A handful of individuals get the most attention for their provocative posts. But do they actually represent the broader population of Chinese diplomats?
“Disinformation magician,” Zhao Lijian, deputy director of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department, tweeted on February 16, with an image implying that U.S. predictions of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine were empty warmongering. Once the invasion actually materialized, Zhao pivoted to deflecting criticisms of Russia by accusing the United States of war crimes in the Middle East and stealing Afghan assets.
Commentary critical of the U.S. and other countries has earned Zhao and other Chinese diplomats the moniker “wolf warriors” – diplomats who take an antagonistic stance online to defend China’s reputation and interests.
Critiques of China’s attention-grabbing wolf warriors, now the subject of an ever-growing list of articles and books, typically feature provocative tweets by its most prominent practitioners. Apart from Zhao Lijian, individuals like Hua Chunying, China’s assistant minister of foreign affairs, and Chen Weihua, the China Daily EU Bureau Chief, have shocked international audiences with assertive, angry posts trolling Western diplomats and democratic political systems. But does this handful of individuals actually represent the broader population of Chinese diplomats?
Systematic analysis reveals that observers overstate wolf warriors’ bark for their bite, thereby mischaracterizing China’s “Twitter diplomacy” as fundamentally combative. Put simply, wolf warriors aren’t the majority of the pack – and their “howls” are in fact few and far between. Instead, most Chinese diplomats’ Twitter messaging is positive in tone and employs established strategies for managing public opinion within China: positivity, distraction, and virtue signaling.
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To accurately understand the role of social media platforms like Twitter in China’s diplomacy, it is essential to look beyond familiar pundits and analyze all that wolf warriors – and Chinese diplomats more broadly – have to say.
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More Bark Than Bite
Most Chinese officials do not use wolf warrior tactics regularly – or even at all. The majority of Chinese ambassadors are far more likely to post positive messages about good relations with their host country or China’s technological achievements. The few Chinese ambassadors who frequently use wolf warrior rhetoric are primarily stationed in countries with strained ties with the U.S., such as the ambassadors to Venezuela and Iran. Frequent focus on the same handful of bombastic individuals overlooks the far greater number of Chinese officials whose online demeanor is better characterized as positive, even friendly and helpful to citizens facing difficulties in the countries where they are stationed.
Equally importantly, wolf warrior postings make up only a fraction of Chinese diplomats’ overall social media postings. According to an analysis of more than 13,000 Tweets by Chinese ambassadors before and after the COVID-19 outbreak between June 2019 to July 2020, for example, only 5 percent contained angry, wolf warrior-style rhetoric. Furthermore, Chinese ambassadors rarely authored angry tweets themselves; instead, many retweeted posts by the most prominent “wolf warriors” like Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian. And even among the few ambassadors who engaged in wolf warrior rhetoric, the vast majority of their tweets were neither angry or combative in tone.
So what then is the nature of Chinese ambassadors’ “Twitter diplomacy”?
Positivity, Distraction, and Virtue Signaling
The vast majority of Chinese ambassadors’ tweets are positive in tone and seek to burnish China’s image. This positivity distinguishes China’s social media diplomacy from misinformation campaigns by other authoritarian states. Analyses of the Kremlin’s information manipulation playbook, for instance, find that it uses conflicting narratives and “whataboutism” to obscure facts on the ground, deflect criticism, and discredit Western narratives. Chinese ambassadors’ diplomatic messaging on social media exhibits a different approach.
Close analysis reveals that Chinese ambassadors are applying existing domestic media strategies to craft narratives of China’s governance, foreign policy, and global leadership for an international audience. For example, ambassadors use the strategy of distraction to redirect attention from critical narratives of Chinese policy positions through coordinated propaganda campaigns. Domestically, Chinese officials roll out coordinated astroturfing campaigns or flood state media with preferred takes to saturate online spaces and thereby dilute competing information.
Chinese ambassadors use two types of posts to distract on Twitter. The first amplifies positive coverage and authoritative voices speaking in China’s favor. To refute claims of a COVID-19 cover up and allegations the virus originated from a Wuhan lab, for example, Chinese officials frequently cited publications like The Lancet, a highly-respected peer-reviewed scientific journal, and officials from international organizations like the WHO. The second type of post features feel-good stories, positive factoids, and personal commentary that distracts from criticisms of China. These posts aim to transform China’s image by pacifying with beauty and charm, not squaring off head-on with critics. For instance, this strategy may involve ambassadors sharing snapshots of beautiful natural scenery and cultural displays in hot-topic places like Xinjiang, Wuhan, or Tibet.
Chinese ambassadors also use virtue signaling to cast China as a responsible hero of the world system. This strategy relies on invoking values of mutual aid and emphasizing China’s contributions to international organizations, thereby portraying China as a benevolent protector of the world and its people. For example, ambassadors frequently peppered their calls for international solidarity against COVID-19 with sayings like “You throw a peach to me; I give you a white jade for friendship.” By stressing multilateralism and a common future for mankind, China portrayed itself as a virtuous protector of international society amid other countries’ chaos and ineptitude.
Wolf Warrior Diplomacy: A Risky Strategy?
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China’s wolf warriors have rapidly earned an infamous reputation that applies to China more broadly. A Pew Research Center poll conducted during the summer of 2020 found that popular perceptions of China had steadily declined in advanced economies since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Yet despite this downward spiral, prominent wolf warriors in China’s diplomatic corps doubled down on antagonism instead of following other ambassadors’ embrace of positivity.
Some ambassadors may be willing to incur public opinion costs abroad to appease a more nationalistic public and party officials back home. Wolf warrior diplomacy has successfully raised the profile of individual Chinese diplomats like Hua Chunying, who grew her online following by 121 percent between March 2020 and October 2020. Although not every follow may be a positive endorsement, it is a sign that ears both at home and abroad are tuning in for political theater.
However, wolf warrior diplomacy may ultimately prove more risky than rewarding for China and its diplomats. Comments by then-Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai in December 2020 and remarks by Xi Jinping during a meeting with the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo in May 2021 suggest that wolf warriors may be falling out of fashion. There is still no shortage of wolf warrior rhetoric circling the web, however, promoting China’s discourse power by criticizing the U.S., from sharing conspiracy theories about the development of biological weapons in Ukraine to emphasizing the U.S. seizure of Afghan assets. The public followings the wolf warriors have created will remain important audiences for China’s broader social media diplomacy efforts and its strategies of positivity, distraction, and virtue signaling.
Such efforts may now face their toughest challenge yet, as China’s diplomatic support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine widens the rift between the image that Chinese nationalists wish to project and what the world is willing to accept. Amid mounting international attention and backlash, it remains to be seen how long and how loudly the few “wolf warriors” in China’s diplomatic pack will continue to howl.