Hamilton Lugar alumnus Nicholas Atkinson graduated in 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and East Asian Languages and Cultures. Nicholas is also an outstanding graduate of Indiana University’s Chinese Flagship Program. He recently published an article with the leading policy outlet, ‘The Diplomat.‘ In the article, ‘China’s Wolf Warriors Aren’t The Majority of the Pack,’ Nicholas poses the question of whether a handful of individuals, who receive more attention for their provocative posts, represent the broader population of Chinese diplomats.
In the piece, Nicholas highlights the participants by stating, “Commentary critical of the U.S. and other countries has earned Zhao [Lijian] and other Chinese diplomats the moniker ‘wolf warriors’ – diplomats who take an antagonistic stance online to defend China’s reputation and interests.” He goes further to highlight other individuals like Hua Chunying, China’s assistant minister of foreign affairs, and Chen Weihua, China Daily EU Bureau Chief, as frequent examples. Nicholas contextualizes the subject of combative discourse in China over diplomacy in recent events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, specifically on media outlets like Twitter, where several Chinese diplomats have accused Western diplomats of invasions into the Middle East. He notes that these “trolls” are far from the majority.
“Wolf warrior postings make up only a fraction of Chinese diplomats’ overall social media postings,” Nicholas says. “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.”
Nicholas argues the majority of Chinese ambassadors’ tweets are largely positive, wielding three strategic elements: positivity, distraction, and virtue signaling. With positivity, China can use the “whataboutisms” to discredit Western narratives. Nicholas continues that the two forms of distraction either amplify positive coverage from authoritative publications (citing The Lancet, a highly-respected peer-reviewed scientific journal to refute allegations the COVID-19 virus originated in a Wuhan Lab, for example), or produce feel-good stories and positive factoids. He also states that virtue signaling is heavily used, casting China as a responsible hero on the world stage. Although these wolf warriors are a minority, Nicholas notes that their influence is growing.
“Wolf warrior diplomacy may ultimately prove more risky than rewarding for China and its diplomats,” Nicholas says. “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.”
The Hamilton Lugar School’s Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures at Indiana University is dedicated to the study of this rich and diverse region, with courses and expertise ranging from contemporary politics and religion to literature and ancient philosophy.
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