Twilight of the wolf warriors?

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love tinfoil hat diplomacy

Just a little over a month ago, a mountain of meaningless verbiage emerged from the mouth of Xi Jinping, sparking a prairie fire of utterly unnecessary global commentary.

In a speech to the Politburo, Xi declared that China needed to '"strengthen and improve its international propaganda work.” Steps toward these goals, he advised, included "pay[ing] attention to a good grasp of the tone, as well as be[ing] open, confident and humble, try[ing] our utmost to portray an image of a reliable, lovely, respectable China.”

Just as the face of Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, so these words of Xi Jinping launched a thousand op-eds. Were Xi’s words a frank acknowledgement of the complete failure of aggressive wolf warrior diplomacy? Were Xi’s words a signal of a much-needed shift in Beijing’s approach to the world? Even more tantalizingly, was Xi’s speech a case of him throwing down the gauntlet for Beijing’s wolf warriors, asserting his authority to craft a more sensible line in diplomacy?

Short answer: none of the above. There is nothing that China analysts love more than the idea of a senior CCP leader rationally acknowledging mistakes and changing course. The problem is that it doesn’t happen, so people are left to imagine it has, desperately pulling together words that seem to mean what they want them to mean. The problem, of course, is that they don’t mean that.

If you think that Xi Jinping is not on board with the whole wolf warrior phenomenon, you are kidding yourself. See, for example, his braggadocio last week claiming that China was going to bash in foreigners’ heads: reliably, lovely, and respectable, indeed!

If you think that there is any self-correcting mechanism in the current CCP system that would lead Xi Jinping to be reflective or change his mind about anything, you are really kidding yourself.

The CCP under Xi is literally enacting a genocide, having placed millions in concentration camps; destroyed Hong Kong’s political, legal, and media institutions; issued endless threats to invade its neighbor the democratic nation of Taiwan; and has been unwavering in its refusal to be in any way transparent about an epidemic that started in Wuhan and has now killed millions. In terms of levels of self-reflection and the possibility of self-correction, we are basically back to Mao prior to the Lushan Plenum.

If you think that after enacting all of these policies, Xi Jinping is going to take some type of valiant stand against the wolf warriors, you are definitely kidding yourself.

Each step of the way in these policies, there have been those who have held out hope: the CCP, they tell us, is certainly better than this. I can’t begrudge friends and colleagues too much for being optimistic. Yet what is really required to face up to the reality of PRC politics today is not some steely optimism, but rather an absolute, unyielding, and all-encompassing pessimism.

One benefit of all of this wolf warrior silliness is that it is mainstreaming such pragmatic pessimism, precisely by revealing to the world, in all of its silliness and incompetence, the silliness and incompetence of the system for which it speaks. This is not an anomaly: this is the system being honest about itself and its intentions.

Take, for example, Zhao Lijian. The guy has cynically used racial tensions in the US for CCP messaging, placed blame on Fort Detrick, Italy, India, and anywhere else in the world besides Wuhan for the pandemic that obviously originated in Wuhan, boosted conspiratorial Xinjiang genocide denialism, and alienated countries the world over with his promotion of cartoons that are neither funny nor even mildly original: basically nothing but cringe content.

And for these efforts, he has been richly rewarded, rising to the top of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ hierarchy: the wing of the Chinese government that manages “friendly” relations with the world.

In the rise of Zhao Lijian, we can see the complete and utter shattering of the myth of “meritocracy:” the fantasy boosted by Daniel Bell and CGTN, claiming that through a rigorous testing process only the best of the best are selected to lead China. It’s kind of difficult to maintain that fantasy when some guy managed to rise to the top of the diplomatic hierarchy just by combining the styles of a morning radio shock-jock and the paranoid-conspiratorial ramblings of a guy having a mental breakdown at a bus station.

Yet if Zhao Lijian is a racist, conspiracy theory boosting loon serving a genocidal dictatorship, at least he is a somewhat interesting and original racist, conspiracy theory boosting loon serving a genocidal dictatorship.

Scrolling through Twitter in recent weeks, I could not help but notice the recent proliferation of mediocre wolf warriors: people who are imitating Zhao but don’t quite have his style. For short, I call them wack warriors.

Foremost among the new generation of wack warriors is Li Yang, CCP Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, who has over the past week mocked the loss of life in the Florida apartment complex collapse, composed a completely incoherent imaginary dialogue between Xinjiang-focused researcher Adrian Zenz and god, and of course gone all out to pretend that the current pandemic definitely did not originate in Wuhan.

A close runner-up among wack warriors is Zhang Heqing, CCP cultural attaché in Karachi, who really deserved to be sent to horny jail in March when he posted a video of a woman belly dancing with the comment “off your hijab, let me see your eyes. #Xinjiang dance.” Further affirming his raging adolescent hormones, Zhang recently tweeted an image of a massive middle finger with the header “how we treat our enemies.”

There are countless other examples of these wack warriors, but I won’t bore you with the details, because they are genuinely deeply boring.

In their desperate imitation of the wolf warrior style, people like Li and Zhang epitomize the cultural process of levelling, wherein anything new or original eventually becomes so banal as to be completely predictable and meaningless. Such is the fate of wolf warrior diplomacy: cringe content better suited for bumper stickers than diplomatic messaging, yet somehow also the core of CCP diplomacy today.

Wolf warriors are supposed to push the buttons of people like myself who are critics of the CCP. Yet in scrolling through these wack warriors’ incoherent outbursts, I am neither shocked nor outraged: I simply shake my head and sigh, wishing for something more interesting like a knitting competition.

In sum, no matter what any self-declared expert parsing the words of Xi Jinping might say, wolf warrior diplomacy is here to stay. The CCP as it stands today is devoid of any self-correcting mechanism, dooming the already ridiculous wolf warrior diplomacy to descend into predictable banality.

And that is great. It reveals to us the true political face of the system that it represents, cultivating a broader pragmatic pessimism with regard to CCP intentions: eventually, even naïve “progressives” looking to cooperate on climate change will have a difficult time rationalizing cooperation with a regime that openly brags that it wants to bash their heads.