COVID-19, a black swan event, altered the planned trajectory of China’s domestic politics and its engagement with the rest of the world. The public health crisis from COVID-19 has strained every country’s resources and every government’s credibility. Especially for an authoritarian state such as China, which has drawn its legitimacy primarily from its performance, COVID-19 has turned into a national mobilization campaign to defend China’s innocence and the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. Consequently, Chinese foreign policy as well as the propaganda apparatus unleashed unprecedented “wolf warrior” diplomacy to attack critics and rally support. (Named after a 2015 Chinese film, “wolf warrior” is a popular term in China used to describe patriotic individuals and entities that resort to assertive or even aggressive behaviors to defend Chinese national interests.) During the early stage of the crisis, Chinese “warriors” facilitated a narrative of China’s superior governance model in disease control. Later on, their priorities shifted toward defending China’s innocence and rallying support through attacks on the United States to blur the picture and aid diplomacy to buy good will, diffusing charges of responsibility and manipulating the prospects for an international investigation.
Whether the “wolf warrior” diplomacy has achieved its intended effect will be subject to debate for many years to come. In the most immediate term, COVID-19 and China’s “wolf warriors” on steroids have created tremendous strain for some traditional partnerships where ruptures were least expected. China’s relationship with the rest of the world has deteriorated as a result of COVID-19 and China’s handling of it. Despite the broad call for China to change course, two mutual reinforcing mechanisms have made a revision difficult: the mutually reinforcing impact between a top leader who prefers assertiveness and a bureaucracy that echoes/magnifies his preference; and the mutually reinforcing impact between an agitated domestic public opinion and “wolf warrior” diplomacy. In the context of the escalating great power competition, “wolf warrior” diplomacy has been made the default choice of Beijing.
Early stage: The “China Model” of disease control?
China’s initial reaction to the COVID-19 crisis could roughly be divided into three stages. Before the lockdown of Wuhan on January 23, China was in a stage of denial and denounced all reporting as rumors. Between January 23 and the end of February, China was on the defense, blaming the crisis on the unexpected severity and contagiousness of the disease and mobilizing the Chinese people to support the government’s strict control of information and human mobility. Starting from early March, as the outbreak came under control in China and began spreading in other countries, China’s position became much more aggressive on the foreign policy front. By contrasting China’s “success” to other countries’ “failure” in putting the disease under control, Beijing tried to showcase the effectiveness, superiority, and therefore, desirability of its political system not only to the Chinese people but also to the rest of the world. Through sharing China’s “wisdom” and providing public goods such as medical assistance to countries most affected by COVID-19, China tried to turn the crisis into an opportunity to demonstrate its credibility and benevolence.
As the world discusses whether the “China Model” of disease control is applicable in democratic countries, what exactly is the China Model? The Chinese reaction to COVID-19 has featured complete lockdown of cities with major outbreaks, population control such as mandatory social distancing and tracking, economic shutdown to force the outbreak curve to flatten, and a de facto entry ban for foreigners. Important measures to tackle the spread of the disease include massive and frequent testing on all levels, creation of large numbers of quarantine facilities, population separation (among healthy population, suspected cases, confirmed cases with no symptoms, mild symptoms, and severe symptoms), and national mobilization of medical resources to the most affected areas.
Under the banner of “people’s war against the disease,” the mass mobilization of the population produced a strong sense of comradery among the Chinese people and a large number of volunteers assisting in the effort. The Chinese people are genuinely proud of the valor and the courage exhibited by so many in the face of overwhelming difficulty. The tremendous sacrifice and the unimaginable human costs were endured and honored by everyone who lived through this extreme adversity. It is safe to say that the nation strengthened its unity and cohesiveness as a result of the disease.
However, this pride and unity do not negate the discontent among many toward the state, especially over how the government had failed to detect, report and tackle the crisis early on, as well as the injustice demonstrated throughout the process, such as the reprimand of the whistleblower doctors. On that, China’s performance is much less encouraging. The blame game has enabled the government to push the responsibility downwards from the central level to the local level, and then from the local level to grassroot-level hospitals and officials. The call for the government to conduct thorough investigation of the failed chain of reporting has been exceedingly strong. However, the chances for that investigation remain dim. Government accountability in China historically has been vertical (to the superior) rather than horizonal (to the society). China enjoys advantages unique to its political system in a public health crisis like COVID-19. However, it also suffers critical deficiencies due to the disadvantages and vulnerabilities of the same system.
The escalation of “wolf warrior” diplomacy
Starting on March 12, China formally escalated its “wolf warrior” diplomacy to counter criticisms by other countries of China’s responsibility in the global pandemic. On that day, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian formally accused the US of potentially being the origin of the virus. Since then, China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy has been unleashed on at least four different fronts: attacking the US for the origins of COVID-19; mobilizing medical aid to buy good will; diffusing China’s responsibility; and deterring and watering down the international investigation. The “wolf warrior” diplomacy agitated China’s domestic public opinion and created ruptures in some of the least expected fronts.
Accusing the US—a diversionary strategy
The conspiracy theory about the US being the origin of the COVID-19 was first floated in China around early February, tying the temporary shutdown of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland in the summer of 2019 to speculation that the virus escaped from this medical lab. A slightly different version paints an even darker picture of the US conspiracy—that the virus was brought to Wuhan by the US participants in the World Military Games in October 2019. Before the Foreign Ministry spokesperson formally made his “personal speculation/accusation,” the conspiracy theory had not been taken seriously. However, the direct attack on the US changed the tone and nature of bilateral interactions on this issue, making it increasingly confrontational and leaving collaboration rather impossible.
There should not be any doubt that Zhao’s accusation against the US is not his personal opinion despite the Chinese government’s effort to portray it as such. The Chinese embassy in Washington DC attempted to promote the message that the spokesperson and his conspiracy theory do not represent the official position. In fact, the Chinese ambassador publicly disowned the conspiracy theory.1 Chinese diplomats have reached out to Chinese and American reporters privately that Zhao went “rogue” to promote his own political future—because Xi prefers hawks. The media is intrigued by this rare exposure of Chinese bureaucracy’s internal differences and bought into the story.2
This theory of an “internal split” at MFA sounds plausible, but is an artificial split that Beijing intentionally created and presented. It is the result of two very conflicting agendas on COVID-19 Beijing decided to pursue at the same time: to blame the virus on the US (or any foreign country) to manage public opinion and strengthen its legitimacy domestically; and to manage the consequences of the blame game.
It is no secret that in China every senior diplomat’s every word in public, let alone on such a sensitive issue, has to be cleared by his superior. There is no plausible scenario where the spokesperson was speaking on his personal behalf. The same is true for the Chinese ambassador. Even if there were a disagreement between the spokesperson and the ambassador, the spokesperson would not prevail given his deputy director general ranking versus the ambassador’s vice-ministerial ranking. Even if there is a disagreement between the two vice foreign ministers in charge of information and relations with the US, respectively, their difference would be adjudicated by the foreign minister at a minimum, and most likely by Yang Jiechi, the politburo member in charge of foreign affairs in this case, due to the impact it would have on US-China relations. Speaking without authorization is a taboo and political suicide in China today. Without authorization, the spokesperson would not take a major personal risk to accuse the US and jeopardize the already strained US-China relations.
What is more telling is that the spokesperson is still in his position and tweeting every day instead of being removed or punished. Even more telling is that the conspiracy theory about the US sending the virus to China has become even more prevalent and rampant in China after his tweet. Given how closely the Chinese government has controlled the internet content and discussion about COVID-19, it is inconceivable that this did not happen by design.
But accusing the US is not the goal here. The goal is to shift the responsibility of COVID-19 to someone else—anyone else. The bottom line is, if no country can be pinned down as the origin of the virus, China cannot be pinned down either as its origin. This is not only a matter of China’s leadership credentials on the world stage, but also a matter of the material damage that other countries could legally claim (a scenario the Chinese raised internally as early as mid-February). Accusing the US carries the benefit of shifting domestic attention and blame from the Chinese government to a foreign hostile force, and the US is an easy target. A so-called “rogue player,” such as the spokesperson, is a strategy to control the damage of COVID-19 in China, one that will offer Beijing deniability later since he “was speaking in his personal capacity.”
Ramping up aid diplomacy
China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), China’s foreign aid agency, announced on March 26 that it has mobilized a “disease control” aid campaign—“an emergency humanitarian assistance action with the shortest prep time and widest geographical coverage since the founding of the PRC.” As the largest manufacturer of medical masks and relevant supplies, China by mid-April had provided medical aid to more than 120 countries as a result of COVID-19.
In early March, the medical aid was mobilized more or less out of a sense of guilt and the need to mitigate negative comments and repair China’s damaged image. However, by the beginning of April, the medical aid took on a very different mission to showcase China’s capability, benevolence, and leadership. COVID-19 is seen as a new platform and a sterling opportunity for China to export its hard and soft power in the vein of China’s peaceful rise. China is presenting and shaping an image of itself being the effective and benevolent global leader in a time of crisis. (However, one noteworthy issue is that Beijing is intentionally blurring the distinction between aid and trade. Most of the medical supplies shipped to developed countries in Europe and North American are not aid but sales. In March alone, China’s export of medical supplies reached 10.2 billion RMB.)3
In April, senior Chinese leaders and diplomats are actively reaching out by phone in Europe, Africa, and Asia to 1) express appreciation for their help during the early stage of the crisis, and 2) offer medical supplies, technical experiences, and public health cooperation. President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang made such phone calls to more than 40 state leaders and Wang Yi to more than 60 foreign ministers between late January and mid-April.4 One of the victories to rally support for China is a joint statement by the Group of 77 and China that basically reiterated China’s positions, including its applause for the WHO.
Diffusing China’s responsibility internationally
The growing international outcry to hold China accountable for the outbreak and claim compensations from China is likened to the Boxer Protocol of 1900. That year, the “Eight-Nation Alliance” fought a war in China to end the Siege of International Legations during the Boxer Movement. The result of the war—the Boxer Protocol—dictated that 18,000 tons of silver be paid by China as indemnity to the eight nations involved, making the treaty a symbol of national humiliation in Chinese history education. 120 years later, the growing number of lawsuits and compensation claims against China for its responsibility in the COVID-19 crisis has been nicknamed an “Eighty-Nation Alliance” by the Chinese with the goal of arousing nationalist sentiment and laying the groundwork for China’s “rightful” rejection of any such claims because “China will not suffer unequal treaties ever again.”
Several proposals have been circulated in China on how to counter the compensation claims. The first one is that if western countries want Chinese compensation, they need to first compensate China for their historical wars, exploitation, and colonization of China since 1840. The second rebuttal is that any country that wants China to compensate for spreading the virus will have to provide a tally of the origins of the infection cases that have occurred in their country and hold each origin country accountable. But the issue of responsibility will eventually have to be resolved through an international investigation of the origins of the virus and what role, if any, China has played in concealing information and delaying an effective response to the COVID-19 crisis. Such charges may not be completely groundless given how China in the early stage had downplayed the severity of the outbreak and persuaded other countries not to “overreact.”
China’s culpability in this regard is rather undeniable. Indeed, China condemned the US for “overreacting” in early February when Trump suspended all flights between the US and China on January 31.5 Similarly, in the case of Italy, the Chinese foreign ministry used direct pressure to get the Italian government to resume direct flights with China.6 Although it is not yet proven whether the decision directly contributed to Italy’s emergence as the epicenter of COVID-19 in Europe, the Chinese double standard is more than evident. What has been most aggravating for many countries in hindsight is the fact that the WHO followed the same Chinese position in February, advising countries not to “overreact and impose any travel or trade restriction measures.”7 Although the Chinese later defended their position by citing the lack of information and advance knowledge of the consequences, the grudge from others is well deserved.
Reinventing an “international investigation”
With the mounting pressure from the international community to identify the origin and responsibility for the pandemic, China is under increasing pressure to address the calls for an investigation. Despite the earlier rejection of them, on April 28, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng appeared to have taken a receptive attitude to an international investigation as long as “China is not presumed guilty and the investigation is not about finding evidence to support a guilty verdict.”8 This position is widely criticized in China as an acceptance, or acquiescence to the American push for a biased investigation of China’s wrongdoings. Since then, the Chinese official position on the international investigation has centered on blocking the “American plot to shift blame to China” and tentative support of a WHO-led, independent and unbiased inquiry.9
Support for a WHO-led investigation is consistent with China’s dependence on WHO to shield it since late January. However, China has conditioned its acceptance on at least five caveats that will change the optics and the nature of the investigation:
- The name: instead of “international investigation,” the effort will be named “review commission,” altering its purpose and reducing its severity;
- The timing: the “review” can only happen after COVID-19 is over, ruling out any near-term actions;
- The authorization: the “review” can only be authorized by the WHA or its executive committee, making it impossible to proceed at the upcoming WHA-session in May 2020 and giving China control through Chinese influence at the WHA;
- The organizer: the “review” commission can only be organized by the director-general of WHO, who will most likely ensure a “China-friendly” or “China-neutral” composition;
- The coverage: the “review” commission will review the “global response” to COVID-19, rather than that of China, so it will not be about China’s responsibility.
These caveats suggest a calculated move by China to deflate reputational damage from rejecting the investigation and to mitigate the material risk of accepting the investigation. In Chinese calculations, in no scenario will China come out clean in a real, objective, and independent investigation. If China rejects the investigation, it will be criticized for hiding something, i.e., if China has nothing to hide, why doesn’t it let the international community look? However, if China accepts the investigation, not much can be uncovered because China had destroyed evidence as early as in January and will continue to clean up any undesirable evidence before the international investigation takes place. In fact, Chinese media had reported on local efforts to destroy samples collected in Hubei province as early as January 2020. Genetic testing labs in Guangzhou and Beijing, as well as the Wuhan Institute of Virology were required by the Hubei Health Commission on January 1 to stop testing new samples and destroy all existing samples.10 (These facts were reported by Caixin in its Feb 27 investigative article “COVID-19 Genetic Testing: When Did the Alarm Ring,” an article that was removed from Caixin’s website within days. It is safe to assume that the international investigation will not discover much or soon.)
Since China cannot come clean, the best strategy is to delay and deflate the investigation. Chinese confidence lies in the belief that the US does not have definitive hard evidence either, especially without accessing the wet market and the Wuhan lab. Therefore, for Beijing, the US can only reach “conclusions” without “conclusive evidence.” This means the fight over the origin of the COVID-19 will have no winner nor loser. One strategy that China may use when pushed on the investigation is to demand the same investigation of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland. In its logic, if China cannot escape an investigation, it could at least level the playing field by having the US investigated as well, projecting an image of equal or similar culpability.
“Wolf warriors” go south: Unexpected rupture of partnerships
While China had anticipated the US actions and future global claims for compensation from China, it was caught off guard on some of the least expected fronts and had to repair little- anticipated deterioration of relations, including with Africa, Russia, France, Kazakhstan and Thailand. Some of the stress was created by COVID-19, but more was due to China’s own “wolf warrior” diplomacy, which has put nationalist sentiments on steroids and encouraged a superiority complex, condescension, and in some cases, racism toward foreign countries. While the goal of the Chinese bureaucracy is to cater to Xi’s desire for world leadership status, grandiosity, and foreign admiration, its approach during COVID-19 has created public diplomacy nightmares for Beijing.
From April 9, African countries started to launch public and official protests against China for discrimination and racism against African nationals in Guangzhou. The mass eviction, refusal of services, and forced quarantine of Africans in the city were due to the high percentage of foreign COVID-19 cases imported from Africa (76% of all foreign cases by April 11) before the entry ban, and the large number of local infections from them due to the density and congregation of African populations in Guangzhou.11
The Chinese people and even some Chinese experts (privately) have blamed Africans for a “sense of entitlement” and “demands for special treatment.” Their agony is over the fact that China’s generosity throughout the years did not buy Beijing any leniency or privacy on the matter. Africa’s public show of anger caught Beijing by surprise and sent it into a frenzy of damage control through diplomatic engagements, aid deliveries, and medical team dispatchments.
Although China put the local situation under control through a ban on discriminatory practices against Africans, the long-term impact is threefold. First, Beijing is called to reexamine the resilience and elasticity of the Sino-Africa fraternity, especially when the frictions come from the societal level rather than the states. Second, Chinese public opinion turned more negative towards African migrants, which will encourage more hostility and confrontations down the road. Third, as more and more Chinese people see Africans as “ingrates” and criticize Beijing’s aid as “a waste of Chinese taxpayers’ money,” it will be more difficult for Beijing to justify mass bilateral debt relief, or debt forgiveness for African countries. UN, IMF, the World Bank, and France have all called for such debt relief for Africa due to COVID-19.
In China, grievances toward Russia in the COVID-19 crisis are primarily focused on two fronts. The first is the Russian treatment of Chinese citizens in Russia. These include the “inhumane, forced quarantines and detentions” of Chinese nationals in the early stage of China’s COVID-19 crisis, which provoked a major outcry in Chinese cyberspace among nationalist netizens. During the later stage of China’s COVID-19 crisis, when the attention of Beijing was primarily devoted to the prevention of imported COVID-19 cases, the forced “deportation and repatriation” of infected Chinese nationals by the Russian government also aroused complaints and grievances from the Chinese side.
The second front of friction with Russia for Beijing is more private but acute, reflecting profound anxieties about Russia’s external alignment choices and the potentially shifting dynamics within the US-China-Russia strategic triangle. On April 25, President Trump and President Putin issued a joint statement to commemorate the Elbe River meeting in 1945 and the “Spirit of the Elbe” as an example of how the US and Russia “can put aside differences, build trust and cooperate in pursuit of a greater cause.”12 This gesture of potential cooperation may have shaken Chinese leaders and strategists, who could not help but recall how the US-China rapprochement in the 1970s against the Soviet Union opened the door to the world for China and dug the grave for the Soviet Union’s demise, drawing a comparison with the strategic dynamics among the three today.
COVID-19 has also had a negative impact on Russian domestic politics, which partially explains the Russian annoyance with China. The rising number of infections in Russia is causing a dire public health crisis, domestic economic stagnation, and a rising unemployment threat. The impact of COVID-19 is most directly reflected to the postponement of the referendum on the constitutional revision originally planned for April 22 and the foundation of Putin’s blueprint to remain in power. Although the postponement is unlikely to change the expected outcome of popular support for the constitutional revision, the delay nevertheless disrupts Putin’s grand strategy, especially its timing.
The Chinese understand the Russian frustration and anxiety from COVID-19 and do feel partially guilty and responsible for the difficult predicament Putin was put in. That is why China dispatched a team of doctors to Russia as early as April 11 and delivered at least five batches of medical supplies to Moscow in April. While the antagonism of the Chinese population toward Russia has increased significantly, the Chinese government’s official response has been highly reserved and de-escalation-oriented. In contrast to the “wolf warrior” diplomacy China has pursued towards both the West and its developing country partners such as Brazil, Beijing has very carefully managed the expression of social discontent and grievances toward Russia and prevented it from escalating into a major rupture of bilateral relations. That the criticisms of Russia circulating on Chinese social media such as WeChat are scarce in quantity and moderate in quality reflects a deliberate effort to shape the content and the tone by Chinese authorities.
Sino-France relations suffered unexpected damage unprecedented in recent history as a result of China pushing the envelope with its “wolf warrior” diplomacy. The Chinese ambassador was summoned over the embassy’s publications that sing high praise for China’s victory over COVID-19 and criticize the failures of the West, including France, to control the disease. After the incident, the President Macron also began to publicly question the Chinese record of disease control and implicitly criticize China’s lack of transparency.
Before COVID-19, China had hoped that France would be the most likely candidate to lead Europe and join China to oppose the US hegemony in the world. Macron’s visit to Beijing last November was highly complimented, and Macron was praised as “a true leader with grand vision” because he “understood the importance of working with China.”13 However, the positivity is heavily tainted five months later due to China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy in France.
On the same day that the Chinese ambassador to France was summoned, the Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan was also summoned by the Kazakh foreign ministry over a popular Chinese article online claiming that Kazakhstan used to be Chinese territory and the Kazakh people are longing to “return to China.” Although Beijing has denied any endorsement of the article, starting from April 15, the Chinese government launched a campaign to eliminate extreme nationalist articles on Chinese social media that portray foreign countries’ inferiority to China. Per the government’s instructions, the Chinese social media platform WeChat alone has removed more than 230 such articles and shut down more than 150 accounts that specialize in producing and promoting this type of content. It remains to be seen whether this represents a genuine move by Beijing to put a lid on nationalism, as nationalism against the West, especially the US, is still encouraged. However, it appears that Beijing has realized the damage to relations with important non-Western partners and is taking measures to control the most irrational elements.
The Chinese “wolf warriors” also took the war to Thailand in April over what they believed to be a Thai actor’s support of Hong Kong and Taiwanese independence through his online comments. The Chinese attack campaign triggered a wave of online criticism of China and the birth of a virtual “Milk Tea Alliance” among the peoples of Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The Chinese characterized the online feud as “the most severe confrontation on the societal level between the two countries” with more damage done than the Mekong River Massacre of 2011. The Chinese government so far has not done anything to shut down the online feud and the situation continues to evolve.
COVID-19 has revealed and aggravated many problems China has had with its partners, such as the tension between Africans and Chinese in China and the Russian treatment of Chinese nationals. Double standards are prevalent: while China opposes racism against Chinese globally, its people invariably discriminate against Africans and other foreigners living in China. As governments race to control the pandemic, the issue of foreign nationals becomes a key area of friction between China and others. Faced with the pandemic’s challenge and its own problematic performance early on, Beijing opted for “wolf warrior” diplomacy, self-claimed victory, and derogatory portrayals of other countries’ performance to strengthen national pride and its legitimacy among the Chinese people. However, the damage of this approach has led pushbacks by other countries, deterioration in bilateral relations, and rising clashes between Chinese public opinion and foreign counterparts. While Beijing may have thought it expanded its ability to maneuver among foreign and domestic stakeholders, the space has, arguably, shrunk.
This begs the interesting question: what created the phenomenon of “wolf warrior” diplomacy and the “wolf warrior” public opinions? There are at least two mechanisms in play here. The first is between the top leader who prefers assertive foreign policy, and the bureaucratic apparatus, especially the foreign policy and propaganda apparatus, which mobilizes all its resources to cater to what it believes the leader wishes to see. The rising criticisms of China by the outside world are attributed by insider observers to the “premature and unwise” propaganda campaign launched by individual government agencies to the sing praises of Xi and China since mid-March. These bureaucratic agencies (propaganda, foreign ministry, and media) capitalized on COVID-19 as an opportunity to showcase their zeal and loyalty to Xi and resulted in counterproductive effects, while squandering the goodwill China had created with its assistance efforts.
The second mutually reinforcing mechanism is that between the “wolf warrior” government agencies and the public opinion they successfully stir up. Nationalist sentiment, especially in cyberspace, has been encouraged to foster a sense of national pride and loyalty to the central government, e.g., derogatory portrayals of foreign governments’ failures are tolerated to show the superiority of the Chinese governance system. However, the more sensational the nationalist content, the more economic rewards it brings because the sensational content inflates the online traffic. This explains the speed and breadth of the “wolf warrior” literature in the Chinese information domain. The combination of a government hoping to foster nationalism and the market that benefits economically from nationalism creates a “monster” of offensive foreign policy positions and sentiments among the Chinese public and the diplomatic bureaucracies that eventually undermines China’s original intent and critical agenda.
Will China change? The answer is “highly unlikely.” With the heightened great power competition and a heightened sense of vulnerability, China is likely to grow even more defensive and counterattack any country, any media, or any individual that is critical of China’s behavior and performance in the pandemic. The fact that the US has been trying to blame China for its own failure to control the pandemic domestically and effectively has not helped. The escalation of US-China hostility as a result of COVID-19 only adds to the geopolitical calculations and emotional factors that will put the Chinese “wolf warrior” on steroids.
COVID-19 as a black swan event did not bring the great power cooperation that normally would be desired in a global public health crisis. Instead, it exacerbated the hostility and the so-called Cold War mentality of both China and the US From the Chinese perspective, the American target of the Chinese Communist Party as the “source of all evil” and the fundamental cause of the pandemic is the most illustrative of the US fundamental goal of delegitimizing the political party and its China model of political governance and economic development. This reconfirms Beijing’s long-term suspicion that the US approach to great power competition is not just about winning out in the US-China rivalry, but also about undermining and eroding the legitimacy and capability of the Chinese state and the Chinese nation both in and outside China.
In this sense, China’s “wolf warriors” have not merely been defending China’s innocence and honor. But more importantly, those agendas are fundamentally linked to the defense of the legitimacy and the political ideology of the Chinese state. Their earlier offensive efforts to promote the “China model of disease control” and the deliberate emphasis and scorn of the less effective practices in democratic countries, including through disinformation campaigns, have most pointedly aimed at promoting the superiority and desirability of the China model and political ideology. In some part of the world, such as in Africa, the Chinese state-surveillance of population through mobile tracking technology has inspired great admiration and desire to emulate by some African countries as effective measures for disease control. When such offensiveness was met with resolute pushback and proved counter-productive, the “wolf warriors” continued their attack to deny responsibility, shift blames and attack the critiques as being “politically motivated.” But in reality, the “wolf warriors” are also agents of an ideological struggle as well.
In an interesting manner, COVID-19 is not just a global race to combat the pandemic. It is also a war of competing narratives, a war of competing political systems and a war of competing ideologies. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy is one battlefield in the war and the war will only continue, if not escalate in the foreseeable future as US and China face numerous new challenges from the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.
1. Jonathan Swan, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “Top Chinese Official Disowns U.S. Military Lab Coronavirus Conspiracy,” Axios, March 22, 2020, https://www.axios.com/china-coronavirus-ambassador-cui-tiankai-1b0404e8-026d-4b7d-8290-98076f95df14.html.
2. “Rare Spat Between Chinese Diplomats Signals Split Over Trump,” Bloomberg News, March 22, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-23/china-s-top-envoy-to-u-s-breaks-with-foreign-ministry-on-virus.
3. “Ministry of Commerce: China Won’t Restrict Export of Medical Supplies,” Beijing News, April, 5, 2020, http://www.bjnews.com.cn/news/2020/04/06/713470.html.
4. Numbers calculated based on reports on the PRC foreign ministry website.
5. Regular Press Conference, PRC Foreign Ministry, February 3, 2020, http://newyork.china-consulate.org/chn/fyrth/t1739521.htm.
6. “Vice Foreign Minister Qin Gang Demands Italy to Cancel Suspension of Direct Flights, Italy Agrees to Temporarily Resume Commercial Flights Partially,” Xinhua News, February 7, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2020-02/07/c_1125540424.htm
7. “WHO and Countries Commend Chinese Disease Control Measures as Effective, Calling Not To Overreaction,” Xinhua News, February 4, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2020-02/04/c_1125527843.htm
8. “Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng: China Ardently Opposes International Investigation That Presumes Guilty,” Foreign Ministry, April 30, 2020, PRC https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/wjbxw_673019/t1775002.shtml
9. Regular Press Conference, PRC Foreign Ministry, May 8, 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/fyrbt_673021/t1777144.shtml
10. “COVID-19 Genetic Testing: When Did the Alarm Ring?” Caixin, February 27, 2020, https://new.qq.com/omn/TWF20200/TWF2020022701654200.html.
11. Yun Sun, “COVID-19, Africans’ Hardships in China and the Future of Africa-China Relations,” Brookings, April 17, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2020/04/17/COVID-19-africans-hardships-in-china-and-the-future-of-africa-china-relations/.
12. “Joint Statement by President Donald J. Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Meeting on the Elbe,” The White House, April 25, 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/joint-statement-president-donald-j-trump-president-vladimir-putin-russia-commemorating-75th-anniversary-meeting-elbe/.
13. Interviews with Chinese experts, Shanghai, October 2019.