Wolf warrior nationalism

When the US withdrew from Afghanistan a few weeks ago, China’s “wolf warriors” began tweeting highly critical comments like these:

— “Wherever the US sets foot… we see turbulence, division, broken families, deaths and other scars in the mess it has left.” – Hua Chunying, Foreign ministry spokesman

— “The failure of the U.S. in Afghanistan should serve as a warning to [the citizens of Taiwan]… who have to understand that they cannot count on Washington.  Afghanistan is not the first place where the US abandoned its allies, nor will it be the last.” – Hu Xijin, Editor-in-chief of the state-controlled Global Times

The phrase wolf warriors came from two “hugely popular movies in which elite Chinese special forces take on American-led mercenaries and other ne’er-do-wells. They are violent and extremely nationalistic in tone.  One critic dubbed them ‘Rambo with Chinese characteristics.’”

A poster for the first Wolf Warrior movie.  An alternate version shows the main character raising his middle finger with the slogan: “Anyone who offends China, no matter how remote, must be exterminated.”

The wolf warrior movement became more louder and more visible last year when diplomats and citizens responded to criticism over China’s response to covid with tweets like this:

— “Some US leaders have stooped so low to lie, misinform, blame, stigmatise. That is very despicable, but we should not lower our standard [in a] race to the bottom. They don’t care a lot about morality [and] integrity but we do.” – Ma Hui, China’s London Embassy

— “Faced with this suppression… we’ll never swallow our pride or stoop to compromise.” – Le Yucheng, a Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs

According to David Shambaugh, Professor of Asian Studies at George Washington University, one reason behind this type of nationalistic diplomacy is the view “that the tide of history has turned, and that China is becoming the world’s dominant power…Chinese citizens are deeply infused with uber-nationalism and a sense of national accomplishment — they take great pride in their government officials pushing back against perceived discrimination.”

Two years ago in this blog, I published a post entitled “Dueling Superiority Complexes: The US and China.”  I wrote there about China’s pride in its 5000 years of civilization.  “The Mandarin word for China – Zhongguo – is translated as Middle Kingdom, since… they believed their empire occupied the middle of the earth, surrounded by barbarians.”

While contemporary Chinese no longer see themselves at the geographic “middle of the earth,” the notion that all foreigners are inferior barbarians has not entirely died out.

In the 1800s, the Chinese had good reason to feel superior.  China’s Qing Empire was at its height, and its Emperor ruled “300 million people or about a third of the world’s population.”  Ancient Chinese civilization was responsible for a wide variety of inventions including papermaking, printing, gunpowder, the compass, iron smelting, porcelain, rockets, bronze, row crop farming, paper money, tea production, mechanical clocks, kites, the umbrella, and the toothbrush. 

China’s arrogance was challenged when maritime trade routes were opened to Europe and America in the 19th century.   Westerners had a huge demand for such products as tea, porcelains, and silk garments (whose weaving technology was “such a closely guarded secret [that] the West had to pay gold [for] the same weight [as] silks.”)

But China had little interest in European products or technology, and wanted to be paid only in silver or gold.  This led to a very unfavorable balance of trade for Western nations.  Then the British had an idea:  increase the cultivation of opium in its Indian colony, and sell it in China for silver, then use the silver to buy tea and the other Chinese products Westerners craved. 

This was a success for the West, but created a huge problem of recreational opium smoking and addiction in China.  In 1839, the Emperor tried to ban the trade in opium because of concern with its effects on Chinese citizens, not to mention his concern with the outflow of silver. 

This resulted in the First Opium War (1839-1842) and then the Second Opium War (1856-1860).  China lost both by a wide margin due to the vast superiority of Western military technology. 

Around this time, Westerners were often referred to with the Cantonese term “gweilo,” which can be translated as “foreign devil.”  Not a great foundation for positive relations. 

When the First Opium War ended with the Treaty of Tientsin, it forbade China “from using the character 夷 … (‘barbarian’) in official documents to refer to officials, subjects, or citizens of [Britain, France, Russia, or the United States].”

But that was the least of China’s problems.  By 1860, the Chinese had been forced to legalize opium, pay western powers about 500 pounds of silver in reparations for the cost of the war, cede large portions of Manchuria to Russia, give Hong Kong to the British, open about a dozen ports to western traders, and much more.

And thus began what Chinese call, to this day, its “Century of Humiliation.”  It continued with a long list of events, capped by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931) and World War II.

Officially, the “century of humiliation” ended in 1949 when the Communist Party won its civil war and founded the People’s Republic of China.  But in the eyes of the Chinese, humiliation continued. 

Do you remember when “a U.S. plane accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade mistaking it for a Serbian arms depot, killing three Chinese and injuring several others” during the Kosovo War in 1999?  Me either.  But the Chinese certainly do.  Many believe the bombing was intentional.

How about the 2001 death of the Chinese pilot of an F-8 jet fighter when it crashed with a US spy plane in disputed air space?  Or the 2005 protests in China over publication of a Japanese history text that downplayed World War II atrocities?  Can’t say I remember those either, but these were big news in China, and boosted nationalism.

Westerners may see the Chinese reactions to these and other events as excessive.  But as one China expert summed them up, he noted “that incensed Chinese online reactions are often the result of deeply felt, shared emotions about historical experiences characterized by a great deal of suffering at the hands of foreign powers. The authorities stoke those emotions, and nationalists embrace them, but that does not make them unfounded.” (Italics added)

Wolf warrior diplomats are now building on this tradition.  It is important to keep in mind “that the diplomats are not speaking to a foreign audience, but catering to ‘domestic consumers,’ who – amid times of relative turbulence – are in search of impassioned, at times zealous, speech in defense of the Chinese nation… What cannot be underestimated here is the extent to which support genuinely emanates from the public.”

Chinese public opinion polls conducted by western pollsters support this view.  A “decade-long opinion poll released [last year] by the Harvard Ash Center concluded that 93% of Chinese citizens were ‘satisfied’ with their central government.”  Similarly, a recent “World Values Survey reported that 95 percent of Chinese citizens said that they have a great deal or quite a lot of trust in national government.”  And, at least in the opinion of sociologist Cary Wu, “what we know about citizen surveys in China… suggests that these results cannot be simply reduced to a misrepresentation out of political fear.”

Nationalist feelings run highest among “among Chinese born in the 1980s and 90s, a generation that has matured [with]… a nationalist education system, and a censored web. In their anti-Western and anti-Japanese attitudes, they often display the most xenophobic aspects of Chinese society… Distinctive to this nationalism is its raw, conspicuous character, which often manifests itself in calls for a more muscular foreign policy and public outrage in the wake of perceived foreign threats.” Australian diplomat Andrew Forrest has described this group as “an aggressively restless generation that expects to live to see China kick the United States out of Asia.”

According to consultant Jude Blanchette from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the combination of Chinese ultra-nationalism and censorship has created “a really nasty echo chamber that I think will continue to drive China.” 

Hmm.  A “nasty echo chamber.”  Where have I heard that before?

In any case, according to Minxin Pei from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:“A very nationalistic public makes foreigners wary of China and harms China’s image.”

It also increases the risk of war.

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