May 28, 2020

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.”

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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.