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Is China trolling the West? By encouraging a global backlash against his own nation, Xi Jinping is playing a deadly game

Is Xi afraid of losing his grip on his people? Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Is Xi afraid of losing his grip on his people? Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


May 28, 2020   6 mins

Who are the baddies these days? Globalisation has been tricky for Hollywood action screenwriters, whose stories need a source of villains that it’s culturally legitimate to hate. In earlier, more nationalistic eras, this role was fulfilled by either Nazis or Russians. But since the end of the Cold War, it’s been increasingly difficult to find an Other to serve as big screen bad guys without insulting potential customers somewhere.

Two recent Chinese films, Wolf Warrior (2015) and Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) suggest that the Chinese movie industry has no such squeamishness about Official Foreign Villains. With the poster tagline “Anyone who offends China, no matter how remote, must be exterminated”, the films depict a muscular Chinese military hero seeing off drug lords and their American mercenaries, bringing life-saving vaccines to Africa and generally showing off superior Chinese technology, competence and morality. In contrast, America is degenerate, weak — or simply absent. As one character says: “Why are you calling the Americans? Where are they? It is a waste of time.”

Discussions of ‘national populism’ in the UK have tended to focus either on the USA, or on European phenomena such as the Rassemblement National in France, the Brexit vote, or the Orbàn regime in Hungary. We hear lots of parallels anxiously drawn with the 1930s. But a variant of the national-populist political settlement has been the norm in China for decades, and enjoys widespread popular support.

Not long ago, most in the West paid little attention to China except as a source of manufactured goods, or possibly of economic competition. The prospect of ideological competition seemed remote. But the Chinese Communist Party has made economic nationalism a central part of its domestic strategy of legitimation since the days of Chairman Mao. When Deng Xiaoping crushed pro-democracy protests in 1979, he dismissed agitators for political changes as lackeys of hostile foreign power.

Until recently, China’s highly nationalistic domestic debate has not been widely remarked-on in the West, the way identitarian nationalist politics might be in – say – Austria. The Western consensus at the turn of the century was that WTO accession would result in moves toward liberal democracy, interdependence and mutual understanding. More recent popular discussion has focused on China’s growing economic heft as a matter for international concern, while her internal political discourse seemed only of interest to scholars and political wonks.

But in recent months, official Chinese mouthpieces have embarked on a change of tack in communications terms that has become known as ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy. This new approach looks less like the soft-spoken approach typically understood as ‘diplomatic’ than a kind of geopolitical trolling. Often conducted in English, via social media, it involves highly-placed Chinese officials posting provocative challenges to the global liberal order, and particularly to American foreign policy.

One example that cut through in Britain, well beyond wonk-land, came from Zhao Lijian, the deputy director of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department, who insinuated in March that the US military might be responsible for the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan. When asked about Senator Pompeo’s retort that the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, Zhao said: “This US politician has been a lying blabbermouth. It’s a waste of time to comment on his fabrication.”

Zhao regularly takes to Twitter to upbraid the US for offences such as ‘interfering in Chinese interests’, ‘smears’ and ‘talking nonsense’. In terms of reach, Zhao may still be a minnow in the global shitposting stakes, but replies to his tweets attest to the fact that a growing number of patriotic Westerners hate-follow him and respond to his statements with outrage. And Zhao is not a lone wolf (warrior): the newly combative foreign policy tone is increasingly echoed throughout Chinese-influenced media.

South China Morning Post’s chief news editor, Yonden Lhatoo, recently wrote about ‘belligerent’ Mike Pompeo, “neck pouch inflating in self-righteous indignation as he effectively warns China ‘you dare not do this and you dare not say that’ [
] because only Washington, apparently, has the authority to decide which parts of China can be subject to national security laws, if at all.” China’s state tabloid, the Global Times, recently mocked Western powers’ “hysterical hooligan style diplomacy”, which they described as a defensive response to waning dignity and reach.

This seemingly methodical effort to destroy some decades’ worth of work building soft power have puzzled many. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that China’s change of tone is deliberate. The Chinese regime exerts tight control over its communications, and Zhao Lijian is close to President Xi. He remains popular with the new generation of foreign policy hawks in Beijing, and appears to be carrying out the instructions given by Xi to show more ‘fighting spirit’ in foreign relations.

Geopolitical commentator Peter Zeihan argues that the new direction aims to whip up a global backlash against China, in order to head off dawning domestic unrest. The Chinese Communist Party’s contract with those it governs has been straightforward: absolute control in return for stratospheric growth and ever-increasing prosperity. But as the global economy teeters on the brink of the most brutal recession in a century, China’s — predicated on bottomless lending to state-backed enterprises in order to drive ever-increasing shipments of consumer products to other countries — may face trouble.

If double-digit Chinese growth ends, so does the current Chinese social contract. Fomenting mass domestic anger toward the West via a kind of state-sponsored accelerationism would create an external enemy, Zeihan argues, and divert resentment that might otherwise be directed at the CCP.

If this is the plan, it’s working. Those who remain committed to the liberal international order were still banging the drum at the beginning of May for engagement with the aim of Westernising Chinese governance. After a few weeks of Wolf Warrior, though, even the most obdurate liberal-internationalist believers in ‘engage, don’t alienate’ are beginning to use words like ‘bullying’ in connection with China.

The favoured news outlets of the identitarian Right now bristle with China stories. The cumulative effect of these is to depict Beijing as a looming, sinister, mendacious dystopian nightmare busy lulling the West into dependency with cheap plastic tat while spreading disease, torturing animals, stealing technological patents and trashing Western industries.

At the elite level, Beijing and Washington have each recently expelled each others’ journalists, amid an escalating war of words about ‘ideological bias’ and ‘fake news’. Building on last year’s tit-for-tat tariff wars, a US bill is on the way that will allow the US to delist NYSE-listed Chinese firms. In the UK, Boris has U-turned on the decision to include Huawei in British 5G networks. Trump is muttering about resuming nuclear testing.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see this escalating. Tribalism is deep-rooted in humans, and it’s not hard to picture both ‘sides’ in the Western culture war uniting with some relief against a common outgroup. And whether it’s locking up a million Uighur Muslims in ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang; increasingly blatant disregard for the Sino-British Joint Declaration; suborning British universities; state-backed industrial espionage; ignoring US sanctions on Iran; the coronavirus cover-up; or — as of this week — sabre-rattling along the border with India — there is plenty about the way a newly self-confident China engages with the world that is frankly unnerving.

For Westerners in search of an Other they can criticise without getting immediately cancelled for racism, China offers plenty to work with. Commentators are getting stuck in, with a growing number of voices now accusing any media outlet that echoes or doesn’t aggressively counter the Chinese line on, well, anything of swallowing Chinese propaganda.

We face a perilous path forward. On the one hand, it’s not unreasonable to be wary of a vocally nationalistic emerging superpower with a totalitarian approach to governance and frequently-expressed ambitions to replace the US as global hegemon. But on the other, if this emerging superpower is intentionally encouraging a global backlash against itself, for internal political purposes, then obliging them by swelling the chorus of reflexive China-haters may not be the best course of action.

First and foremost (and regardless of which ‘side’ is most responsible for driving the rise in tension) we must all do our part to ensure Chinese-heritage people in the West do not become innocent victims of escalating geopolitical divisions. But while we must hold on to our values by resisting emerging forms of anti-Chinese racism, it doesn’t follow that we must also cling to the Clinton-era delusion of a historically inevitable liberal-democratic world order.

On Monday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the US of risking a new Cold War over coronavirus. But as Maajid Nawaz recently suggested in these pages, that Cold War is already here. Geopolitics is sliding inexorably away from any prospect of a ‘rules-based international order’ toward something more multipolar. The wisest response is not to fan the flames of confrontation but to ignore ‘wolf warrior’ provocations and Trumpian rhetoric alike, while methodically working to decouple from strategic dependency on China in key industries.

A new Cold War is upon us. We must recognise this and act accordingly. But we must also resist the temptation to let it get hotter.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
4 years ago

It is about time the west woke up to the reality of Communist China. The involvement of China in business, universities, manufacturing everything to supply to the west, communications etc. etc. is an unparalleled disaster. The desperate wooing of China by Cameron and Osborne was a political mistake of epic proportions. They should at least have been aware that the British Empire began with trade, why did they think that China wanted to be involved in everything, altruism?

The best thing the west can do is start manufacturing again and the public must stop expecting to buy everything at rock bottom prices to throw away the following week. Apparently we have enough clothes to last for the next six generations. We should make them last at least one generation until we start manufacturing what we need. Also, the universities and public schools need to stop taking money from China.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Giulia Khawaja

Absolutely correct, this Chinese Death Flu has been an apposite warning as to the to toxic menace the CCP represents.
Although it is too late to protect our theatre allies, to whit Taiwan, S.Korea, Japan, etc, we (the US) still has enough nuclear muscle to blow China off the face of the planet without suffering a single nuclear strike on the CONUS.
This inestimable advantage will only last for ‘at worst’ five years. So, as the Romans said, “Prepare for War”.
This may sound bleak, but given the nature of the CCP no other solution is feasible. Our rampant greed and bovine gullibility have led us to this nightmare scenario, but it’s far too late to avert the Darwinian solution to this problem. Our children will never forgive us, if we fail.
Vae victis.

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
4 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Surely though, a nuclear strike would poison the atmosphere for all of us?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Giulia Khawaja

No, not if done properly. Put plainly the ‘fireball must not touch the ground’. In other words all weapons released will ‘hopefully’ be Airbursts.
They are incidentally far more effective when detonated high above the target area.
Off course I don’t imagine many will have to used to topple the CCP.
Regrettably their limited response will be to attack ‘our’ Allies, who frankly cannot be adequately defended even now. Unfortunately the CCP is unlikely to be bothered whether their weapons are Air or Ground bursts, thus there will be a considerable radiation hazard, but not an apocalyptic one.
The solution is to overthrow the CCP before this scenario becomes inevitable. As the Romans said so appositely :
“If you wish for peace prepare for war”.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
4 years ago

A balanced view urging restraint and reflection confronted with a propaganda war being waged by a totalitarian one-party state, which also now steps up its long-held plan to fully integrate Hong Kong and subsume Taiwan. It is a shame that so many in Western countries haven fallen so easily in line with the CCP narrative that they are the victims of US “xenophobia” and Trumpian power plays. Nicely played, Xi!

Shane Dunworth-crompton
Shane Dunworth-crompton
4 years ago

Very true. Many of my European friends – Italian mainly- are of the view China is a benign force and Belt and Road a “green initiative” to be welcomed!

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

How idiotic of the Italians. You may have thought that after their two great contributions to 20th century civilisation, namely the Mafia and Benito Mussolini, they might pipe down.
No chance, sadly. How deranged can they be?

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
4 years ago

I’ve heard that the Germans are very reluctant to fall out with the Chinese as they export a lot of their goods to them.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Giulia Khawaja

How typically German, always on the ‘wrong side’ of History.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
4 years ago
Reply to  Giulia Khawaja

Perhaps they could send them to us instead, allowing us to stop importing from China.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
4 years ago

The Italians might think differently, now that most of their grannies have been murdered by a Chinese laboratory.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Excellent.

davidlcrs
davidlcrs
4 years ago

A good balance, but I think things have already changed. Well meaning leaders tried to balance Germany and the USSR in the past. That ended badly.
We need to look at history, learn, understand China’s history, and do better.
We have many potential allies in Asia from India to the Philippines. We need to support and nurture them including with economic help by sourcing manufactured goods from them.
You are right about not scapegoating Chinese people who live in the West. They should be supported as Soviet dissidents were.

Shane Dunworth-crompton
Shane Dunworth-crompton
4 years ago
Reply to  davidlcrs

Agree with everything you say here. I was born in HK to Aussie parents & have many HK Chinese friends, a couple of mainland ones too who left China a long time again. Problem for these Chinese expats is very often they get associated with more recent Chinese immigrants who support CCP. Loudly. And are often offensive to Australia and its politics. How to deal with these Chinese living abroad? My Chinese friends here are vehemently against CCP- that’s why they left China- but perhaps could be more forthcoming with their support For their adopted new homeland and critical of CCP

Viv Evans
Viv Evans
4 years ago

Some good points in this essay, but some niggles. What, for example are these: “The favoured news outlets of the identitarian Right”? Names would have been helpful!
As for the conclusions that ‘we’ ought to disregard the Chinese ‘wolf warriors’ so as not to make this cold war hotter: hm. Isn’t that playing right into their hands, showing them that The West is weak and not even ‘there’?

Shane Dunworth-crompton
Shane Dunworth-crompton
4 years ago
Reply to  Viv Evans

Agree with you Viv. The West must stand together To defend their way of life. Again. CCP has been very deft at sneaking into many of our biggest institutions especially higher education and communications. We need to be aware and start shutting down such organizations as Confucius Institutes and start sanctions. Read Aussie reports on extent of Chinese infiltration of its institutions and politics.

Dig Chris
Dig Chris
4 years ago

This is an excellent article but I NEARLY STOPPED READING IT early on when you propounded ‘Discussions of ‘national populism’ in the UK have tended to focus either on the USA, or…the Rassemblement National in France, the Brexit vote, or the Orbàn regime in Hungary’. I felt that you were blindly lumping a 17.2M majority vote with other political foreign minority political parties. Brexit in the UK was ALL about the UK population realising they were no longer able to directly vote for the people who made rules that govern them. You seemed to use the term ‘national populism’ in a sweepingly derisory tone that implies something is not as it should be.
Moving on, I would suggest that the core of your excellent article rests on the basis that Governing Power in the West is primarily decided by people being able to democratically choose who they think can give them what they want…while Governing Power in China is primarily decided by whoever gets control then promising an ever-increasing prosperity in return for total obedience by the people.
Your final paragraph is salient ‘The wisest response is…methodically working to decouple from strategic dependency on China in key industries. Well said!

rayffoulkes
rayffoulkes
4 years ago

…and what about Trump, etc., etc?

peter.kimble90
peter.kimble90
4 years ago

Great to read your discussion. The West has been too self indulgent for decades. Has it taken Covid 19 to wake us up. In the 70s and 80s China was already expanding it’s influence in Africa via loans and building railroads and other infrastructure. They were not in Africa for the Africans! The world bleated weekly as China spread it’s wings in The Spratleys. Globalisation was a good ideal to uplift the poorest but we have become too dependent on China’s cheap products and negated Western Based industries through greed and paying CEO’s many hundreds of times more than the average wage. Legal but morally bankrupt. Wake up before we doom ourselves.

Luke Lea
Luke Lea
4 years ago

Interesting. My own private worry when it comes to China has to do with what happens when the current generation of Chinese workers who are approaching retirement start to withdraw their retirement savings from the state-owned banking system, upon which they are counting for their care in old age now that, thanks to CCP’s one-child policy, they can no longer count on their children to look after them as in the past.

The problem is that those savings have been used to finance inefficient state enterprises and decades of mammoth infrastructure projects, none of which seems likely to pay back the loans extended to them but that nevertheless were deemed necessary in order to keep the populace fully employed. In other words, their life savings have been squandered, which means that the regime will have little choice but to start printing money, thereby debasing the currency along with retirees quality of life going forward.

Meanwhile there are tens of millions of young Chinese males of marriageable age with no prospects of finding a bride, again thanks to the one-child policy and the decades-long preference for males over females.

Where this all leads is anyone’s guess, but I would be particularly worried if I were a country directly abutting Chinese borders, since aggression over land has by far the greatest requirement for manpower, at least in the short-run.

One should also look out for a mammoth ship building program on a scale never seen in history before now, again for the purpose of maintaining full employment at all costs.

How it all ends is anybody’s guess.

Paul Guinnessy
Paul Guinnessy
4 years ago

Thank you for the thoughtful piece. One minor thing. It was 1989, not 1979 that dissent was crushed (if it was Tiananmen Sq protests you were referring to).

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 years ago

Thank you for another thought-provoking article, Mary. Yes the new Cold War is indeed already here. We should go easy on the aggressive rhetoric but ramp up the practical steps to counter Chinese influence.
In the long run, we have to choose sides. In fifty years time, we will either be living in a country that looks rather like China or one that looks rather like the USA.

Dig Chris
Dig Chris
4 years ago

This is an excellent article but I NEARLY STOPPED READING IT early on when you propounded ‘Discussions of ‘national populism’ in the UK have tended to focus either on the USA, or…the Rassemblement National in France, the Brexit vote, or the Orbàn regime in Hungary’. I felt that you were blindly lumping a 17.2M majority vote with other political foreign minority political parties. Brexit in the UK was ALL about the UK population realising they were no longer able to directly vote for the people who made rules that govern them. You seemed to use the term ‘national populism’ in a sweepingly derisory tone that implies something is not as it should be.
Moving on, I would suggest that the core of your excellent article rests on the basis that Governing Power in the West is primarily decided by people being able to democratically choose who they think can give them what they want…while Governing Power in China is primarily decided by whoever gets control then promising an ever-increasing prosperity in return for total obedience by the people.
Your final paragraph is salient ‘The wisest response is…methodically working to decouple from strategic dependency on China in key industries. Well said!

John Geste
John Geste
4 years ago

Dear Mary Harrington, and all who wish to speak accurately, you should address Xi as CHAIRMAN XI, not president. His chairmanship of the communist party is his primary role, and China actually has no president. Here is a link to a Slate article that explains it.
https://slate.com/news-and-

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
4 years ago
Reply to  John Geste

Does it matter and is Xi listening to anything coming from the west?

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
4 years ago
Reply to  John Geste

Never trust a man whose name is a Roman numeral.

Tony Reardon
Tony Reardon
4 years ago

Of course people should not be physically attacked. Individuals should not be attacked or threatened for whatever reason ““ not for their appearance, not for what they wear and not for expressing political opinions. However, this fear of a backlash against innocent people has been trotted out on various occasions to reverse the obvious community outrage over, say a bombing, and to divert very real concerns. The Chinese state behaviour is aggressive and belligerent and, quite rightly, needs to be responded to in no uncertain terms. The behaviour of a few idiots should not be an excuse to mute such a response.

John Geste
John Geste
4 years ago

Ms. Harrington, Excellent job of providing links to appropriate & supportive material. All readers & commenters, I encourage you to follow her links; they’ve enriched my knowledge of China condiderably.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago

Correct, ‘the drum begins to beat’. We have five years at worse before the CCP has some sort of parity in nuclear weapons and delivery systems. They will have no hesitation in using them, particularly if they are already is some form of industrial meltdown.
This is normal human interaction, has been since we left the Neanderthal Valley. For our children and grandchildren’s sake we must be ready to strike decisively. There will be no second chance.
Vae victis.

John Broomfield
John Broomfield
4 years ago

We need a lot more reporting on the CCP. How is it organized? How much money does it have? Does Xi worry more about the CCP than the Chinese. Does it have any will or plans to reform?

CYRIL NAMMOCK
CYRIL NAMMOCK
3 years ago

Allowing the PRC into the WTO was an historic mistake, which the Organisation was warned against making.

alberto.menoni
alberto.menoni
4 years ago

The delusion of a historically inevitable liberal-democratic world order, is well, just faith, religion. There’s nothing in it that can be traced in any way to first principles (physics). We may be sliding into another religious war.

Instead we should be building a global governance, respectful of whatever internal organization system each country ends up with, that would allow us to deal with the risks of human race extintion by global warming, nuclear war, bio/genetic warfare, and superintelligence.

David George
David George
4 years ago
Reply to  alberto.menoni

Another useful idiot.
Global warming etc. is the perfect justification for global governance.
Why else do you think we are being drowned in a sea of emotionally charged propaganda aimed at creating a fearful, timorous population of easily led fools.