On Monday, Lee Yang, Chinese Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, switched to Twitter to mock rescue efforts after the collapse of the Surfside building in Florida. “American-style rescue: very layman in rescuing people, but too expert in blasting !!!” Lee wrote, including parallel images of a partially demolished condominium and its demolition with explosives.
In other recent tweets, Li called Adrian Zenz, a researcher who wrote extensively about the detention camps in Xinjiang, a liar. Lee also referred to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “Boy” and labeled him an “American dog runner” Such outbursts have helped Li gather nearly 27,000 followers on Twitter – even though the platform is blocked in China.
Lee is one of dozens of Chinese diplomats who have found a home on Twitter in recent years, going to a page with Trump’s bravado to raise their profiles at home and abroad. Encouraged by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2013, this vocal cohort – nicknamed the “wolf wolves” after the nationalist film franchise of the same name – cheered around the world, smashing enemies and sharpening even the mildest criticism.
Xi brought China a renewed focus on ideology as well as the return of Mao-era tools that include re-education camps and collective studies. When Chinese diplomats see such domestic moves, “they are very good at calibrating their response to it in a way that protects their own individual interests,” he says. Peter Martin, whose new book, Chinese Civil Army: Creating Wolf-Wolf Diplomacy, follows the history of the Chinese diplomatic corps.
For today’s diplomats, protecting their interests often requires a strong defense of Chinese interests and image – both online and offline. Last year, Chinese officials launched a fist fight at a diplomatic event in Fiji, when the uninvited appeared at a Taiwan national day celebration.
An aggressive, nationalistic style may seem extremely undiplomatic, even counterproductive – but it works well for patriotic audiences at home and can be a path to promotion. Fighting messages on Western social networks and theatrical outbursts often end up back on Chinese social networks, he says Maria Repnikova, professor at Georgia State University whose research focuses on journalism and the exchange of public messages in undemocratic regimes. The messages are eventually reflected in the state media and amplified coordinated influence campaigns found in China.
As a diplomat sent to Pakistan in 2015, Zhao Lijian filled his feed with both tweeters attacking the U.S. and posts elevating Sino-Pakistani economic cooperation. By 2019, shortly after sparking an argument on Twitter with former U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Zhao returned to Beijing and was promoted to Foreign Ministry spokesman. With that perch, he tweetao March 12, 2020, which could have been brought by the U.S. military Covid-19 to China.
In 2016, when a Canadian journalist asked Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi about a Canadian citizen accused of spying and being detained in China, Wang replied, “Your question is full of arrogance and prejudice against China … That is completely unacceptable.” His remarks went viral, and the online club for Wang – already hailed by the Chinese press as a “silver fox” – gathered more than 130,000 members. This is a stark contrast in the mid-2000s, when nationalist citizens sent calcium calcium pills to the State Department to suggest that officials should grow the backbone faced with international criticism of Chinese human rights data.
Although the medium is new, the approach is not – although the volume can be increased or decreased, depending on daily needs. As Martin writes, in November 1950, turned-up diplomat Wu Xiuquan gave a fiery 105-minute speech at the United Nations in which he labeled the U.S. and then confronted China in the Korean War, a “cunning aggressor in their relations” with China, and called for sanctions against the United States.
“Sometimes Chinese diplomats are very charming, impressive and use the discipline cultivated in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to gain international opinion and make friends for China,” Martin says. However, in other times, such as during the Cultural Revolution and again recently, “there was this very combative and even aggressive side of Chinese diplomacy.”