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18 January 2023

China’s new foreign minister and the taming of “wolf warrior” diplomacy

A former ambassador to the US, Qin Gang has a ferocious reputation. Who is he, and what does his rise reveal about Beijing power politics?

By Katie Stallard

Early in his diplomatic career, Qin Gang established a reputation as a tough talker who could be distinctly undiplomatic. During two lengthy stints as a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing between 2005 and 2014, Qin was known to scold journalists at press conferences, asking one reporter whether he was a “mature adult” and warning others not to “report based on your delusions”. His rise since – from trusted aide to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to ambassador to the US and then, as of December 2022, foreign minister – says much about the evolution of the country’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.

Qin earned the nickname “Warrior Gang” at the foreign ministry, Yun Sun, the director of the China programme at the Washington DC-based Stimson Center think tank, told me. Qin’s combative stance was an early example of what came to be known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy – named after an action movie franchise. While Deng Xiaoping had urged officials in 1990 to “hide our capacities and bide our time” with a low profile in international relations, that approach changed with China’s growing economic clout in the 2000s.

[See also: What China’s devastating Covid outbreak means for the rest of the world]

“For a long time among the Chinese public, there was a perception that Chinese diplomats were too passive, that they didn’t defend China rigorously enough,” said Peter Martin, author of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. Some citizens sent calcium tablets to the foreign ministry, urging diplomats to strengthen their spines. “That started to shift under Hu Jintao [general secretary from 2002 to 2012],” Martin explained. After Xi came to power in 2012, he demanded that China be treated with respect as the world’s second-largest economy and told his diplomats to show “fighting spirit”.

Born in Tianjin, near Beijing, in 1966 – the same year Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution began – Qin seems to have aspired to a career in diplomacy at an early stage. He studied international politics at the foreign ministry’s Institute of International Relations, and got his first job, at 22, in the bureau for diplomatic missions in Beijing, clipping news articles. He joined the foreign ministry in 1992, in the department of west European affairs, and completed three postings to the UK embassy, an experience he likened to winning the lottery.

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While little is known about his personal life beyond that he is married with a son (such a dearth of facts is not unusual in China’s opaque political system), Qin’s professional career tracks the country’s re-emergence as a major power. Aged ten when Chairman Mao died in 1976, he joined the foreign ministry as the height of China’s “reform and opening up” period, as the country was pursuing closer relations with the West and membership of the World Trade Organisation (granted in 2001). He was a spokesman in Beijing during the global financial crisis in 2008, which saw China recover faster than the US and question the future of the Western-dominated financial system.

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But it was under Xi that Qin rose to higher office. He became head of Xi’s protocol department in 2014, where he accompanied the leader on trips overseas and is said to have paid great attention to ensuring Xi was afforded sufficient respect. As relations with the US deteriorated in subsequent years, Qin’s rise continued. He became vice-minister of foreign affairs in 2018 and ambassador to Washington in 2021, where he served for 17 months before being named foreign minister on 30 December 2022. At 56, he is one of the youngest people ever to hold the post.

While Qin’s reputation as a wolf warrior preceded his arrival in Washington, his approach as ambassador was more restrained. With Joe Biden in the White House, both countries hoped to stabilise relations and slow an apparent spiral towards open confrontation. “He was here to make nice and mend ties, not to do more damage,” said Yun Sun.

Yet there was a limit to how much of a difference he could make, given the parlous state of relations. Qin’s access to senior US officials was reportedly limited, with few authorised to meet him (the White House has denied this). So Qin focused on public diplomacy instead, posting photos on Twitter of meetings with Elon Musk, driving a tractor on a visit to farms in Iowa, and throwing the first pitch at a St Louis Cardinals baseball game. Still, American views of China darkened during his posting. According to the Pew Research Center, 82 per cent of Americans surveyed said they had an unfavourable opinion of China in 2022. This trend was repeated across the democratic world, fuelled by China’s heavy-handed approach to territorial and trade disputes. The demand that diplomats show “fighting spirit” has done little to win China friends abroad.

[See also: China Under Xi – a special World Review podcast mini-series]

There are signs that the worst excesses of wolf warrior diplomacy are being tamed. During a politburo study session in May 2021, Xi called for efforts to promote a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” image of China. In early January, Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman and another notorious wolf warrior, was sidelined – transferred to a department that handles land and maritime borders.

“I think there is a recognition, from the top leadership down, that some of the more extreme examples of wolf warrior diplomacy were damaging China’s international reputation and there was a need for some kind of tactical recalibration,” Martin said. We should not expect its diplomats to adopt a conciliatory tone, but China seems to be trying to balance a robust defence of national interests with outreach to trading partners, as it seeks to rebuild economic growth after the self-imposed isolation of its “zero Covid” policy.

Despite his “Warrior Gang” notoriety, Qin’s appointment fits this new approach. In previous roles, he had “a reputation among European diplomats as someone who was very capable of acting like a wolf warrior in private, dressing down officials and using very assertive language about China’s place in the world,” Martin said. But “he is capable of doing the charm-offensive thing too – addressing think tank audiences, working diplomatic receptions… Xi needs someone like that in charge of China’s diplomatic apparatus”.

Yun Sun said that Qin’s recent experience in the US could also help to steady relations between the two powers. “Qin’s tenure as the ambassador in Washington was clearly aimed at familiarising him with the key issues and personnel in the bilateral relationship,” Sun said. “It also shows Xi wants someone he knows and trusts to handle foreign relations.”

This won’t mean the end of Chinese diplomats berating their foreign counterparts in public, however. As China’s economic prospects look less assured, Xi won’t hesitate to stoke nationalism to redirect domestic discontent towards external enemies. He will not waver in his conviction that the days of hiding and biding are over; that China is a great power once again and must be treated as such.

“There is a refrain that I heard several times in Beijing,” Martin said: “You can’t hide an elephant. In other words, China’s international status has now reached a point where it’s inappropriate, and maybe impossible, for it to have a low-key approach to diplomacy.”

Qin has put this more colourfully, answering a question about increasing defence budgets in 2014 by scoffing that China was “not just a boy scout with a red-tasselled gun”. Besides, he continued, “even a boy scout grows bigger and bigger every year”. Both Beijing’s sense of its status in the world and Qin’s seniority have only increased since. If there is any change to China’s foreign policy in the months ahead, it will be more in style than in substance. An early test will come when the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, meets Qin in Beijing in early February. China’s diplomats may try to avoid picking fights, but that doesn’t mean they have any intention of backing down.

[See also: The global affairs forecast for 2023: Crisis in Taiwan and a second run for Joe Biden]

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis