Beijing Muzzles its Wolves

Last week, former Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian — who became famous and controversial for his role as the leading figure of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy — was unexpectedly reassigned to a less prominent role as the deputy head of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs. Although the specific reason for his transfer is unknown, his new role will keep him out of the public eye; it is also one of several recent developments in the Chinese diplomatic corps that seem to signal a step away from the Wolf Warrior ethos, prompting China watchers to speculate about potential adjustments to Chinese diplomatic tactics.

“Wolf Warrior” diplomacy is a mode of foreign policy inspired by the Chinese action-propaganda film of the same name, emphasizing confrontation with Beijing’s critics and rivals at home and abroad. Popularized during the Trump administration, it found its greatest expression as an explicit and vigorous ideological struggle against the West.

Some analysts say that Beijing has been reworking its approach to foreign affairs given the difficulties it has created in its international partnerships and its global reputation, which was already slipping given its management of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as its especially firm pursuit of economic and geostrategic objectives over the past several years. Rather than advancing the promotion of Wolf Warrior diplomats, they say, Beijing has instead opted to place career diplomats with more balanced track records in top positions, such as its new foreign minister Qin Gang last month, as well as its intended new ambassador to the United States, Xie Feng, last week.

Although most experts do not consider this shift an indication of any change in the Chinese Communist Party’s geopolitical objectives, and it may remain combative in pursuit of its key interests, the decision to follow a more nuanced or subtle path may be tactically significant as its competition with Washington develops.

Questions and Background

  • Is China moving on from wolf warrior diplomacy?
  • What lessons might Beijing have taken from the past five years of international politics?
  • How would an adjustment in China’s diplomatic approach impact its competition with the United States? 

Why Did China Banish Its Chief ‘Wolf Warrior’?
James Palmer. Foreign Policy. January 11, 2023.

Have China’s Wolf Warriors Fallen Silent?
Clara Ferreira Marques. Bloomberg. January 16, 2023.

Beware the China Reset
Aaron Friedberg. Foreign Policy. October 1, 2020.

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