Written by: Zuo Yuning (21-A1)
Designed by: Hao Rui (22-A4)
Introduction: What is Chinese Diplomacy?
What is the first thing you think of when I say ‘Chinese diplomacy’? Well, I guess there are many ways Chinese diplomacy can impress you. Do you recall the phrase ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’, where players from the U.S. and China famously built a friendship and facilitated Nixon’s rapprochement with Mao’s China through a ping-pong match? Does your mind come up with an image of an adorable panda, which seems quite harmless but actually has the strength of a bear? Do you think of a scary dragon, or a scary wolf, that threatens to swallow the entire world and establish Chinese dominance? Well, you aren’t quite far from the reality of Chinese diplomacy at various stages of its history! Let me bring you through it.
Some time ago: China’s opening up and initially benign posture
China used to be a pariah state. It overthrew the ruling Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek which was pro-west, and it was diplomatically isolated from the West. But in 1971, the rapprochement between the US and China finally allowed China to establish diplomatic ties with the West.
After Deng succeeded Mao as China’s supreme leader, he undertook a market liberalisation programme termed ‘reform and opening up’. Since Deng’s China prioritised economic growth, diplomacy was seen as a means to promote a stable international relationship conducive to trade and investment. Therefore, he made sure to stay on friendly terms with western nations with a ‘hide your strength, bide your time’ strategy, where China sought to establish the impression of a ‘peaceful rise’ of China rather than a forceful or destabilising one.
His successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao continued with that principle, and they seemed to achieve tremendous success, as Foreign Direct Investment skyrocketed, and China’s reputation improved tremendously. In 2001, China successfully joined the World Trade Organisation, and in 2008, it hosted the Beijing Olympics for the first time in Chinese history.
But that did not last long. Even at the Beijing Olympics, the nationalism of the Chinese public was already apparent. This nationalism will come to shape the next stage of China’s diplomacy.
Back to the present: Xi Jinping and the new assertive diplomacy.
But what is nationalism? Well, nationalism usually refers to a sentiment of confidence and pride in one’s national identity, and it can be expressed in various ways. When one sings the national anthem, one is expressing their affirmation of the ideals and values of the nation. When citizens defend the culture and heritage of their nation, they demonstrate just how highly they think of the intangible aspects of their nationhood.
As you can probably see, nationalism does not have to be hostile or ‘toxic’. Rather, it is usually a natural and pretty justifiable sense of belonging to the imagined community of one’s nation.
Nonetheless, nationalism can take a dangerous turn. While ‘healthy’ nationalism defends the ‘us’ but respects the ’them’, ‘toxic’ nationalism capitalises on the division of them and us and provokes suspicion, hostility and even outright conflict.
Perhaps this may cause you to start thinking of populist leaders in Europe that have used nationalism to pursue their domestic and foreign policy agenda. However, there is an important distinction to note between European nationalism and Chinese nationalism: while European nationalism is chiefly onset by the 2014 refugee crisis and the following rise of xenophobia, Chinese nationalism has more complex origins. You see, Chinese nationalism is not targeted at a specific group of people, like the Muslims in Europe. Since China has had the historical experience of being the fallen ‘Middle Kingdom’ that came to be bullied by all sorts of foreign entities, like the British during the Opium War and the Japanese during the War of Resistance against Japan (as Chinese people call it), its nationalism possesses a deep sense of insecurity and resentment against the outside world in general. This means that the US, European countries, Japan and even South Korea and the Philippines (the Philippines!) can be a target of hate for Chinese nationalists.
Ironically, the undemocratic Communist government of China has readily adopted a more nationalistic, aggressive foreign policy strategy. Taken from a popular movie about how the Chinese military was able to protect overseas Chinese in troubled lands such as Somalia and Central America, this strategy has been aptly termed ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’.
Since Xi took power, the wolf warrior seems to have become ever more assertive. Chinese diplomats have used strong, uniquely undiplomatic language as they hit back at the West over Hong Kong (Associated Press, 2019), forcefully defended their legacy over Xinjiang (Mai, 2021), spread wild conspiracy theories on Covid (Kinetz, 2021), clashed with Western media at press conferences amidst a war-like atmosphere (Fok, 2021). Such instances are getting more and more prevalent, and an aggressive China has already taken shape.
Conclusion: What about the future?
What about the future, then? Will China become more and more aggressive, or is the present aggressiveness in Chinese diplomacy temporary like the passing flu?
Well, there are a few factors to consider here. China’s decision-making is still heavily dependent on the top ranks of its leadership, but since Xi is widely expected to continue to be the leader, there likely won’t be much change there. Furthermore, the public sentiment toward nationalism only seems to be rising, as the perceived success of the Zero-COVID strategy has boosted Chinese patriotism and nationalism despite significant discontent. China’s economy is going strong, so there is no immediate incentive to back down. Thus, the future may change, but aggressive Chinese diplomacy isn’t going anywhere yet.
Associated Press. (2019, July 29). China blames Hong Kong violence on western forces, defends police. NBCNews.com. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/china-blames-hong-kong-violence-western-forces-defends-police-n1035621
Fok, P. (2021, March 22). Chinese officials stifle, expel foreign journalists for doing their job. PBS. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/chinese-officials-stifle-expel-foreign-journalists-for-doing-their-job
Kinetz, E. (2021, February 15). Anatomy of a conspiracy: With Covid, China took leading role. AP NEWS. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://apnews.com/article/pandemics-beijing-only-on-ap-epidemics-media-122b73e134b780919cc1808f3f6f16e8Mai, J. (2021, April 30). China says Xinjiang sanctions are an ‘industry genocide’ targeting businesses. South China Morning Post. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3131841/china-steps-defence-xinjiang-policies-and-says-sanctions-are