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China’s Wolf Warriors Are Turning the World Against Beijing

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 6/8/2021 Peter Martin

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- After China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, lectured his U.S. counterparts on America’s moral failings, including police killings of Black citizens, during bilateral talks in March, national security adviser Jake Sullivan didn’t exactly argue with him. But he reminded Yang of what he called the “secret sauce” of U.S. governance: the ability to acknowledge and fix mistakes. “A confident country,” Sullivan said, “is able to look hard at its shortcomings and constantly seek to improve.” His implication, of course, was that at least in international relations China can seem unable to do the same.

As the world’s most populous nation adopts a more aggressive posture, that view is becoming widely shared. China’s growing power has coincided with a drastic deterioration in public perceptions abroad. Surveys last year by the Pew Research Center found that, in 9 of 14 major economies, negative opinions of the country had reached their highest level since Pew began polling the question more than a decade ago. In the U.S., a full 73% of respondents reported a “very unfavorable” or “somewhat unfavorable” impression of China.

Some of the causes are obvious. In recent years, China has faced a barrage of international criticism, targeting its apparent detention of more than 1 million Muslims in “re-education” camps, the crushing of dissent in Hong Kong, and its actions at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, among many other issues. Its industrial policy is another factor: Many workers in the north of England or the U.S. Midwest blame China, fairly or not, for the loss of their jobs.

But increasingly, it’s China’s diplomats who are doing the most damage to how the country is viewed. Popularly known as “Wolf Warriors,” after a series of blockbuster movies that depicted Chinese heroes vanquishing foreign foes, they have picked fights everywhere from Brazil to Papua New Guinea. In March of last year, Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, prompted outrage in the U.S. when he repeatedly promoted an unsubstantiated—and absurd— theory about the origin of Covid-19, claiming it had been brought to Wuhan by visiting American athletes. In November, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology for a “repugnant” tweet by Zhao, who’d posted an illustration of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. In January the Chinese Embassy in Washington lost access to its Twitter account, after the company said a post about Xinjiang, which claimed that efforts to “eradicate extremism” in the province meant women there were no longer “baby-making machines,” violated its policies.

chart, scatter chart: Share of Respondents With a Favorable Opinion of China © Bloomberg Share of Respondents With a Favorable Opinion of China

This assertive behavior is hardening attitudes on all sides of American politics, dashing hopes in Beijing that President Joe Biden would adopt a more conciliatory approach than his predecessor. Last month, Kurt Campbell, Biden’s top official for Asia policy, declared that the era of “engagement has come to an end” with China. Biden himself described President Xi Jinping as a “thug” on the campaign trail and has pledged an era of “extreme competition” with the other economic superpower.

The story is similar across the developed world. Australia, Canada, and the U.K. are all adopting a firmer posture toward China, as are several major European Union countries. A long-sought investment deal with the EU—which would have deprived the Biden administration of a united front against Chinese economic practices and probably opened the door to a free-trade agreement—is unlikely to be ratified, in part because of Beijing’s imposition of sanctions on European lawmakers who criticize its actions in Xinjiang.

Some members of China’s foreign policy elite see these worsening perceptions as a problem and have issued tentative warnings about the risks of continued diplomatic belligerence. But Xi’s government seems incapable of recalibrating, even as the Biden administration rebuilds alliances across Europe and Asia—in part by using discomfort with China’s heavy-handed tactics to bring countries back into the American fold.

It’s tempting to view this inability to change course as an intrinsic feature of the top-down, authoritarian Chinese system. Certainly, individual officials often fear the consequences of owning up to mistakes. But in the past, China’s leaders have shown they can be flexible when necessary. In the 1950s they launched an international charm offensive to break the diplomatic isolation imposed after the Communist takeover. Later, after Western countries cut ties in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, they embarked on a long-term campaign to improve the country’s reputation, peaking with the 2008 Olympics.

But the current political environment in Beijing makes it difficult to imagine a meaningful change in strategy. A dramatic increase in self-confidence—or perhaps overconfidence, given China’s ongoing demographic, social, and environmental vulnerabilities—is a major part of the equation. It arguably began with the global financial crisis, which barely affected China while roiling the U.S. and Europe. The trend intensified after Xi rose to the top of the Communist Party in 2012, endorsing a more confrontational approach to foreign policy. By 2017 top Chinese leaders were pointing to “changes unseen in a century” in the international system, while Xi declared that China was “approaching the center of the world stage.”

Paired with this sense of destiny is a growing belief that the West, and especially the U.S., has become weak, even decadent. Over the past two decades, China’s political class has watched in amazement as the U.S. fumbled the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and let internal divisions bring Congress to a near-standstill. The country’s handling of the novel coronavirus, which it failed to contain until after more than 500,000 Americans had been killed, made the greatest impression. Last year, Xi told Party cadres that China’s response to the virus demonstrated the “remarkable advantages” of Communist leadership.

Then there’s the character of Xi himself. The son of a high-ranking official who lost the favor of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader has been a student of power struggles his entire life—intra-Party battles in which losing can mean imprisonment, not exile to a well-paid lobbying job. “Xi grew up in a world that is all about relative power, leverage, and loyalty,” says Evan Medeiros, a former adviser to Barack Obama who attended many of the former president’s meetings with Xi. “He’s someone who thinks in terms of hard power.”

In the assessment of many Chinese officials, the international backlash against their government is simply evidence that the U.S. and its allies are determined to halt China’s rise. By criticizing its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, they say, Western countries seek to deny China the same degree of security they expect for themselves. By hitting out at its industrial and environmental policies, this argument goes, they want to deprive China of the right to economic development that they enjoyed decades earlier. And by condemning its diplomatic practices, Western elites aim to “prevent us from fighting back,” Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng said in a December speech.

As global opposition builds, there are tentative signs that Xi realizes the country may have overstepped. In a recent meeting with senior officials, he urged them to keep “a grip on tone” when communicating with the outside world and to be “open and confident, but also modest and humble.” Yet among Beijing’s growing ranks of foreign policy hardliners, there’s a widespread belief that, assuming China’s power continues to grow and problems like a looming population decline don’t derail its economic progress, winning hearts and minds will cease to be particularly relevant.

According to this view, it should be only a matter of time before even the U.S. accepts a world order in which China’s voice carries at least equal weight—and it will be pointless to oppose its territorial and economic ambitions or try to pressure it over human rights. “The U.S. needs to come to terms with the prospect and the eventual reality of a China whose economy is larger,” says Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat who served as translator to Deng Xiaoping. Once that occurs, “America will need to mellow its hostility toward China. Pragmatism and realism will gain the upper hand.”

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