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China’s Wolf Warrior policy

China is getting aggressive toward adversaries in the face of coronavirus criticism

China’s <em>Wolf Warrior</em> policy

Chinese President Xi Jinping (Yan Yan/Xinhua/Alamy)

In Wolf Warrior 2, the 2017 Chinese blockbuster that became the country’s highest-grossing film of all time, a former special ops soldier in Africa defeats Western mercenaries, rescues trapped factory workers, and protects the vaccine for the Ebola-like “Lamanla” virus that a Chinese doctor discovered.

With Hollywood-style explosions, gunfights, and hand-to-hand combat, the film energized Chinese moviegoers as it depicted their country as an unstoppable altruistic superpower rather than the victim of a century of humiliation. Leng Feng, the titular Wolf Warrior, saves the lives of defenseless Africans, beats to death the ruthless American mercenary, and gets the girl by the end of the two hours. Its tagline: “Anyone who offends China will be killed no matter how far the target is.”

Now, the wolf-warrior mentality has moved from the big screen to real life as China faces attacks over its culpability in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. On Twitter, a Foreign Ministry spokesman suggested the virus originated in the United States. Chinese diplomats are lashing out at European countries and even traditional allies: When unnamed Venezuelan officials referred to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus, diplomats tweeted they should “put on a face mask and shut up.”

The nationalistic newspaper Global Times justified the wolf-warrior diplomacy in an op-ed: “The days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone. China’s rising status in the world requires it to safeguard its national interests in an unequivocal way.” 

As the coronavirus pandemic changes all aspects of life, one lasting consequence is the further deterioration of U.S.-China relations, as well as China’s relations with other countries. Even as China attempts to build goodwill through providing aid, many people are beginning to view China more negatively and growing more skeptical of what the world would look like with China as the leading superpower.

John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest at the State Capitol in Salem, Ore. (John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS were deteriorating before the first case of the new coronavirus appeared in Wuhan late last year, as the two largest economies engaged in an acrimonious trade war, scuffled over human rights, and teased one another militarily in the South China Sea. Yet COVID-19 seems to be a breaking point in the relationship as the United States now has more than 1.5 million cases of infection and more than 90,000 deaths, the most reported in the world.

President Donald Trump has targeted China in public statements, claiming the United States is doing “very serious investigations” about the Chinese government’s initial response to the virus, adding “we are not happy with China.” Chinese officials reprimanded whistleblowers and for about three weeks withheld knowledge that the virus could be transmitted between people. 

Trump also blames Chinese influence over the World Health Organization (WHO) and Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for delaying its assessment that the disease could be spread person-to-person and rejecting calls to shut down travel to and from China. Trump announced on May 18 that if the WHO didn’t reform, he would permanently freeze U.S. funding to the WHO and reconsider its membership in the organization.

As the pandemic spread quickly in the United States, the president has gone further to question whether the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a high-security lab performing research on coronaviruses in bats. The lab is near the seafood market where many scientists think the virus jumped from animals to humans. In April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” that the first human infection came from the lab, although later in the week he backtracked and said the theory could be wrong. The U.S. intelligence community has noted the virus was “not man-made or genetically modified” and no proof yet points to a lab accident.

In response, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV aired a commentary titled “Evil Pompeo is wantonly spewing poison and spreading lies” and repeatedly called Pompeo the “enemy of humanity” guilty of “spreading a political virus.” State media have been careful not to name Trump in their criticism but claim the U.S. government is trying to shift blame to China to deflect from the United States’ own lack of preparation. Government mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency posted an animated video with Lego-like figures mocking the U.S. response, claiming the United States—represented by the Statue of Liberty—didn’t listen to Chinese warnings and instead claimed, “It’s only a flu.”

China has also peddled its own conspiracies about the virus’s origin, stressing that the discovery of the first case in Wuhan doesn’t mean the virus started there. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted in March, “It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan … US owe us an explanation!” He also linked to a conspiracy site that said the virus came from the United States. 

China has banned citizens from using Twitter and other social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, but about 55 Chinese officials now have Twitter accounts to spread the Chinese narrative overseas. Of these accounts, 32 began in 2019. At the same time, police often visit and arrest regular Chinese citizens who use virtual private networks to access Twitter.

Another U.S.-China tit-for-tat includes deporting each other’s media personnel. The catch, however, is that while Trump is kicking out propagandists for Chinese government-owned media, China is kicking out investigative journalists who are often the only source of information for what is truly happening in China. One, Josh Chin of The Wall Street Journal, tweeted that once while detained by officials in Xinjiang, an official quietly told him: “Actually, I’m glad the foreign media is in China. Otherwise how else would we know what’s going on here?”

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at China’s Renmin University, told CNN the U.S.-China relationship has “reached the lowest point since 1972,” referring to when President Richard Nixon restarted dialogue with China. “Even if after the pandemic has passed, these problems will remain.”

Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

Medical supplies from China arrive in Ghana. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images)

THE UNITED STATES ISN’T the only country seeing its relationship with China deteriorate. Australia also called for an impartial investigation into the origins of the virus to prevent future outbreaks. In response, the editor of Global Times compared Australia to “chewing gum stuck to the sole of China’s shoes.” Ambassador Cheng Jingye told The Australian Financial Review Chinese citizens may decide to boycott Australian goods: “Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?” One-third of Australia’s exports go to China. 

Australia said it would not give in to “economic coercion.” Yet the Chinese government has threatened to place tariffs of up to 80 percent on Australian barley producers amid an anti-dumping investigation. It also suspended beef imports from four meat processors.

Calls for an investigation have gained steam in countries around the world, and on May 19 WHO member states passed a resolution to investigate the international response to the coronavirus, including its origins. Yet the resolution, which was presented by the EU and had the backing of more than 120 countries, noticeably does not mention Wuhan or China, instead focusing on international cooperation and calling for the WHO to work with U.N. agencies to “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population.”

In a seeming turn around, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech to the assembly that he supports a WHO-led review of the global response to COVID-19—once the pandemic is over. In the same speech, he also pledged $2 billion in aid over two years to fight the virus.

In an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell admitted Europe has been “a little naïve” in its view of China. The Communist country is not only an economic partner but a “systemic rival that seeks to promote an alternative model of governance,” he said.

In April, the EU planned to release a report alleging that China was spreading disinformation about the pandemic. But Chinese officials said releasing the report “will be very bad for cooperation,” according to the Reuters news service. The EU removed some criticism of China and delayed releasing the report.

The French government summoned the Chinese ambassador after the Chinese Embassy claimed on its website that France had abandoned residents in nursing homes, leaving them to die. The governments of Germany and Poland, as well as the state of Wisconsin, complained Chinese diplomats were asking them to thank China for its aid and praise its efforts to fight the virus. 

The German tabloid Bild published an article claiming China owed $162 billion in reparations for the outbreak. China responded with an angry open letter, denouncing the paper’s “nationalism, prejudice, and hostility against China.” Others are also trying to get China to pay for the pandemic: The states of Missouri and Mississippi, thousands of U.S. citizens, a group of Nigerian lawyers, and an Egyptian lawyer are all filing lawsuits against China. 

“The fact that Kenya owes China a lot of money does not mean our government should entertain outright violation of the rights of its people in China.”

It’s unlikely that any of the suits would result in China paying for its role in the pandemic. It has sovereign immunity as a foreign government. But Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, noted that in the United States the lawsuits show voters that their governments are willing to do something about the issue: “It raises the profile of China’s action, taking it out of pure politics … and making it more local and understandable.” 

The lawsuits also ensure the accusations against China will stay in the news and on people’s minds, Cheng said.

Even China’s close ties in Africa are fraying after videos of discrimination toward African migrants in Guangzhou went viral on social media, causing leaders of Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and the African Union to meet with Chinese ambassadors about the racist treatment of their citizens. In Guangzhou, landlords evicted African migrants, restaurants banned them from entering, and police forced them to undergo COVID-19 testing and mandatory quarantines over fears that foreigners would cause a second wave of infections. 

“The fact that Kenya owes China a lot of money does not mean our government should entertain outright violation of the rights of its people in China,” Hussein Khalid, executive director of the Kenyan human rights group Haki Africa, wrote in The Star.

Xu Zheng/Xinhua/Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Newscom

A billboard saying, “Thank you, Brother Xi,” promotes Chinese interests next to the National Assembly building in Belgrade, Serbia. (Xu Zheng/Xinhua/Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Newscom)

DOES CHINA’S WOLF-WARRIOR diplomacy work? According to the latest Pew study, 66 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of China, the lowest since the survey began in 2005, while only a quarter view China favorably. Public opinion in Africa toward China is also growing increasingly negative as Africans observe the disparity between African migrants’ treatment in China and Chinese migrants’ treatment in Africa.

China is positioning itself as an aggressor, willing to push back when adversaries, especially in the United States, criticize it. Such strong actions also act as a warning to other countries who may consider taking actions China disapproves of, such as drawing closer to Taiwan. When the Netherlands decided to shorten the name of its de facto embassy in Taiwan to Netherlands Office Taipei (from Netherlands Trade and Investment Office), China threatened to halt medical supplies and boycott Dutch products. The Chinese Embassy in the Netherlands claimed the name change “concerns China’s core interests.” China considers Taiwan part of its territory and fears any increased cooperation between other countries and Taiwan. 

In addition to the hard-line wolf-warrior diplomacy, China is also deploying a softer mask diplomacy. Around the world, China has jumped in to donate masks, ventilators, medical supplies, and in some cases medical personnel to countries struggling to fight the coronavirus, especially in Europe and Africa. Chinese propaganda has focused on an Air China plane touching down at Ghana’s airport with 37 tons of supplies in boxes with the “China Aid” logo. All the supplies are going to African countries.

China has also come to the aid of Serbia, where President Aleksandar Vučić slammed Europe for its lack of assistance when the country announced a state of emergency in March. Planes full of equipment touched down in Belgrade, and six medical experts coordinated the country’s coronavirus policy, recommending the government quarantine patients in large field hospitals, according to The Guardian. In gratitude, Vučić kissed a Chinese flag while a pro-government tabloid paid for billboards that read, “Thank you, Brother Xi.”

The aid has been lifesaving for some countries, but less than helpful for others.

The Netherlands recalled 600,000 masks purchased from China for failing to meet international standards. Spain had to throw out 50,000 testing kits from China after researchers found the tests to have only a 30 percent accuracy rate. The Slovak government discovered 1.2 million Chinese antibody tests that it purchased for $16 million didn’t meet standards, while Canada has said it would not pay for 8 million substandard masks from China. 

IN ONE OTHER WAY China hopes the plot of Wolf Warrior 2 will become reality: becoming the country that discovers a vaccine for the virus. Countries around the world are racing to produce a successful vaccine, with Trump initiating Operation Warp Speed to pool efforts of pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, and the military. Currently, Chinese researchers are ahead, as volunteers are testing a second-phase trial for a potential vaccine that the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences and CanSino Biologics developed, according to Bloomberg. 

Even there, more tit-for-tat: The U.S. government has accused China of hacking research related to coronavirus vaccines, treatments, and tests. China disputed the claim, saying the two countries are developing different products and China’s research is further along. So it doesn’t need to steal the U.S. data.

John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, noted the political significance of being the first to find a vaccine. In an online discussion Strategic News Service hosted in April, Demers noted: “It’s of great importance, not just from a commercial value. But whatever countries, company, or research lab develops that vaccine first and is able to produce it is going to have a significant geopolitical success story.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.


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  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Thu, 05/21/2020 12:59 pm

    China is going to be a real problem moving forward as it becomes more powerful and aggressive.  It has such a strong influence over US media, big tech, sports, entertainment, real estate, manufacturing and vital resources like pharmaceuticals and rare earth metals for green technology.  Facebook and Amazon products are often linked directly to China.  China is stealing technology and influencing elections.  Its propaganda is far reaching as Democratic candidates and world organizations offer glowing praise of the oppressive dictatorship.  Socialism is no longer a pariah, but is now popular with young voters.  Secular statist moralism for creating the perfect utopian society, heaven on earth, is the new popular religion.  It is at war with traditional religious values.