A woman on an electric scooter films a large screen outside a shopping mall showing President Xi Jinping’s speech on the 100th anniversary of China’s Communist Party on July 1. Although the speech was intended for the domestic audience, it was bound to have an international effect. Photo: AP
Lijia Zhang
Lijia Zhang

China as gentle giant would win more hearts than wolf warrior diplomacy

  • For many Chinese, Xi Jinping’s stern warning to foreign powers on the centenary of the Communist Party was a sign of strength and resolve
  • But it would not have gone down well with the rest of the world, at a time when many are already wary of China’s rapid rise
In a speech marking 100 years of the Communist Party on July 1, President Xi Jinping warned that hostile foreign powers would “have their heads cracked and bleeding”.

The threatening words were ostensibly aimed at the United States and its allies, but also very much intended for the ears of the domestic audience.

For many Chinese, Xi’s stern tone was a sign of China’s confidence, strength and resolve. But I doubt it went down well with people beyond China’s borders.

And it certainly didn’t help soften China’s image in the world, at a time when many are already wary or fearful of the country’s rapid rise.

In a Pew survey released last week, unfavourable views of China remain at or near historic highs among the advanced economies in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific, although assessments of China’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis have improved.


Xi Jinping leads celebrations marking centenary of China’s ruling Communist Party

Xi Jinping leads celebrations marking centenary of China’s ruling Communist Party

The results shouldn’t have come as a surprise. China’s global image has worsened in recent years, and especially since the pandemic struck.

Last October, a similar Pew survey of 14 countries revealed very unfavourable views of China; many respondents felt then that the country had handled the Covid-19 outbreak poorly.

However, within China, not only leaders but also ordinary people are convinced that the West – the United States in particular – intends to contain China and that the country is being unfairly punished for its growing economic and military might.

Recently, China has also been criticised for its treatment of the Uygurs in Xinjiang, as well as for the introduction of the national security law in Hong Kong and the subsequent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and members of the press.
China’s response has been “wolf warrior” diplomacy, a term derived from a popular Chinese action film, Wolf Warrior 2.

Real-life wolf warriors – Chinese diplomats – have aggressively fended off criticism and in some cases even launched counter-attacks, which are not always backed by solid evidence.

This represents a sharp departure from the diplomatic principle in the Deng Xiaoping era, tao guang yang hui or hide our capacities and bide our time”.

The wolf warriors’ combative approach is poorly regarded. Some believe it has tarnished China’s reputation.

Although Xi did not make his remarks in a diplomatic context, such a high-profile speech was bound to have a far-reaching international effect.

Personally, I don’t think China entirely deserves the image it has in the West. Living in Britain, I often find myself jumping to my country’s defence – explaining where China was coming from (for example, the 100 years of humiliation), arguing how well China managed to contain the spread of Covid-19 after the initial missteps, and boasting about its remarkable achievements over the past decades.

How can China defend itself without weakening its soft power? It is a major challenge. No one is suggesting that it should put up with all the criticism thrown at it, but I’d think that a calm and measured response may prove more effective than angry tit-for-tat.

Why is China so misunderstood? Here are 2 reasons

Inevitably China’s rise will be accompanied by disagreement, conflict and criticism. The country can demonstrate its growing confidence by becoming more receptive to constructive criticism. Instead of being aggressively defensive, it could seek rapprochement.

No matter how strong and powerful it has become, China needs to cooperate economically with other countries, including the developed nations whose citizens see China in a negative light.

It has to work with them to address important issues ranging from climate change to nuclear disarmament and anti-terrorism measures.

China is poised to play a leading role in the post-pandemic world, and a more conciliatory approach would bring benefits, both to China and its critics.

French President Emmanuel Macron accompanies Chinese President Xi Jinping and German Chancellor Angela Merkel after their meeting at the Elysee Presidential Palace on March 26, 2019 in Paris. China needs to work with the rest of the world on issues ranging from climate change to anti-terrorism measures. Photo: Corbis/Getty Images

During a stand-off between nations, the one who first tries to reconcile the conflict often wins respect and makes gains by taking the moral high ground.

The Chinese classic The Art of War is actually about the art of avoiding war. Sun Tzu enjoins people to avoid war whenever possible because it is far too costly compared to diplomacy.

He also advises military leaders not to show off their troops’ strength. Indeed, The Art of War disdains macho displays.

At a study session of the Politburo in June, Xi instructed officials to adopt a softer tone in foreign affairs. That is wise. I am sure that China will continue to rise. It should behave like a major modern power by showing more of its gentle, tolerant and benevolent side.

Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus