When two Canadian citizens were ransomed by Beijing two years ago, it first exposed us to the geopolitical realities of China’s hostage diplomacy.
Now, all Canadians are being held hostage to China’s so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy,” a new psychological reality personified by its envoys abroad.
The old, understated diplomacy personified by visionary leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai — talk softly over chopsticks, deftly wining and dining the likes of Pierre Trudeau and Richard Nixon — has now been replaced by the big stick.
Wolf Warrior diplomacy is inspired by a wildly popular action movie franchise of the same name. Released in 2017, “Wolf Warrior 2” became a top grossing film, thrilling Chinese audiences — and, apparently, ambassadors — with a storyline showing People’s Liberation Army soldiers rescuing Chinese civilians trapped in an African country.
Now real life diplomacy has become performance art, imitating, in turn, cinematic art. Off-screen, it’s not a good look in the real world.
These days, all the world’s a stage for the Middle Kingdom. This week, Ottawa served as centre stage for China’s ambassador Cong Peiwu, who publicly pilloried Canada for indulging in “megaphone diplomacy” while perpetrating “lies of the century” against his country.
It was a repeat performance by the ambassador, who has turned Wolf Warrior diplomacy into a form of prowling and howling against Canada. From its sprawling embassy compound in Ottawa — a former convent where spiritual contemplation once prevailed — Chinese envoys regularly summon the Canadian media for undiplomatic harangues of reporters and their readers.
Cong’s predecessor as ambassador, Lu Shaye, pioneered the tactic by famously accusing Canada of “white supremacy” over the 2018 detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, when U.S. authorities invoked an extradition treaty. With Canada caught in a standoff between two superpowers, Beijing retaliated not against Washington but the softer target in Ottawa.
China detained career diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor — the so-called “two Michaels” — on trumped up espionage charges without any evidence. It then offered them up as a quid pro quo if we quietly acquiesced on the Huawei affair by freeing Meng from America’s clutches, assuming we could short circuit our own legal processes with the same caprice practised in China.
In the aftermath, Canada’s has been forging alliances with other aggrieved countries that have felt the sting of China’s aggressive tactics. It culminated with a declaration last month against “coercive diplomacy” that, while not citing China by name, targeted the tactic that Beijing has deployed against one country after another.
With the last-minute signature of the Philippines, 58 countries and the European Union have signed on, with but one defection (Ghana demurred after being dissuaded by Beijing, which is precisely how coercive diplomacy is practised). By diplomatic standards, it was an impressive feat of multilateralism choreographed by Canada, which appears to have provoked China’s ire — hence the ambassador’s bitter rhetoric about our “megaphone diplomacy.”
In diplomatic parlance, a megaphone is hardly an insult, conveying as it does the metaphor of a soft-spoken middle power amplifying its voice and spreading its message to elicit a multilateral response. It is pushback against Beijing’s bully-boy tactics around the world and across China — where the people of Xinjiang , Tibet and Hong Kong feel the sting of Chinese rule, not merely its rhetoric.
By any name — hostage diplomacy, coercive diplomacy, Wolf Warrior diplomacy — it is a far cry from the quiet diplomacy of China’s paramount leader of old, Deng Xiaoping, who argued in the 1980s: “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.”
I attended university in Canada with a savvy Chinese student who later joined their diplomatic corps, and years later joined foreign correspondents on a (paid) trip down the Yangtze Three Gorges — before the deluge, as it were — with senior officials who had also studied here. I don’t doubt that their foreign ministry is divided between today’s generation of Wolf Warriors and the old guard who still defend their country’s deeds and misdeeds, as diplomats do, without hurting their own cause.
The quaint old foreign ministry vocabulary, in which China repeatedly swore off “hegemony,” has given way to the “fighting spirit” that China’s current president, Xi Jinping, demands of his diplomats. Which is why Lu, the former ambassador to Ottawa, was rewarded for his hostile rhetoric with a 2019 promotion to Paris.
Echoing the official line last year, the state-run Global Times tabloid sang the praises of China’s Wolf Warrior diplomats for standing up to “hysterical hooligan style diplomacy” in the West. But when diplomacy panders to domestic and nationalistic impulses, foreign policy pays the price.
When the diplomat corps embodies the tactics of celluloid soldiers, inspired by patriotic deeds, escalation is inevitable. Unlike in the movies, a war of words in international relations rarely follows a pre-written script and too often goes off the rails.
Empowered by its economic muscle, boasting the world’s second biggest GDP — purveyor of PPEs to the world and lender of last resort to indebted countries — China under Xi has resolved to stand up and push back against Western criticism. But coercive diplomacy invites retaliation and escalation from countries such as Canada, Australia, India, America, Britain, Sweden and many others that are not pushovers when their citizens are taken hostage or otherwise abused.
We will one day get the two Michaels back, though the delay to date has been unconscionable and the date is uncertain. The only certainty is that it will take China far longer to win back its reputation as a reliable partner in the unpredictable realm of international relations.
Economic power is a formidable force, quantifiable in GDP and statistical charts. But soft power is a more ephemeral force that, once squandered, is not easily salvaged.
After working for so many decades to undo the humiliation of colonization, China has become the aggressor and the transgressor. The problem with China rising, and the Wolf Warriors howling, is that pride often presages the fall.