China’s image all over the world, disappoint and drive away its friends and partners, and enable its adversaries. China’s economy will bear the brunt of the consequences, its citizens will ultimately suffer from the rising tide of Sinophobia and, eventually, its leadership will feel the full force of the political whirlwind. Unless, that is, China remembers what diplomacy is about and its diplomats return to the work they are supposed to do. Andrei Lungu is president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP) Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.