China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, with Peter Martin

September 28, 2021

Detail from book cover.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs book talk from the U.S. Global Engagement Program. I am senior fellow and your co-host for this evening, Nikolas Gvosdev. My co-host, Tatiana Serafin, and I are very pleased to have with us this evening Mr. Peter Martin, the defense policy and intelligence reporter for Bloomberg, based in Washington, DC, here to discuss his very timely work, China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.

We have seen "wolf warrior diplomacy" deployed especially in regard to Australia, and Australia is back in the news for its balancing with the United States and the United Kingdom ostensibly to counter the growing rise and influence of China, so I am sure that there are things that have been happening in the news which Peter will be able to link to the larger concepts of his book, but we invite you all this evening to this presentation and discussion to get a better understanding of this still very not well understood tool of soft and sharp power that is deployed by China to have influence and to create pressures in various target societies.

Tatiana, I will turn it over to you to give a sense to our audience of logistics and how we will be taking their questions, and then after that, Peter, the floor will be yours.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining us today, and thank you, Peter. I just want to show a copy of your book and all the notes that I took while I was reading it. The book is so readable, and I say that because sometimes books with historical references tend to be very heavy, but this is a book that everyone can read, and I encourage all of our audience here today to grab a copy if you haven't already. It really serves to give a context of where China has come from and why they are doing what they are doing today.

I think the why, Peter, is not often understood, and so hopefully our audience will have questions for Peter. I will be monitoring the chat and making sure that your voice is heard, but right now we want to hear Peter. Tell us about how this book started. What gave you the idea? Where did it come from? I, as a lover of books, always want to know, what was that spark?

PETER MARTIN: Thanks so much for hosting me. I am really excited to do this.

I guess the idea for the book came when I moved back to Beijing with Bloomberg in early 2017. I had been away for a few years and was immediately struck by the extraordinary economic, military, and hard-power progress that China had made during that time. Xi Jinping was promoting the Belt and Road Initiative overseas, China had a new military base in Djibouti, was militarizing its artificial islands in the South China Sea, and, of course, there was what appeared to be this opening with the Trump administration, where President Trump was busy criticizing and picking fights with U.S. allies and taking issue with international institutions, and there seemed to be this kind of void that was potentially there for Beijing to move into. Yet, as I worked there as a political reporter, the longer that period went on, the clearer it became that, for whatever reason, Beijing wasn't capable of stepping up and filling that leadership void, especially when it came to the ability to persuade others beyond using economic inducements or coercion. 

When you step back and think about the kind of world that we are moving into where U.S. power slowly recedes from the heights that we saw in the post-Cold War era, every country which has a claim to international leadership is going to need to rely on this ability to persuade others. I just became fascinated by why it is that Beijing struggles to do that so much.

As I worked there in China I started to see Chinese diplomats in particular as kind of a microcosm of that problem. When you meet Chinese envoys they can be charming. They are funny. They are sophisticated. They speak Bahasa and Czech. Some of them have studied at Georgetown and the London School of Economics. Clearly it is not a human capital problem here that is holding China back. And yet, when they get up onstage in the foreign ministry or they sit down across the table from their counterparts they have this very stilted, sometimes very ideological approach to engaging with people. They will rattle off the same official talking points ad nauseum, and you start to wonder, Where does this approach come from?

I knew there were a couple of memoirs out by former foreign ministers and prominent people, so I looked into those and thought they were kind of interesting, and I did my best to start doing interviews in Beijing, but the more I looked into the memoirs I realized that there were more than a hundred of these books, most of which had never been used before—quite understandably because they are horribly boring books—but hidden amongst long discussions of meeting after meeting and flight after flight are these little details which shed light on what it is like to be on the front line of Chinese diplomacy, and I started to think, Well, if I could put these together, there might be a book project in here.

When I started doing that four years ago, this was a pretty niche topic. People weren't paying too much attention to Chinese diplomats. As time went on, this wolf warrior phenomenon came to the fore, and Chinese diplomats have been very much in the public spotlight. Of course, if you watched any of the confirmation hearings earlier this year on Capitol Hill, you will have seen the Biden administration nominees talking about the rise of wolf warriors, foreign governments have been discussing it, and intelligence agencies are interested in it. We have seen a whole series of events take place where Chinese diplomats have spread conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19, they have stormed out of international meetings, they have told foreign politicians to shut up, and earlier this year, of course, China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, delivered a 17-minute withering diatribe to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

As I was researching this kind of behavior for the book, I guess the thing that really jumped out to me was this idea that while wolf warrior diplomacy seems very new on the surface, actually its roots go back a very, very long way. When the People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded by Chairman Mao in 1949, it basically had no diplomats to speak of. There was a small group of nationalists, the former government's diplomats, who were left behind, and they very much marginalized in favor of starting a foreign ministry more or less from scratch. The new government faced a paradoxical challenge. On the one hand, this was an extremely secretive, paranoid political regime which was very suspicious of outside influence, and on the other hand China had almost no friends or allies and needed to build bridges with the outside world in order to survive.

So the PRC's first foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, came up with this idea that Chinese diplomats would think and act like the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in civilian clothing. What he meant by that was that they would be unfailingly loyal to the Communist Party, they would be disciplined to a fault, but they would display crucially what he described as a "fighting spirit" whenever China's interests were challenged. Of course, we have seen that fighting spirit on clear display in recent years.

As Zhou laid down this ethos, there was a set of quite distinctive behaviors that began to take shape. Chinese diplomats, in order to keep themselves safe and on the right side of politics, would stick closely to talking points, even when they knew that those talking points didn't resonate with foreign audiences. They would move around in pairs in order to keep tabs on each other. When they felt challenged or they worried that they looked insufficiently tough back home, they might shout at foreign counterparts. And they would elevate even the smallest of little incidents into major international issues if they were worried that they might appear disloyal.

These kinds of behaviors actually led to what we would now call displays of wolf warrior diplomacy right from the outset. So in 1950 China dispatched a delegation to the United Nations led by this veteran revolutionary, Wu Hsiu-chuan, who had a bullet scar across his face. He delivered this speech, which Time magazine described at the time as "two awful hours of rasping vituperation." In succeeding decades, Chinese diplomats literally engaged in fistfights on the streets of London. They were pictured wielding axes and handing out copies of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. They were expelled from countries around the world. So those wolf warrior tactics have a long pedigree.

But there is also this other tendency, which has been prominent at other times, what I think of as the "charm offensive" persona of Chinese diplomacy. When China needs to build up friends and influence, it is capable of taking that extraordinary discipline that Zhou Enlai expected of his civilian army and putting it toward those more constructive ends. We saw that happen in the 1950s as Beijing courted developing countries around the world, and we saw it happen most effectively in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre, when Beijing really managed quite an impressive turnaround with its international reputation, which ultimately, of course, culminated in its hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics.

These two tendencies have ebbed and flowed and gone back and forth over time, and what I think we have seen since 2008 is a real veer back toward the assertiveness and the wolf warrior persona. I think that is being driven by two things. On the one hand, you have this new confidence, which is felt quite broadly in Beijing political circles, and you also have these enduring insecurities which have followed the government right from the very outset.

When you think about China's political system, it has become an increasingly scary place under Xi Jinping in particular. You have this sweeping anti-corruption campaign which he has initiated, which has punished more than 1.5 million officials, you have his abolition of presidential term limits, his experimentation with reeducation camps in the West of China, and a focus on ideology at home.

When Chinese diplomats see these signals, they know exactly how to interpret them. They know that in the past when Chinese diplomats have got on the wrong side of the regime they have ended up in quite severe trouble. So, what they have done I think is start to mimic the very ambitious way that Xi Jinping speaks about China's role in the world and his great confidence for the role that China ought to play and the degree of respect that it deserves, but they have also paired that with this need to respond to that constant sense of threat and insecurity that is just part and parcel of working in the Chinese political system.

That new tone started off in 2008 and 2009 and intensified under Xi Jinping in 2012, and then really went into high gear during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and I think it is that same thing that drove it—this sense that on the one hand China is being criticized from all sides for allegedly covering up its role in the outbreak of the pandemic, and on the other hand it managed to contain the outbreak much better than North American and Western European countries, and it feels like, Why should I have to listen to this criticism when I have been so much more able?

The combination of those two things really set the new tone for Chinese diplomacy. We have seen diplomats talking about China's central role in the world, the extraordinary leadership of Xi Jinping, handing out copies of Xi Jinping's book on governance just like diplomats handed out Mao's Little Red Book decades ago.

I guess, of all people, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has become the face of this new phenomenon. He was this relatively obscure figure who was based in Islamabad and picked a Twitter fight with former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, rocketed to fame, and was appointed China's foreign ministry spokesman. He angered the Trump administration by suggesting that the U.S. Army had deliberately started COVID-19 in Wuhan. He has become the face of it in many ways, but he is not alone. There are other figures. Gui Congyou in Sweden, China's ambassador there, was summoned by Sweden's foreign ministry 40 times in the space of two years, and he said in a media interview, "For our friends, we have fine wine, and for our enemies we have shotguns," which really gives you a taste of the approach that he wants to take to diplomacy.

I guess I would just finish by saying that not everyone in China's foreign policy establishment agrees with this approach. Some people would like to see it pared back and tempered a little bit, but crucially Xi Jinping seems to like the approach and to approve of the tough new tone, and at the moment in Chinese politics what Xi Jinping says goes, and I don't see many chances for a recalibration in the short term.

I will leave the opening remarks there, and I look forward to getting on with some good questions.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Excellent. I will look through the chat, but we will jump because we do have the United Nations General Assembly meeting happening in New York this week. I am in New York; Nick is in Rhode Island. But we are watching them very closely. Xi spoke. We didn't know he would speak. There was this idea that there would be some sort of senior official, and then all of a sudden he comes on.

His speech seemed not very wolf warrior-like, and I am wondering what you thought of his comments. They seemed geared at multilateralism, dialogue, and cooperation. I know you said in the short term there won't be a change, so what do you think was behind that, and does it have anything to do with—since you mentioned the 2008 Olympics—the 2022 Olympics in Beijing next year?

PETER MARTIN: That's a great question. I guess the Chinese officials have different personae depending on the forum. When Xi spoke recently for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in Beijing he gave this extraordinary, almost blood-curdling speech with all of these metaphors about what would happen to people if they messed with China, and that was very focused on a domestic audience. When the audience is much more explicitly international, there is a separate set of talking points, which Xi Jinping has used at Davos, and he uses frequently at forums like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the United Nations, where all of the focus is on win-win cooperation, global challenges, and focusing on the kind of constructive role that China wants to play internationally.

In truth, both of those approaches have something going for them as a way to explain China's behavior, and what I think Xi was doing was using a set of talking points which were really quite successful in the early days of the Trump administration and kind of trying them out under Biden. The tack from Chinese officials in recent weeks seems to have been when it comes to U.S.-China and when it comes to the U.S.'s place in the world: "Things went very badly wrong under Trump, you caused a lot of problems. We are willing to work with you if you just atone for all the mistakes you've made, and welcome back to the table." That message has not gone down terribly well in Washington, but I think in Xi's speech you can see an echo of that kind of approach, if that makes sense.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely. I want to take a question from one of the panelists, which is related to something I was also looking at. There was a recent New York Times article that said that Chinese are turning away from English and getting more insular. You spoke of speaking to an audience internally, and I am wondering what you think about that. Our question comes from George Bulow: "At present, Western-educated Chinese appear to have been brushed aside in the Xi administration. Do you agree with that? What are you seeing?"

I am wondering if you saw the New York Times article about English, because in your book you talk so much about how they did try to learn the languages from the earliest days when they were sent to the Czech Republic and didn't know a word of Czech or a word of Polish, that they really tried and relied on the Soviet Union to help them engage with the world. Even in your conclusion you speak with a new diplomat who has multi-language skills. How do you marry that with this idea that people are turning away from English and turning away from the West?

PETER MARTIN: As you say, there has been this long-term and ongoing tension between openness to the outside world and desire to learn from it and then also desire to protect China's political system and Chinese culture as well from outside influences. That tension has not gone anywhere under Xi Jinping. It is still very much here.

I think certain levels of foreign training are still very, very welcome in parts of the Chinese political system. When you think of China's financial regulators, lots of them are U.S.-educated, and I think there is a recognition that that kind of expertise is very much needed in China. That's the same also with many of the Chinese graduate students who are sent overseas every year. Of course, the Trump administration focused in on how some of those students have been used as a conduit for technology transfer and espionage. Of course, that doesn't apply to the vast majority of people, but that's an issue that has come to the fore.

When it comes to the foreign ministry I think there is a bigger problem with outside influence and studying overseas, which is that the foreign ministry really wants its officials to be loyal to the system above all, and from what I understand it's incredibly difficult if not impossible now to join the foreign ministry if you have studied abroad for a Master's or an undergraduate degree and that any kind of extensive foreign ties are increasingly problematic. What needs to happen if you want to make your way in that system is that you need to apply to join the foreign ministry, and then they will send you on a foreign exchange program or foreign language training program, and when that happens—I have spoken to Chinese diplomats who talk about how strictly now they use this buddy rule that I talked about earlier, even when students are studying overseas and even when they are in classes at foreign universities. So it's a pretty high degree of control, and I think that reflects the very sensitive place that Chinese diplomats have in China's political system.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I don't know if I liked it; I will say I was mortified by your analogy to The Handmaid's Tale and how the women had to walk together. Because it is strict control, exactly what you're saying and talking about.

I'm wondering, along those lines, you use this word several times in the book—I don't know why I picked it up; I guess it's a very strong word—China being viewed as a "pariah" by the outside world and how that is very upsetting to them. Do you think that is a driver of some of their policies? If they are a pariah, who is their friend today in 2021?

PETER MARTIN: It's a great question. I do think that there is this very strong animating desire to be treated as a full member of the international system. When we think about China now and the size of its economy, that seems like a slightly quaint desire because clearly in so many ways the PRC has very much arrived, and there is no questioning that. Yet, when it comes to issues like universal human rights or China's political system, I think that Chinese officials still feel very much on the back foot, as if the fundamental assumptions about the way the world works is that systems will be based on democracy and that countries are on a trajectory toward that end, even if they haven't finished the journey yet.

Chinese officials have been challenging that notion quite publicly in recent years and touting a China model as an alternative, but there is this still very strong desire to achieve recognition. If you saw headlines in recent days about the World Bank's ease of doing business index and China's attempts to influence that ranking, I think that's a nice, small example of how something that is relatively insignificant—if you're 72 versus 68 on that ranking, it's not going to move the bar very much for foreign observers—but is a stamp of international legitimacy that the government in Beijing still wants quite badly.

On the related question of who are China's friends, China doesn't really have formal allies in the same way that the United States does. It has a couple of very, very close relationships, notably by treaty with North Korea, an incredibly strong relationship with Pakistan, and similarly close ties with Cambodia. Beyond that, it is much more of a mixed picture. China is very capable of using economic inducements to win influence in Africa and in parts of Latin America, and it has really struggled in the last few years to win over genuine friends in the West, and in many ways wolf warrior diplomacy has made that challenge even more difficult.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: You led right into the question and comment that I would like to bring up, which precisely is this point of utility. Several years ago, as you noted, China was making enormous strides, first of all in pointing to its ability to be a partner, its ability to help, that it would step in to keep the international system running, and it seems that in many places this shift back to a more in-your-face, aggressive tone reinforces what a lot of people were saying, which is: "Well, this is the true face. The friendly China was a ruse trying to lull us, but this is who the PRC really is, and if they were to gain more influence in the international system than they already have, this is what you would see." Is there a sense that allowing this campaign to continue is going to be counterproductive, or is it a sense that the places where wolf warrior diplomacy is most used are societies and countries where Beijing figures it has nothing to lose?

PETER MARTIN: I think that's a great question, which in many ways does a very nice job of contextualizing why wolf warrior diplomacy matters.

It is very clear if you look at the range of policies pursued by Xi Jinping since he came into office, that wolf warrior diplomacy is just one part of the picture. Foreign audiences have been upset by China's drive to pursue very aggressive industrial policies through Made in China 2025, militarize the South China Sea, crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the abolition of presidential term limits, all these things and many more have alienated foreign audiences and sat very, very uneasily alongside these speeches that we discussed earlier, where China would talk about win-win cooperation, shared interests, a community of shared destiny, and all of these kinds of things, and it was quite difficult to square that behavior with that rhetoric. What I think wolf warrior diplomacy has done is that it has come along as part of that broader package of creeping assertiveness from Beijing and it has crystallized the perception that China is a threat and is problematic and in many ways put a human face on it. It is going to be pretty difficult I think to walk that perception back in the coming years if that is something that Beijing chooses to do.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I saw a Guardian poll that showed that EU citizens believe that there is a new Cold War between the United States and China and Russia. What is the relationship between China and Russia? Can you talk a little bit about that? In your book you detail the historic relationship, the strength of it, and how it fell apart. Where are we today, and what are your perceptions of this idea of a Cold War between the United States and China and Russia?

PETER MARTIN: I'm no expert on China-Russia ties, but I think in general the two sides have become radically closer after the end of the Cold War and share this sense that the U.S.-led international system is unfair and is aimed at preventing them from realizing their full potential internationally. They also share this very strong sense of resentment about the hand that they have been dealt by history and the role that Western powers have played in that.

There is this, of course, great imbalance in their relationship. When you look at their economies, China is a rising power and Russia is a declining power. Their general risk tolerance in the international system is also a little bit different. I think China and its leaders realize that by allowing present trends to continue they will end up benefiting and play a more central role, and Russia's leaders realize that if current trends continue to play out in terms of economic influence and power, their role will diminish, and they need to take provocative actions in the meantime, whether that is electoral interference or action on Russia's borders in order to stem that decline. So there are some real differences there, and I think over time that is driving this fear of dependency a little bit in Russia when it comes to Beijing.

Many people have predicted for a long time that that kind of China-Russia friendship would start to fray, and I think a lot of observers have been quite startled in recent years as that degree of cooperation has only deepened, and it has gone beyond that kind of ad hoc cooperation which many had seen playing out before. I don't know how long that will last, but there seems to be no short-term reason to expect that it will be upended anytime soon.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Is there a barometer that wolf warrior diplomatic tactics perhaps give us, because when you were talking about the China-Russia relationship—I am not an expert on it either, but I follow it—what seems to be very striking compared to these techniques used elsewhere is the extent to which they are not used against Russia and that Xi Jinping has taken steps in the past to cut down on the traditional negative stereotypes of Russians that you would find in Chinese media, film, and television. There is almost a sense there of wanting to cultivate, and we see this I think in some parts of Central and Eastern Europe still, where there is still a Chinese effort—they lost Lithuania, so it's now "16+1." Do you have a sense that these tactics are more likely to be used when the relationship—I guess it's the chicken-and-egg question: Is the relationship worse first and then we see wolf warrior come out in force, the teeth of the wolf come out, or does China use these tactics and then the relationship worsens? How does that work itself out?

As you said before, how much of this is independently done, someone taking the lead from the speeches of Xi Jinping and others, and how much of it do you think is tightly scripted or directed from the foreign ministry?

PETER MARTIN: There's a lot there, and they are all big questions.

In terms of when wolf warrior tactics are used, there are a couple of ways to break it down. As you said, when the relationships are warmer and closer they tend to be employed less frequently. There has not been very much in the way of wolf warrior diplomacy in Africa, and when envoys have made very provocative statements they have often tended to actually be about the U.S. leadership rather than local political elites, and certainly there has been less of it in Russia as well. There have been a few isolated incidents, but on the whole the tone has been much more positive, so I think it's certainly true that these kinds of tactics tend to go alongside other measures which are at Beijing's disposal, whether that is unilateral economic sanctions or whether it's state media campaigns against these governments and the displeasure of China's top leaders. All of those things tend to get wrapped up with wolf warrior diplomacy as kind of a package.

I think the second important determinant actually is the power of countries that Beijing is dealing with. To talk to people in Washington, you would think that the United States has borne the brunt of wolf warrior diplomacy, and in fact that is not true at all. It has been a far more scarring experience for countries like France, Australia, Britain, and Canada as well, and the reason for that is that Beijing realizes that the consequences of upsetting these countries are much smaller. On the one hand, wolf warrior diplomacy is kind of a useful pressure tactic to try to force these countries to get back into line, and also it is a useful stage for ambitious Chinese officials who want to get promoted and noticed back home and can engage in these antics without the risk of really upsetting China's foreign policy.

The tone with the United States, despite a few important and high-profile instances, has actually been much, much more measured, and I think we see that from the way that China's new ambassador in Washington, Qin Gang, has conducted himself. There have been some provocative statements, but most of the tone most of the time has been about working together, deepening ties, and welcoming cooperation, and I think that just reflects the reality of how powerful the United States is and the extent to which the Chinese still respect that.

On the question you raised of how much is independent versus how much is ad-libbed on the ground, it's a mixture. The general tone of wolf warrior diplomacy, this idea that China shouldn't need to apologize for its system, shouldn't tolerate any kind of bullying or interference in its internal affairs or any of what it perceives to be unwarranted criticism of China, that comes straight from the top. That comes from Xi Jinping. He has been talking that way in public since at least 2008, before he became China's president. I think you can see that general approach reverberate through the whole of the Chinese bureaucracy, not just the foreign ministry but also the propaganda apparatus, the United Front apparatus, and much, much more.

Where I think there is quite a lot of ad-libbing is when it comes to tactics and especially tactics on social media. The engagement of Chinese diplomats on Twitter is, in relative terms, a very, very new phenomenon. The Chinese foreign ministry was slower than other parts of the Chinese bureaucracy to adopt Twitter as a platform. The State Council Information Office and state media did it much earlier. Chinese envoys have been able to use that platform as a way I think to perform for Beijing, even though Twitter is a banned platform in China because  this stuff gets reported back through diplomatic cables, and it gets reported in Chinese state media, and if they can show that they are engaging with Western elites in a competent, forthright way that lives up to the expectations that Xi Jinping has of China's status internationally, then they are winning points for themselves and they are winning points for  China at the same time. I think on that level of things there is quite a lot of ad-libbing and improvisation that happens.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I love that social media angle.

I want to remind our audience, send in your questions. We are in the second half of our talk, and I want to make sure that we get all of your questions, so please continue to send in your questions.

Social media. I love social media. The younger generation tends use to usual media. That's just a fact. When you were speaking to Wong Li [phonetic], you were talking about how he questioned you about Tiananmen, and I would like for you to share that story with our audience because I think it drives this point of, "What is the younger generation thinking? What do they know?" Twitter is banned, Facebook is banned. Is this idea that information isn't getting to them or is not having access changing the way that this next generation is growing up in China versus how the rest of the world is growing up, with an open Internet, "I can see everything I want any time I want?" What are your thoughts?

PETER MARTIN: This is an anecdote from the conclusion of the book, which is a meeting I had with a very young Chinese foreign ministry official in Beijing. Wong Li is a pseudonym that I gave him because I didn't want to get anyone in trouble. I met with this young official in a Starbucks, and there was jazz playing in the background. It was all very relaxed. He shouldn't have met with me. Chinese diplomats are not allowed to meet with foreigners on their own, and certainly this person just about to head overseas shouldn't have done it, so I was quite curious about how that had happened.

We talked about life, family, the weather, and all the regular things you might get into with someone, and eventually it sort of became clear that there was a motive on his part for having this conversation. What he wanted to know was, was it true that the United States had organized and instigated the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989? I was a little taken aback by that because it's one of those things that you don't have to challenge very directly if you're a Western participant in these conversations because you kind of know there is no way that any of our governments would have been able to pull off something so big and keep it secret for so long that you don't need to challenge it. Anyway, he asked the question, and I did my best to answer.

It struck home for me that this wasn't a matter of—this person was very well-read, used a virtual private network to get over China's Great Firewall, and had no shortage of facts about the events before and after Tiananmen. What he lacked—and frankly, we've seen this happen in our own societies as well with Brexit, the 2016 election, and all kinds of things—was a framework for evaluating those facts and a yardstick for deciding what was credible and what wasn't credible. That struck me as a pretty remarkable thing, that you could have these officials going out into the world who are in so many technical ways incredibly adept and incredibly well-versed but didn't have a measure for evaluating truth from their own political system.

You think about it, and it's like, Well, if the Chinese government can't persuade him of its narrative on Tiananmen, how on earth is it going to persuade the rest of us about its narrative for its place in the world? That was a striking moment for me that said something about the system.

TATIANA SERAFIN: He is an example of a young Millennial, Gen Z. When you were there how were they engaging with the world? You mentioned that he was able to jump the system. Does that happen often, or is it closed off? I think for us here in the United States, it is kind of inconceivable for my students to think that they wouldn't have access to anything they wanted every second of every single day. So I'm wondering, how do youth in China engage with the system and how do they perceive these international relationships?

PETER MARTIN: I don't know how many young people there are in China, but I'm sure it's a demographic the size of multiple Western European countries added together, so this is a huge group. For urban groups and highly educated strata of youth in China I think the question is less often, "Can you get the information you want?" If you want to get it, you'll find a way. You can soon get access to a book that you need or software to get you the information. It is more a case of being siloed off from it by growing up with state media repeating narrative after narrative and then watching events take place in the world, whether it is Donald Trump's trade war or whatever it is, these kinds of events that seem to confirm what you have been told from a very young age about how the world is intent on keeping China down. I don't know if I have a sweeping, one-size-fits-all answer for that, but I guess the Party state has been very successful at using an information environment where it has quite a high degree of control over what people consume, taking real facts from the real world and using those to shape people's perceptions and maintain its own control.


We have a couple of questions coming in, so I want to make sure I take them. One of them from Rafael Maretto deals with: "How does the foreign establishment respond and work with the military establishment, and how does wolf warrior diplomacy then support what the military is trying to do?"

PETER MARTIN: Early on in the PRC the ties between the military and Chinese diplomats were incredibly robust, and many of China's early ambassadors were actually former PLA generals. As the decades wore on, those kinds of personal ties broke down, and China started to appoint officials who had risen up through the foreign ministry system as its leadership. Actually the ability of the foreign ministry, which reports through the Chinese government system, to interact with the military, which reports directly to the Communist Party, is very limited.

So that kind of interagency process, which people in Washington would be very familiar with seeing, is incredibly hard to pull off inside China. These bureaucracies are very distrustful of each other and find it hard to communicate unless—people sometimes the call the system "stovepiped" because the information needs to flow upwards before it can flow across and back down. So in general I would say that is the kind of picture when it comes to the military and the foreign ministry interacting, but what I do think has endured of those kinds of early ties is this ethos, this idea that the foreign ministry needs to act like the PLA in civilian clothing.

It's interesting because Chinese officials—if you Google that phrase in English, Chinese foreign ministry officials almost never refer to that legacy. If you Google the phrase in Chinese, you will find dozens and dozens of references, and you will see that the current foreign minister Wang Yi has spoken about it on many occasions to young Chinese diplomats and the foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying talked about it during a tour of the new military museum in Beijing, so it is really one of those things that is kind of held back a little bit from foreign audiences, but that ethos I think is very much alive and is still quite instructive when we think about wolf warriors.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We have a question coming in about the wolf warrior diplomacy with China, the United States, and North Korea. You mentioned that North Korea is one of China's "allies," if we use that word, or partners or strong relationships. How does China then react to U.S.-North Korea relations?

PETER MARTIN: North Korea to China is kind of a thorn in its side, and it's a card to be played. It is both of those things at the same time. China wants to see stability on the Korean peninsula. It desperately wants to avoid a regime collapse there, which would have all kinds of difficult consequences for Northeast China, which is already quite an underdeveloped part of the country. I think the constant demand from the United States that China should rein in North Korea's nuclear ambitions has been a real pain over the years for Chinese officials to deal with.

At the same time, this has been true many times over. It was true in the Bush administration, it was true under Obama, and it was true under Trump and now under Biden. That also provides Beijing with some source of leverage: "If you continue to damage our relationship and allow ties to deteriorate, we won't help you out with North Korea." So there is a bit of a card there for China to play, but it is a very tricky balance. I think Chinese officials find it quite vexing and tiring to deal with the North Koreans.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I have seen this comment now a couple of times in the chat: "Wolf warrior diplomacy seems to ensure that trust will never happen, and isn't the point of diplomacy to create trust?"

PETER MARTIN: It's a great point. It's crucial actually. When I talk to U.S. practitioners of diplomacy, they talk about it as this kind of performance art, where you take a relatively well defined set of talking points from your own side, look at the person who is sitting opposite you in the room, and you think about everything that your career has taught you about that person's culture and history and the intangible mood in the room and everything that might need to be massaged and finessed in order to make that talking point your government has given you persuasive. It is an incredibly difficult skill and something that takes decades to master and pull off.

Chinese diplomats, when it comes to ability, education, and skill I think are up there with most people, but they have this incredible handicap, which is that they constantly have to think about how their messaging is going to be judged in Beijing, and if they deviate too far from talking points that Xi Jinping has delivered, will that suggest that they are not loyal enough to Xi or not loyal enough to the Communist Party? That kind of constant need to look over their shoulders I think hampers their ability to be persuasive, and it really hampers their ability to win trust. So there is that kind of talking-points thing.

There is also a real struggle that they have with building truly close personal relationships. It is a strange thing, because if you spend much time in Beijing, you will be constantly told by people, "You know, you're an old friend, and we've known each for years," and whatever, but your personal relationship with these people really is very, very mediated by the Party state. I talk to U.S. and European officials who spent decades dealing with Chinese interlocutors and couldn't name a single true "friend" from Chinese officialdom in that time. I think that makes it hard to persuade, and it makes it hard to win trust.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to ask you if you saw the New Yorker article, "The Rise of Made-in-Chin Diplomacy" and how the Made in China diplomacy relates to wolf warrior diplomacy. That would the U.S.'s constant need for more and more goods from China. So there's this, "Okay, maybe we're going to posture against each other, or maybe we're going to be friends for the Olympics, but at the end of the day the bottom line is I buy a lot of stuff from you, I need you," and that's really the bottom line of it, and maybe that doesn't get talked about enough. What do you think of this idea of Made in China diplomacy?

PETER MARTIN: I think it's something that is not discussed enough when people are thinking about whether there is a new Cold War between China and the United States and China and the West. The relationship between the United States and China is so much more complicated and interdependent than the relationship ever was between the United States and the Soviet Union, and that just makes it infinitely more complicated to think about the world being split between these two superpowers, and a big part of that, of course, is this huge economic interdependence and the reliance of each country's consumer economy on the other's. That gets even more complicated when we put it in the context of alliances and relationships.

You can kind of see it playing out now a little bit. We are not watching the world split into two implacable blocks, one opposed to Beijing and one in favor. What we are seeing is the Biden administration trying its very hardest to create ad hoc groups around ad hoc issues where it can win people over. So it is casting the net quite widely when it comes to this idea of a digital trade agreement in Asia, and the net is very, very narrow when it comes to sharing nuclear submarine technology with Australia and the United Kingdom.

That grouping is much, much smaller, and there are other groups, whether it is the Quad grouping of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan, whether it is U.S.-NATO cooperation, U.S.-EU cooperation, or the Five Eyes intelligence group. All of these varied and fragmented groups have a different stance on how deal with Beijing and have some issues where they would like to work with Washington and other issues where frankly that degree of interdependence and that reliance on Made in China really undoes the ability to put together blocs. I think it's tremendously important when we think about the way the world is shaping up.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely. We're coming to the end of our talk. I could talk to you forever about this because I really love this book, so I want to just remind everyone that the book is China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. Excuse all my blue tabs, but I wanted to highlight so much that I didn't get to. There are so many great anecdotes here and so much great research that you've done.

Can I just read one scene? Will you allow me to read this one scene?


TATIANA SERAFIN: It was in 1969. You were describing how the Chinese—and, to your point throughout this talk, you said that Chinese diplomats don't want to engage with people and are very wary:

"The unlikely moment for a breakthrough was a December 1969 Yugoslavian fashion show in Warsaw. A group of Chinese diplomats from the embassy in Poland attended the event, led by attaché Jing Zhicheng. They saw two Americans pointing at them across the room. Unaware of the strategic rethink taking place in Beijing and hoping to avoid the appearance of being too close to Nixon's America, they stood up to leave. To their surprise, the Americans pursued them, shouting in Polish that Nixon wanted to resume talks with China. Jing and his associates began to run, but the ambassador to Poland, Walter Stoessel, caught up with Jing's interpreter, telling him that he had an important message for the embassy."

I think that scene exemplifies so much of what you have been talking about. What was your favorite scene in the book or something poignant to you, as we round out our talk?

PETER MARTIN: For me, the part that really stuck in my head was in the early 1980s, actually Xi Jinping's first father-in-law from his marriage that didn't work out was sent to England to Margaret Thatcher's Britain as ambassador. I spoke with British officials who met him during that period, and they said that the talking points that he delivered were very much in line with what the government expected. They were stilted. He was very controlled in the way that he expressed himself, and you would expect no less of a professional Chinese diplomat.

His name is Ke Hua, and when you read his memoir you realize that he was undergoing this kind of profound crisis of confidence in China's socialist system, and he had come to the realization and the understanding that China needed to pursue aggressive economic reforms and that everything he had been taught as a young man about the idea that Britain's class system would eventually be overthrown through violent revolution, that the workers were going to stand up to the government, and that the government didn't look after its people was unfounded. He found that out when his kid got sick and the British National Health Service looked after the child for free.

I think especially when we see wolf warrior tactics playing out across the world, it's very easy to think of the people who are delivering these points as these monolithic representatives of the huge, faceless Chinese state, but actually there's a lot of subtlety and acumen that goes into the way that they perceive the world. The way that they do that is not necessarily represented on the surface. I guess that's the anecdote that sticks out for me.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much and thank you for your comments. We are going to save them and share them with Peter so that he sees everyone's comments.

Peter, thank you so much for your time and for joining us today at Carnegie Council. This was so much fun.

PETER MARTIN: Yes, likewise. Thank you.

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