Is Xi Re-Thinking “Wolf Warrior” Diplomacy?

In an in-depth report, Erika Kinetz of AP writes about a seven-month investigation by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute which, “found that China’s rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, covertly amplifying propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people.” As government officials and state media take a more active and sometimes aggressive position on social media to defend their views to a global audience, much of the engagement has come from fake accounts. An earlier report from ASPI similarly found that government accounts “currently lack the linguistic and cultural refinement to drive engagement on Twitter through high-follower networks, and thus far have had relatively low impact on the platform.” From the AP report:

Twitter, and others, have identified inauthentic pro-China networks before. But the AP and Oxford Internet Institute investigation shows for the first time that large-scale inauthentic amplification has broadly driven engagement across official government and state media accounts, adding to evidence that Beijing’s appetite for guiding public opinion — covertly, if necessary — extends beyond its borders and beyond core strategic interests, like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

[…] Today, at least 270 Chinese diplomats in 126 countries are active on Twitter and Facebook. Together with Chinese state media, they control 449 accounts on Twitter and Facebook, which posted nearly 950,000 times between June and February. These messages were liked over 350 million times and replied to and shared more than 27 million times, according to the Oxford Internet Institute and AP’s analysis. Three-quarters of Chinese diplomats on Twitter joined within the last two years.

The move onto Western social media comes as China wages a war for influence — both at home and abroad — on the internet, which President Xi Jinping has called “the main battlefield” for public opinion.

[…] This is the ruling Communist Party’s global propaganda machine in action: Messages set by key state media outlets and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs get picked up by Chinese diplomats around the world, who repackage the content on Twitter, where it is amplified by networks of fake and suspicious accounts working covertly to shape public discourse for the benefit of China’s ruling Communist Party. [Source]

These official Twitter accounts are part of China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” tactic, which has become more prominent in recent years as Chinese diplomats and other government officials attempt to engage a global audience with aggressive and sometime combative defenses of CCP policies, largely through Western social media platforms that are banned in China. An earlier post from CDT about wolf warrior diplomacy online also looked at the AP/Oxford report.

However, a readout of a recent Politburo study session on diplomacy left observers divided on how to interpret a call by Xi Jinping for a “trustworthy, lovable, and respectable” global image for China. Many are wondering if he is considering abandoning wolf warrior diplomacy in favor of a more moderate, traditional approach. From Bloomberg News:

Xi told senior Communist Party leaders Monday that the country must “make friends extensively, unite the majority and continuously expand its circle of friends with those who understand and are friendly to China,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Beijing needed “a grip on tone” in its communication with the world, and should “be open and confident, but also modest and humble.”

The remarks suggest that Xi may be rethinking his communication strategy on the global stage as President Joe Biden works to bolster U.S. relationships weakened under his predecessor’s “America First” policies. Xi has cast aside the party’s decades-old “hide-and-bide” strategy of keeping a low international profile in favor of a “big country diplomacy.”

[…] China’s emphasis on the superiority of socialism has caused some concern in the West, [Wang Yiwei] said, and the ridicule of other countries’ failure to contain Covid-19 was “a bit overdone.” [Source]

At China Media Project, David Bandurski offered a corrective to Bloomberg’s interpretation, arguing that China will continue to divide the world into “friends” and “enemies”:

Within the textual fabric of the news of the collective study session there is plenty to give pause: the characterization of the challenge at hand as a “public opinion struggle’ (舆论斗争), a term redolent of the Mao era; the persistently tone-deaf language about educating foreigners about the goodness of the CCP; the talk of mobilizing, funding and training and, importantly, ideologically assessing local leaders on their input in terms of international communication work, which hardly seems conducive to a broad change in tone. On the issue of broadening the “friend circle,” how can it escape notice that the next line is a reiteration of the “public opinion struggle”? In such a struggle, there are friends in the form of compliant media and apologists, and there are enemies in the form of recalcitrant journalists, academics and politicians who insist on criticism – exactly what this external push is designed to neutralize.

[…] This was a collective study session, and such sessions, whatever their topic, generally benefit from the instruction of experts. In this case, we are told right at the outset of the official news release that “professor Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University offered his explanations on this issue, and suggestions for work.” What sort of teacher would Zhang Weiwei be?

[…] Zhang speaks of the urgent need and responsibility of the West to “understand China.” Given his emphasis on the glories of the “China Model” and the objective truth of “China’s story,” which at its core is about the infallibility of the CCP, this need to “understand China” is not really about dialogue or dialectic. It is about acceptance. China must act with confidence to overcome these misunderstandings. As one senior German diplomat told GMF’s Noah Barkin recently: “Dialogue is now conditional on us not criticizing China.” [Source]

Some of the controversy over the meeting’s readout stemmed from questions of translation:

Three dramatic waves of foreign correspondent departures between 2020 and 2021 underscored China’s increasingly assertive efforts to control its global image. Chinese journalists, of course, must navigate even stricter controls on their work. In recent months, the Chinese government has repeatedly called for foreign correspondents to emulate Edgar Snow, the late journalist famed for his sympathetic portrait of Mao Zedong in Yan’an but criticized for his limited command of Chinese. Snow misinterpreted Mao when he compared himself to “a lonely monk walking in the rain under a leaking umbrella,” not realizing that Mao was saying “I know no law, I hold nothing sacred.” In an interview with The Guardian’s Helen Davidson, Margaret Lewis, a professor at Seton Hall, argued that Xi’s recent directive on diplomacy should not be interpreted as a call for real dialogue:

“This is not a call for greater openness, transparency and accessibility,” she said.

“This is a call for the party state apparatus to put out a more sugarcoated view of what’s happening. Nothing I’ve heard makes this sound like it’s encouraging press freedom. It’s that: you international media should listen more intently to how we, the party state, believe we are helping the people and you should report more ‘objectively’ on our successes.” [Source]

At Foreign Policy, Sulmaan Wasif Khan argued that “wolf warrior” diplomacy differs from general nationalistic rhetoric because it is both pointless and has no boundaries:

But “wolf warrior” diplomacy marks a significant change. The term, viral among those seeking to explain Chinese conduct, is often misused to encompass all forms of Chinese nationalism. But distinctions are important because different types of nationalism are symptoms of different issues in China’s conduct.

[…] The most persuasive explanation is that China has poisoned itself through its own rhetoric. In the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, nationalism was seen as a way to get citizens on the same page as the party. It was not really meant to inform practical foreign policy. But as the United States discovered in the Donald Trump years, one cannot stoke nationalistic fires without their eventually blazing beyond control. Over the years, rhetoric about how Taiwanese needed to be made grateful, about the protests in Hong Kong being a product of Western influence, about Western aggression, about Japan never apologizing for World War II, about the righteousness of the party and the infallibility of the Chinese government and the hurt feelings of the Chinese people—all this seeped in and took hold. And it made grand strategy hard to keep alive. [Source]

In a new report, Taipei-based Doublethink Lab has offered suggestions for how to respond to pro-government, nationalist views on Twitter that spread disinformation and propaganda, using the June 4, 1989 military crackdown on protesters as an example. The group “collated messages intended to whitewash the CCP’s atrocities, and were able to categorize them into three groups, each with their own motives and narrative strategies,” and then offered specific responses aimed at encouraging dialogue and promoting understanding.


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