The Man Behind China’s Aggressive New Voice


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On the morning of Monday, November 30, 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was working from his official residence when an aide alerted him to a tweet by a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Morrison was about to end a two-week quarantine after returning from a brief diplomatic visit to Japan, and he spent most of the morning on the phone with Australian wine exporters, discussing Chinese tariffs that had just taken effect. Some percentage as high as 212 – the latest in a growing string of punitive economic measures imposed by Beijing on Australia.

But the tweet posted by a diplomat named Zhao Lijian represents a different kind of aggression. “Shocked by the killing of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers,” he wrote. “We strongly condemn such acts, and call for them to be held accountable.” Attached was a digital depiction of an Australian soldier stopping an Afghan child with a large Australian flag while preparing to slit the boy’s throat. “Don’t be afraid,” the caption read, “we’re coming to bring you peace!” When the tweet appeared online that morning, gasps were heard in Australia’s Parliament House.

Earlier that month, the Inspector General of the Australian Defense Force released the results of a four-year investigation into alleged war crimes committed by elite Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. The investigation, which described a systematic culture of brutality and lawlessness, implicated 25 soldiers in the unlawful killing of 39 civilians and prisoners, most of which occurred in 2012. The report hit the news headlines for weeks and sparked a torturous national resonance. Australia. Seeing then the country’s most heinous sins – already documented by its own government – being armed in a sarcastic tweet from a foreign official was an almost incomprehensible disgrace. A former Australian government official said, “I don’t think you can imagine a communication that would be provocative in Australia and completely insensitive.”

Zhao had already made headlines once in the early days of the pandemic for a tweet in which he framed a conspiracy theory that the virus originated in the United States. “When Did Patient Zero Start in America?” Zhao wrote. “How many people are infected? What are the names of hospitals? It could be the US military that brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make your data public! America wants to give us an explanation!” At the time, the United States State Department summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest the allegation.

But the scope of Zhao’s Afghanistan was different. The tweet eclipsed the war-crime report to become the biggest news story in Australia and the turning point of a second national count – this time on the subject of China. “Never before has there been a moment when the entire national conversation, from the prime minister’s courtyard to the suburban barbecue, was about China’s aggressive, forceful diplomacy,” the former senior government official said. Less than two hours after Zhao’s post, Morrison was giving a live address on television from his residence. He condemned the “really regressive” tweet and asked the Chinese government to apologize. “The Chinese government should be completely ashamed of this post,” Morrison said. “It reduces them in the eyes of the world.”

But Morrison also noted that Australia is ready to negotiate whenever China is ready. “I expect this horrific event to hopefully lead to the sort of reset where this dialogue can be resumed unconditionally,” Morrison said. The triangulation was an implicit acknowledgment of Australia’s tense situation – and how closely China’s bellicose rhetoric was coupled with economic and political pressure.

At the time of the tweet, Australia was under a series of real and threatened Chinese trade sanctions targeting about a dozen goods, including wine, beef, barley, wood, lobster and coal. The government had limited room to maneuver: the Chinese market accounts for 36 percent of Australia’s total exports and, by one estimate, one in 13 Australian jobs. The tariffs on Australian goods were apparently imposed in retaliation for Canberra’s recent efforts to counter China’s influence, such as prohibiting Huawei from building 5G infrastructure in the country, laws against foreign interference in Australian elections and civil society. to pass and call for an independent inquiry. Origin of Coronavirus. Rory Medcalf, head of the College of National Security at the Australian National University and author of “The Indo-Pacific Empire,” said Australia is a diplomatic proving ground for China: a liberal democracy and American ally, despite its middle-power position. , hindering China’s efforts to dominate the region. “China is setting an example of a country that is setting an example of pushing back,” he said.

It would be tempting to dismiss Zhao’s tweets as a one-off provocation and to dismiss Zhao himself as a little player in this geopolitical drama. But in reality his influence has been immense. Despite being almost completely unknown, even in China, until two years ago, Zhao has managed to rapidly and completely change how China communicates with its allies and adversaries. His unbridled style of online rhetoric has spread throughout the Chinese diplomatic corps, replacing the acrid mix of sly diplomatic and sly Communist jargon that has characterized the country’s public statements for decades.

‘I don’t think you can imagine a communication that could be more perfectly shaped to be inflammatory in Australia, and completely insensitive.’

At first, Zhao was on his own seeing Twitter as his personal mentor, while only a handful of other Chinese diplomats were on stage. As his mentors and colleagues at the Foreign Ministry churned out candid statements about “win-win cooperation” and “community of a shared future for mankind”, Zhao attacked opponents with almost brutal glee: China’s The criticisms were “dirty lies,” and one foreign official, with whom Zhao disagreed, was “a man without soul and nationality.”

Zhao’s timing proved to be perfect. As China’s leader, Xi Jinping, pursued a more powerful and confident foreign policy, Zhao was on hand to introduce a new, anarchic tone to Chinese diplomacy – one that proved to complement the president’s approach perfectly. . Online and in the media, Zhao was referred to as the “wolf warrior” diplomat, a nickname derived from a pair of ultranationalist Chinese action films of the same name.

Zhao’s recent ascent through the ranks reflects China’s wide awakening to its own power, a development that has taken decades to build but was sharply accelerated by the pandemic. Today, with the pandemic slowly subsiding and the battle to control what is to come, a new wary world is watching as China finds its voice – one that sounds a lot like Zhao Lijian.

In March 2018, The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China was changed to include “Xi Jinping’s views on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”. Xi Jinping Thought was a codification of all that Xi had achieved since he began his presidency in 2013, and all that he still aimed to achieve. At home, he has consolidated power around his personal leadership, led (and will be rivals) a broad campaign to root out corruption and control every level of society to ensure party supremacy. strengthened.

Equally notable has been Xi’s influence on China’s foreign policy. He doubled the budget of the Ministry of External Affairs during his first term and created new offices and coordinating bodies to centralize and smoothly implement diplomatic initiatives. He has already given more speeches on foreign affairs than any former general secretary in the history of the Communist Party. Xi Jinping’s view on diplomacy – the idea that the international system should have “Chinese characteristics”, with a leadership role for the country – is now China’s guiding diplomatic principle.

Xi’s foreign-policy vision is inextricably linked to his sense of his own role in China’s transformation. “He wants to leave his name on Chinese history,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center. “He compares himself to Mao and Deng. In his narrative, Mao liberated China and Deng made it prosperous. What can he do? The only option left with him is to strengthen it.” For Xi and the rest of the party leadership, the strength goes beyond the traditional hard power to dominate the information space overseas to “spread China’s voice”, a concept that the party It says “discourse power”.

In the wake of the financial crisis, attempts to shape and control foreign discourse on China began. With renewed confidence in the superiority of the China model, the party announced major new investments in April 2009 to increase the global presence of state-run outlets, including launching the English-language version of the party’s nationalist tabloid Global Times. Under Xi, the focus on discourse power has only increased. According to one estimate, China is spending $10 billion annually on innovative ways to reach outside audiences and tilt the debate in China’s favor. Chinese state media has launched an aggressive advertising campaign to increase its presence on Western platforms such as Facebook, where the Global Times, CGTN and Xinhua are some of the fastest growing media outlets, according to a Freedom House report last year. A pro-democracy research and advocacy organization.

With the jump in funding comes a new sordid message. Although there has long been a lingering tension in Chinese government discourse, it represents a departure from long-standing norms in China’s diplomatic messaging. Holding firmly to reconciliation with China in the 1960s and 1970s proved difficult, Henry Kissinger wrote, in part because “Beijing’s diplomacy was so subtle and indirect that it largely took our heads in Washington.” But it was gone.”

Subtlety was sometimes by design. As the Cold War was coming to an end, China found itself facing an overwhelming international backlash for the Tiananmen Square action. Recognizing this as a threat to his plans for modernization, the paramount leader of the post-Mao era, Deng Xiaoping, laid down a proverb to guide the country’s foreign policy. Deng said – “observe calmly, secure your position, keep a calm mind, hide your light and spend your time, maintain a low profile and never claim leadership.”

In an era of American hegemony, Deng’s doctrine served China well abroad – but it received a cold reception at home. Thanks to its tradition of soft-touch diplomacy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has generally been seen as weaker than its more powerful bureaucratic brethren, such as the Ministry of State Security, which exercises power domestically, or the Ministry of Commerce. ministry, which oversees the lucrative industry. On the other hand, the mission of the Ministry of External Affairs — to handle…

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