'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy with Peter Martin
'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy with Peter Martin
In this episode of the Janes podcast, we talk to Peter Martin, a defence and intelligence reporter at Bloomberg, Peter discusses his new book, which charts the roots of Chinese 'wolf warrior' diplomacy. He shares his insights into the online element of this diplomacy, as well his thoughts on the future of Chinese diplomatic influence.
Peter MartinDefense Policy and Intelligence Reporter, Bloomberg
Speaker 1: Welcome to the World of Intelligence, a podcast for you to discover the latest analysis of global military and security trends within the open source defense intelligence community. Direct from the experts at the Janes Intelligence unit, each week we bring together a thought leader from the Intel community to gain in- depth knowledge and insight into the World of Intelligence. Now onto the episode with your host, Mark Wilson.
Mark Wilson: Welcome to the latest edition of Janes World of Intelligence podcast. Now today we're joined by Peter Martin, the defense and intelligence reporter at Bloomberg. Peter is also the author of a new book called China's Civilian Army, The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. Peter, welcome to the pod.
Peter Martin: Thanks so much for having me.
Mark Wilson: Great to have you on board. So perhaps we could begin then, maybe if you could tell us a little bit about your background perhaps and how you came to be reporting on defense and intelligence really?
Peter Martin: Yeah, so at the moment I work for Bloomberg News based out of Washington, and I report on the Pentagon and some of the World of Intelligence as well here. But before that, I was based in Beijing as a correspondent for Bloomberg, where I wrote about Chinese politics and foreign policy, was out in Shenzhen reporting on China's security state there and the North Korea border and other places. But especially writing about the deteriorating relationship between the US and China.
Mark Wilson: Very, very interesting times. Now, your book, which of course we've got to get onto and discuss in this podcast, it's all about Chinese diplomacy. And I'd say probably it's both the history of Chinese diplomacy, but of course it also probably provides a window into the present and also maybe perhaps a future of Chinese diplomacy too. So I wonder if you, before we go into that book, I wonder if you could share with us why you came to write the book in the first place.
Peter Martin: Yeah, so I'd lived in Beijing on and off since 2008, but when I went back in 2017 as a reporter with Bloomberg, I was really struck by how much economic and military progress the country had made. Xi Jinping was rolling out this incredibly ambitious belt and road initiative. China was militarizing its artificial islands in the south China sea. And it seemed to have this incredible opportunity to kind of assert its global leadership as then president Donald Trump was insulting US allies left, right and center, and withdrawing from international institutions and all of those kinds of things. And yet, somehow China just didn't seem to be able to grasp that opportunity, as strong as it was becoming militarily and economically, and as good as it was becoming at using inducements and sometimes threats to get its way. It seemed to be really bad at persuading others. And I started to think about that, why does this superpower have such a gaping hole in the center of its capabilities? And as I thought more about that question, Chinese diplomat's kind of jumped out to me as like a microcosm of China's broader struggle to communicate. And I started looking into some of the strengths and weaknesses and what the history and structure of China's diplomatic corps might tell us about that broader struggle that China has to make its case to the outside world.
Mark Wilson: Now, the term that is in the title of your book, that describes Chinese diplomacy as so- called Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. Just define that term for us a little bit. What is Wolf Warrior Diplomacy? What do you see are the objectives of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy and why do you think it's referred to as such in the first place?
Peter Martin: It's a title that's really come to be associated with a new brand of much more brash and assertive Chinese diplomacy that's emerged. I mean slowly over the last decade, but actually in the last couple of years under Xi Jinping, and particularly during the coronavirus pandemic where Chinese diplomats have at times spread conspiracy theories about the origins of the COVID virus. They have stormed out of international meetings and told foreign counterparts to shut up and gotten into inaudible spats with all kinds of eminent people, including members of Bolsonaro's family in Brazil, former national security advisor, Susan Rice, and then with particular virulence against former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. And so that kind of new diplomacy for a lot of people came to kind of symbolize China's, the global role that it was assuming, but actually, as I argue in the book, if you look into it, these kinds of behavior have really, really deep roots.
Mark Wilson: So say a little bit more about those roots. Is Wolf Warrior Diplomacy kind of a reaction maybe to something in China's past, would you say?
Peter Martin: Well, the way I think of it is that China has two diplomatic traditions since the founding of the communist state in 1949. So when the country was first established, it basically had no diplomats. A small band of people who had followed China's first foreign minister, Joe Amei, during the revolutionary years, plus a bunch of peasant revolutionaries and fresh graduates from university. And Joe had to mold this group into China's diplomatic corps. And the way he did that was to come up with this ethos and this idea that Chinese diplomats would act like the people's liberation army in civilian clothing. So what he meant by that was they would show incredible discipline toward the Communist Party. They would follow instructions directly. They would often move around in pairs to make sure that no information was leaked and that there was always someone else to keep tabs on each member of the corps. And they would also display this fighting spirit whenever China's interests were challenged. And so, right from the beginning in the 50s, there were these displays of just an incredible sort of what we would now call Wolf Warrior tactics. I think of an example in 1950, inaudible who was a veteran revolutionary, the guy had kind of a bullet scar mark on his cheek and he went to the United Nations and delivered this two hour kind of finger wagging, head moving speech where he kind of made today's Wolf Warriors look like wimps. And actually in the cultural revolution in the 1960s, there were even images of Chinese diplomats literally wielding axes at protesters in London, outside the embassy. And so these kinds of behaviors have a long, long past in China and lots of precedent, but I think also there's this alternate tradition where China charmed the world and seeks to persuade others, which we also saw later on in the 1950s and then with great success after the Tiananmen massacre and in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics.
Mark Wilson: I mean, just listening to you there, that was a theme that for me also really stood out in your book, that type of historical connection, it seemed between, on the one hand the Chinese military and on the other hand the diplomatic corps, like you said, right from the beginning there was this idea that diplomats, they've got to be soldiers in some sense of the word. Like show absolute obedience to essential leadership, never ever act upon your own authority, on your own initiative in any way or anything like that. I mean, that to me, is the way you explained it, was the roots of that diplomacy, but do you think that still has echoes in today's Chinese diplomacy? What do you see in terms of the contemporary situation in that respect?
Peter Martin: It's a really interesting question. So I think early on in the PRCs history, there were kind of two strands. So there was this Marshall militaristic ethos that Joe tried to sort of imbibe in the Chinese diplomatic corps, which I mentioned earlier on. And the most important part of that, as you know, the people's liberation army is not a state army, it's a party army. It reports to the Communist Party of China and that overriding loyalty to follow in the party's direction is something that was true of China's diplomatic corps in 1949, and it's true of China now under Xi Jinping, and that's something that really hasn't changed. There's a great deal of continuity there. And so too, there's this fighting spirit that has continued, as I said, there have been periods of charm offensives and there've been periods of slightly more strident diplomacy, but throughout that, this kind of fighting spirit has endured and Chinese diplomats when they speak in Chinese, the Chinese audiences will still use this metaphor of the diplomatic corps being the people's liberation army in civilian clothing. I think what has changed though, is the kind of personnel links between the military and the diplomatic corps. So early on almost all of China's first ambassadors overseas were generals, where PLA veterans, and the reason for that was that they were considered to have the best political loyalty. And Moussa Dong actually said at one point, ambassador generals are good because they won't defect. And they were very, very explicit about it. And as time went on, that group of actual military veterans were kind of phased out and replaced with people who had grown up in the foreign ministry, spoke foreign languages, understood the niceties of diplomatic protocol and all of those kinds of things. But at the outset that wasn't the main goal. The main goal was these guys have got to have the right degree of political loyalty to serve the Communist Party. And so, that's changed over time. China still will recruit military veterans to it's diplomatic service, kind of in the same way that military veterans are kind of welcomed into the US state department and there are particular programs to help them adapt to that side of civilian life. But on the personnel side, there really is quite a lot of difference between now and in'49, if that makes sense.
Mark Wilson: Yeah. Now tell us a little bit about how you went about research in this book. Partly for this book, you're looking at the here and the now of course, of the Chinese diplomacy and assume for that, that you've at least partly relied upon your journalistic sources in that respect. But of course, as you've said, this is a book that does look back also to the history of Chinese diplomacy as well. So how did you go about trying to find a window into that past in order to, I guess, try and understand the here and now, and actually then place that into context for the reader?
Peter Martin: Yeah, so my main source base for the book was this group of about 100 plus memoirs written by former Chinese diplomats. Some of them very senior, former foreign ministers, and some of them very junior, there was a cultural attache to China's embassy to New Zealand, for example, wrote a book. And they're published by small regional publishing houses, they're not particularly well edited and frankly they're pretty dull books, but they sort of shed light on the human side of Chinese diplomacy and what is it like to be a diplomat in a country where people are suspicious of your political system or your economic system or where you fear that there were challenges all around and forces that seek to overthrow your government. And to me, that ability to get inside the heads of these people who were trying to grapple with, on one hand a quite closed and paranoid political system at home, and then an outside world that had expectations of greater openness and transparency. Those kinds of individual journeys, I think taught me quite a lot about not just Chinese diplomacy but what it feels like to take part in the political system there.
Mark Wilson: Now last year I saw a report in Chinese state media outlet, The Global Times, and it was talking about an artist, a Chinese artists, and the report described this artist as a Wolf Warrior artists. And that kind of got me thinking at the time, is Wolf Warrior Diplomacy then, is it limited just to Chinese diplomats or actually, are we seeing it applied to people in other lines of work? Now, obviously, I wonder if you could kind of share your own experiences really from what you've seen in the course of your research. Is it just a diplomatic thing or is it applied to other sectors as well within China? What do you think about that?
Peter Martin: Well, I think that in some ways Wolf Warrior Diplomacy is a reflection of a deeper shift that's taken place in China where the Communist Party in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre relied a lot on nationalist propaganda and nationalist messaging to underscore its own legitimacy. And those already, of course, a great deal of national pride and patriotism in China, but that was kind of politicized in the 90s and there was an emphasis on the way that China had been humiliated by foreign powers in the past. And that was kind of directed towards like, we need to break free from the grip of US inaudible and promote a multipolar world and all that kind of stuff. Anyway, that drive was very, very successful and helped to breed a new group of very nationalist youth who took to the internet and sometimes criticize the government and especially the foreign ministry for being too soft. There are stories of Chinese diplomats being sent calcium tablets in the mail in the 2000s, because the implication was that their backbones were too weak and so maybe they needed some extra calcium to help them out. And I think that in the 90s and the 2000s, that kind of nationalism kind of sat outside the party state and was sometimes almost held up in opposition to the way that the government was trying to win over international opinion. And I think what's happened under Xi Jinping, is that that kind of nationalism has really gone mainstream and has become in some ways the official voice of the Chinese government. And so I think of an institution like The Global Times, this nationalist tabloid, and in 2010, 2011, its voice was very different to that of the Chinese foreign ministry, it was much more assertive, much more belligerent and nationalistic, and the foreign ministry has been more accommodating in comparison. And now on your average day, it's pretty hard to find light between the voice of The Global Times and the foreign ministry. And so I guess that's a long- winded way of saying these tactics are being played around with in Chinese state media, in the Chinese diplomatic apparatus, and they kind of a reflection of this biggest shift and this way that nationalism has gone mainstream.
Mark Wilson: Now, I wonder if for a second we could try and step into the mind, let's say, of a Chinese Wolf Warrior Diplomat today. Now you've probably met a few in your own work down the years, and I wonder if you could share with us your view on what it's actually like to be one of these Wolf Warrior Diplomats. I mean, is it a label that you think these individuals are attracted to in some way or by the same token, is it a label that maybe they don't like? Maybe they feel burdened with it in some way?
Peter Martin: Yeah. I would say on the whole, most Chinese diplomats don't like the label. And to them, it feels like they are being criticized for the way that they run their political system and the way that their economic and industrial policy is conducted. And from their perspective, they are seeking to develop their country in the same way that Western economies were able to develop and yet somehow they're being criticized for it. And so I think to a lot of them, the Wolf Warrior label kind of feels like, actually vice foreign minister inaudible Chung said this, he said it was a discourse trap aimed to stop China from fighting back. And so, one of the things that's really easy to overlook when you kind of see this behavior is, from the outside it does look aggressive and belligerent, but on the individual level, a lot of this stems from a sense of insecurity. An insecurity about China's place in the world but also insecurity on the part of individuals. Chinese diplomats at the moment face a political system where Xi Jinping has consolidated power to a degree unprecedented in recent decades, he's abolished presidential term limits. He's introduced a sweeping anti- corruption campaign that has punished 1. 5 million officials. And he's experimenting with reeducation camps to subdue chin jam, among many, many other things. And if you are a Chinese diplomat in this system, and you are aware of the history of the Chinese diplomatic corps that has been through numerous purges in the past. In the cultural revolution, junior Chinese diplomats beat up Chinese ambassadors until they coughed up blood, they locked them in cellars, they publicly humiliated them, made them clean toilets. You know how high the stakes can be when you get on the wrong side of Chinese politics. And so sometimes the safest option for you on an individual level is just to act tough, especially if that's what you think Xi Jinping wants, and every indication is that Xi likes that tough approach and will reward it.
Mark Wilson: Now, a key feature of diplomacy these days, not just Chinese diplomacy, but across the board, I guess, is the online space, isn't it? Particularly social media platforms, et cetera. It strikes me that Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, it's got to have an online dimension to it. And I know you talk a little bit about that in your book as well. Can you give us an insight into how you think these Wolf Warrior Diplomats use social media platforms to try and project China's image to the rest of the world. I mean, are there elements of misinformation or disinformation being thrown into the mix here as well when we're talking about the online element of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy?
Peter Martin: Yeah, to me, it's a great question, and I sort of think of the online piece as the most experimental aspect of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, and in some ways the part that is most out of keeping with the rest of Xi Jinping's foreign policy and domestic agenda. Xi's focus with the Chinese bureaucracy has very much been on getting everyone on the same page, everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, follows directions set by the party center and there really is that kind of top- down approach. And in some cases, I think that the presence on Twitter, which is really where a lot of the most controversial incidents have taken place, some of that is ad- libbed. They're obeying orders in the sense that she wants a tougher tone and they're reflecting that. But my understanding from conducting interviews is that a lot of the most controversial incidents, including foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao- le Jins tweet about the origins of COVID- 19 and this idea that maybe the US army started the pandemic in Wuhan. That was not officially sanctioned, that was something, an action that he took of his own initiative and clearly had very, very big implications for foreign policy. And so I do wonder actually, Xi Jinping recently delivered some remarks at the Politburo study session where he talks about the need for China to project a more lovable image to the outside world. And I do wonder if we may start to see some of that Twitter messaging, like gaining a little bit more consistency at least. I think the tough tone will stay, but it does seem to be at odds with the way that Xi Jinping kind of likes to assert control over the bureaucracy to have these people out there ad- libbing. Now having said that, a Chinese diplomat, I can't remember if it was yesterday or the day before, tweeted an image of a middle finger held up at China's enemies. And so, maybe not that much will change after all, but it does strike me as a bit of a puzzle.
Mark Wilson: Sticking with the online element of this Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, what's your sense of the extent to which Wolf Warrior Diplomats are part of broader pro- China messaging online? I mean, partly the reason for asking you this question is that I read about the so- called 50 cent army, this reported group of state back commentators, if you believe sort of reports that they're kind of paid for their activities. And they're basically, they're out there, they're online, they're disseminating pro- China narratives on Western platforms, on Chinese platforms as well. Now, the question is, do you think Wolf Warrior Diplomats actually coordinate with individuals like that? People who may be part of this so- called 50 cent army, do you think that there's coordination in any way because looking from the outside, it seems that those two groups I mentioned there, they have kind of shared aims. Like they're both interested in pushing the pro- China narratives. Maybe they've got their own reasons for doing it, but they both seem to share the aims.
Peter Martin: Yeah. I mean, so what I'd say is, it's important when we analyze the way that any type of policy happens in China, to remember just how stovepipe the system is. So it's actually very, very difficult for someone in the foreign ministry at a junior or even mid- level to have a conversation with someone in the military or in the ministry of propaganda, because all of those different entities have reporting lines that go up towards the government, the central government, and then ultimately towards the Communist Party and it's leadership, which are deliberately there in order for the party to assert control over their bureaucracy, just in the same way as the Soviet Union had a kind of stovepipe system like that. And so what I think is more likely than a kind of granular tactical coordination, is that all of these groups have looked at the speeches of Xi Jinping and other top leaders, where they talk about the need for China to tell its story better to the outside world, for China to win. They use language about winning the struggle, the international discourse power. They recognize that even when the US government is very unpopular, Hollywood and the US media and cable news is able to set the agenda and really define the ways in which public discourse takes place in a way that China is really not capable of doing at the moment. And they desperately want to find a way for China to do that. And so I think that those kinds of online nationalists and their coordination with the state, is one piece of that. I think Wolf Warrior Diplomats online is another piece of that. And so it's better, I think, to kind of think of all of these groups working towards the will of the party center, rather than thinking of them as coordinating on their own terms. If that makes sense.
Mark Wilson: It does. It does. I wonder if you could get your thoughts and finally, Peter, on the future. To me, from reading your book and from seeing the behaviors of some of these so- called Wolf Warrior Diplomats online, the perception they give off, they want to portray, they are certainly very aggressive, certainly very combative in nature, as the name Wolf Warrior would suggest. Do you see that changing in any way in the future? Do you see maybe a scenario where Wolf Warrior Diplomacy could soften perhaps in the future or by the same token, perhaps it might become even more combative?
Peter Martin: Yeah, so I think one of the things that's really important to remember is that since 1949, the Communist Party has had this incredible ability to recalibrate both its domestic and its foreign policies when its faced challenges. So, no one could have imagined when China was emerging diplomatically isolated, politically in chaos at home after the culture revolution, during the culture revolution, that China would invite Henry Kissinger and then Richard Nixon to Beijing, and help to change the course of the cold war in that way. And after 1989 and again, China was an international pariah, it had destroyed lots of the goodwill they had spent decades cultivating. And yet again, its leaders were capable of changing course and initiating this incredibly successful multi- decade charm offensive. So I think it's always important to remember that China has in the past been able to pivot out of situations, which seems a lot more dire in terms of its international reputation than the situation that faces today. What I think is surprising to a lot of China watches, is that that kind of pivot hasn't happened yet under Xi. We've had now a decade of what was originally called the new assertiveness under Chinese foreign policy. I guess it's not so new anymore. And there's plenty of evidence from polling of Western societies, from the hostility that China now faces in India among the population and the political elite, to the way that it's investment deal with Europe seems to have run adrift after China imposed sanctions on European lawmakers and think tanks. And there's so much evidence now that China's approach is creating a backlash that it really is starting to become puzzling, that there hasn't been a recalibration. But I guess history shows us that the party state is often thinking of things one way, well propaganda points another. And so we'll have to wait and see to see if that recalibration happens.
Mark Wilson: Yeah. Wait and see, exactly. Well, thanks very much for joining us, Pete. So it's been an absolutely fascinating conversation. Excellent book as well. So, any of our listeners out there, I really recommend Peter's book to you if you're interested in any element of Chinese diplomacy or China for that matter. So, Peter, I assume that if listeners wants to find your book it's available in all the usual places, is it?
Peter Martin: Yeah, that's right. So it launched in the US on June the 10th and is out on Kindle in many places already, and hard copies I think will be available internationally, including the UK from August the second.
Mark Wilson: Fantastic. Thanks Peter.
Peter Martin: Cheers.
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