Westerners watch Chinese films

Beijing's rumbling diplomats score at home, but damage China's reputation in the world

Beijing relies on threats, loud words and blackmail in its foreign policy. That makes an impression. However, this is hardly effective.

The EU is imposing sanctions on China for human rights crimes in Xinjiang - Beijing immediately hits back with much tougher sanctions. At the first meeting with the Biden administration, Yang Jiechi, Beijing's top foreign policy official, complained that the US did not represent international public opinion in response to American criticism of the human rights situation in China.

When Switzerland presented a tame China strategy, Ambassador Wang Shihting accused the Federal Council of labeling China with malicious labels that deviate from the basic facts. And a French expert, who repeatedly criticizes China, insults the Beijing embassy in Paris on Twitter as “petty criminals”.

Beijing's wolves howl loudly

These are unusual tones in diplomacy: where formalities are normally upheld and the facade is preserved, China's representatives often ruthlessly use the two-handed sword. These are not slip-ups, they follow a strategy. The question is not whether China is allowed to (of course it is allowed to) or whether China can (obviously yes), but what the purpose is and whether it is effective.

When China's leaders look in the mirror, they see success. China's “wolf warrior diplomacy” in Alaska had impressed the world, wrote the “Global Times”, the international mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, after the meeting of the Chinese and American delegations in Anchorage in March. The arrogant West, led by the US, is no longer entitled to condescend the world's second largest economy.

The term “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” alludes to the Chinese action film “Wolf Warrior 2”, which was a great success in China in 2017 with its nationalistic plot - to put it simply, good Chinese butcher bad Westerners. The term was first applied to Chinese diplomacy in the West. The Chinese audience accepts him with pride, writes the "Global Times": They see the self-confidence and courage of the Chinese diplomats. And that suits a great power well.

Applause at home, dislike abroad

The "Global Times" thus declares an important driver of undiplomatic diplomacy. To a large extent, the target audience is not the big wide world, but the Chinese people. Forty years of rapid, sometimes exuberant economic development have removed the reality in China far from the communist values ​​propagated. These are no longer sufficient as ideology that creates legitimacy. That is why those in power are increasingly relying on nationalism: thanks to the wise leadership of the Communist Party, the Chinese can be proud of their country - this is the message: China is big. China is strong. And this China doesn't put up with anything.

Of course, foreign policy is always domestic policy as well. But one of the tasks of a diplomat is to present his country well in the host state, to win over the local population, elites and politicians. Measured against this claim, Beijing's power diplomacy comes off badly. In many countries, China's reputation is worse than ever. That was the result of a survey by the Pew Research Center last fall in 14 developed countries. The image of China is predominantly negative everywhere. In Australia, Japan and Sweden, more than 80 percent of those surveyed said that they had a bad impression of China.

These three countries were particularly hard hit by the aggressive Chinese foreign policy. For years, Chinese ships have been harassing Japan's coastguards in waters around the Senkaku Islands, which Japan controls but which China calls and claims for itself Diaoyu. The Chinese ambassador in Stockholm is one of the loudest rumblers in the Chinese diplomatic corps; Recently he bluntly threatened a Swedish journalist with consequences for regularly writing about human rights violations in China.

And Beijing introduced punitive tariffs and import bans on Australian products from wine to wood and coal to lobster because Canberra campaigned for an independent investigation into the coronavirus pandemic outbreak. The propaganda is doing its part to reinforce the unflattering image of China. Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times, described Australia as “chewing gum that sticks to the sole of China”.

Perhaps China's rulers believe that they don't care about their reputation. The main thing is that they are feared. In that case, they fail to understand how democratic systems work. A government that has to face up to its people cannot so easily look good on state visits, conclude economic agreements and look the other way when human rights violations occur.

Chinese pressure is bringing politicians across the spectrum closer together: After the Chinese sanctions against EU parliamentarians, 281 members of the German Bundestag signed a declaration of protest. All major parliamentary groups were represented, including the CDU / CSU of the China-friendly Chancellor Angela Merkel.

China revived the quad

At the international level, China's pressure is causing the ranks to close. Australia, Japan, India and the USA have brought the quad back to life after almost ten years of deep sleep. The quad is still a long way from being the Indo-Pacific counterpart of NATO. But the meetings of the four members are taking place at an ever higher level, the joint maneuvers are increasing, and South Korea may still join the association.

Beijing also grapples with a group that has long been its advocate in western countries and that has often opposed the China hawks in the defense establishment: business leaders. Marriott, Mercedes, the American basketball league NBA and, more recently, H&M are just a few examples of companies that have been targeted by the authorities and propaganda for alleged violations of the interests and dignity of China.

In such cases, the storm usually passes after a humiliating apology from the company; the Chinese middle class is too keen to consume western products. But the consequences can be harsh: The South Korean department store chain Lotte had to sell its China business after it got caught up in a political dispute between Beijing and Seoul over a missile defense system in South Korea in 2017.

Such an escalation is likely to remain an exception - the interests on both sides are too great not to tear the economic ties. But which business representative in the West wants to take a position openly for Beijing when he knows that he too can be hit by the ban beam of the CP at any time? Because the Chinese rulers also punish companies for “offenses” by their governments, such as the Australian wine merchants. As a business leader, you prefer to stay under cover.

A less harsh line would be the order of the day

In Europe, the dangers posed by an aggressive China became more aware than in the USA, Japan or Australia. However, China's punitive action against EU parliamentarians and institutions, European China experts and the respected China research institute Merics in March alarmed the EU.

With the massive return coach, Beijing may have undone its greatest recent diplomatic success. When the CAI investment agreement was signed shortly before the end of the year, many observers saw it as a victory for Beijing to tie Europe a little more economically just before the Biden government took office.

But the CAI still has to be ratified by the EU Parliament. That is unlikely in the near future. China has attacked the EU Parliament as an institution, so the parliamentarians cannot simply pretend that nothing has happened, said Reinhard Bütikofer, one of the parliamentarians sanctioned by China. Whether the agreement is really dead, as Bütikofer says, remains to be seen. But the ratification process will be long and arduous, and the outcome will be more open than ever.

Given such costs, it should become clear to the Chinese rulers that their aggressive foreign policy is counterproductive. Of course, China will not revert to its longstanding wait-and-see policy as defined by Deng Xiaoping. Today the country is too powerful for that and the party and state leader Xi Jinping is too self-confident.

But corrections would be appropriate. Otherwise, China will turn half the world against it, with no other choice but to jointly defend itself against the nuisance and threats. If Beijing stubbornly sticks to its "wolf warrior diplomacy", it will become a lonely wolf in the international arena.