Beijing Diary: Roots of the ‘wolf warrior’ mentality

The Chinese government has made strides in containing the coronavirus, which infected tens of thousands and killed more than 4,000 people in the country while spreading worldwide. At the same time, Beijing is locked in an increasingly heated diplomatic confrontation with Washington. Nikkei’s bureau chief in China, Tetsushi Takahashi, is filing dispatches on what he sees.

Monday, June 1

China’s “wolf warrior” diplomat is on an offensive.

Last Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump hinted that he would take strong measures against China over the new national security law for Hong Kong. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian fired back at a news conference the next day.

“China is firmly opposed to foreign interference in China’s domestic affairs,” he said. He even added heroic background music to a video clip of the news conference he posted on Twitter, as if to boost national prestige.

No Chinese career diplomat has drawn this much attention before.

The term “wolf warrior” — increasingly used to describe Chinese foreign policy — comes from “Wolf Warrior 2,” a hit 2017 action movie that depicts a former Chinese commando’s daring missions to save compatriots in a war-torn African country. The movie was nicknamed “Chinese Rambo,” due to its similarities to the 1982 Hollywood movie “First Blood.”

Zhao — who caused controversy in March by tweeting that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to the Chinese city of Wuhan — is also gaining popularity within China. Many Chinese must appreciate his criticism of the U.S., and Beijing seems to be giving him a starring role in its fight with Washington.

But is this a job for a diplomat?

Even when politicians criticize other countries, it is up to diplomats to find common ground behind the scenes. Without this division of roles, there would be no diplomatic ties.

The concept of “diplomacy” is relatively new to China, though. Historically, Chinese dynasties were based on Sinocentrism — the idea that China was the center of the world — and thus did not recognize other countries as sovereign nations. There was no concept of nations maintaining relationships on an equal footing.

The Qing dynasty set up the Zongli Yamen, a government body in charge of foreign policy, in 1861, immediately after it was defeated by Britain and France in the Second Opium War. As China was forced to bow to European demands, the beginning of its “diplomacy” is linked to its humiliation.

Last weekend, I tried to visit the former site of the Zongli Yamen, about 2 km east of the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, the road leading to it remained closed due to coronavirus precautions. Since I’m not a resident of the area, I was not allowed to pass through.

Reluctantly, I went for a stroll. Then I realized there is another significant place related to Chinese diplomacy just to the south — the site of the People’s Republic of China’s original foreign ministry, opened in 1949.

It turned out that the building, once used as a guesthouse during the Qing dynasty, was gone. What was left was a majestic gate. Former Premier Zhou Enlai, who had served as the country’s first foreign minister, must have thought of ways to introduce China to the world there.

Few in Zhou’s era could have imagined China growing into the superpower it is today — reclaiming its position at the center of the world stage. The risk is that, in some ways, China seeks a return to the days when there was no diplomacy.

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