Diplomats returning from overseas postings do not usually receive special attention at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a vast government bureaucracy with thousands of staff, but when Zhao Lijian (趙立堅), a diplomat known for his pugnacious social media presence, finished a posting in Pakistan in August last year, he received an enthusiastic welcome in Beijing.
A group of young admirers at the ministry gathered at his office to cheer his return, two people familiar with the matter said.
That admiration was fueled in part by a Twitter spat he had engaged in a month earlier with Susan Rice, who was national security adviser to former US president Barack Obama. Each accused the other of being “ignorant” and a “disgrace.”
Illustration: Mountain People
Now a ministry spokesman, Zhao has come to represent a new generation of diplomatic hawks in China, challenging the restraint that long characterized the country’s engagement with the world, said a dozen current and former ministry officials and government researchers who spoke with Reuters.
Their emergence has caused a rift with the old foreign policy establishment, amid worries that increasingly assertive rhetoric could put the country on a dangerous collision course with powers like the US, they said.
The shift followed instructions that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) issued diplomats in a memo last year, calling on them to show more “fighting spirit,” two people with direct knowledge of the matter said.
“This is the first time since 1949 that the ‘new hawks’ have the power to reshape China’s diplomatic policy,” said Qin Xiaoying (秦曉鷹), a former director of the Chinese Communist Party international propaganda department and a researcher at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies in Beijing.
Driving the shift is the widespread feeling among many Chinese that the US wants to contain the nation’s rise. Aggressive pushback by diplomats on issues that provoke nationalistic sentiment, like the protests in Hong Kong or the COVID-19 outbreak, has proven popular domestically.
Most people who spoke with reporters for this article declined to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.
In response to a request for comment, the ministry said that Chinese diplomats from all age groups are determined to “resolutely safeguard” national sovereignty and security.
“We will not attack unless we are attacked,” the ministry said, citing a slogan from former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東). “But if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack.”
Zhao, 47, did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for Rice said that she would not be available for comment. The US Department of State did not respond to a request for comment.
Xi gave his instructions about adopting a tougher stance in the face of international challenges, like deteriorating relations with the US, in a handwritten message to diplomats last year, two people with direct knowledge of the matter said.
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) gave the same message to officials attending the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the ministry’s founding, Reuters reported in December last year.
Over the past year, more than 60 Chinese diplomats and diplomatic missions set up Twitter or Facebook accounts, even though both platforms are banned in China, often using them to attack Beijing’s critics around the world.
Zhao last month promoted a conspiracy theory on his personal Twitter account that the US Army had taken COVID-19 to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the pandemic began last year.
US President Donald Trump escalated the spat, infuriating Beijing by repeatedly citing the “Chinese virus.”
The new Chinese assertiveness is a response in part to Washington’s more confrontational stance toward China under Trump, Chinese diplomats said.
“Why can the Americans criticize us constantly and we can’t scold the US? Nobody likes to be educated all the time,” said a diplomat who helped one embassy set up its Twitter account.
Among China’s new Twitter warriors is Zhao’s boss, Hua Chunying (華春瑩), who became the ministry’s top spokeswoman last year and began tweeting last month.
A rising star, Hua spent several weeks last year at the Central Party School, which trains officials destined for promotion.
The Twitter aggression is aimed not only at Washington.
Chinese Ambassador to Brazil Yang Wanming (楊萬明) shared a tweet, later deleted, calling the family of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro “poison” after his son blamed the “Chinese dictatorship” for the pandemic.
The Chinese embassy in Peru criticized Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa for “irresponsible” comments after the 83-year-old said the coronavirus pandemic had “originated in China.”
While the Chinese embassy in Singapore went after former Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Bilahari Kausikan, after he linked the coronavirus outbreak and China’s political system. The article was “smearing China’s political system and the leadership system,” it said.
“These diplomats are not engaging the world with diplomatic language, but they are trying to please the domestic audience,” Qin said. “This is not diplomacy. This is very dangerous.”
Many young diplomats have pushed the Chinese government to take a harder line when dealing with the US, diplomats said.
Last month, the foreign ministry made an unprecedented move by expelling about a dozen journalists at US newspapers.
Some more traditional diplomats have sought to distance themselves from the new tactics, wary of putting China on a collision course with the US.
Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai (崔天凱), a ministry spokesman in the 1990s, said in an interview with Axios on HBO that it would be “crazy” to spread theories about a possible US origin for the coronavirus.
“There is definitely a generational divide,” said Douglas Paal, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan who served on the US National Security Council under former US presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Cui “was and is in the tradition of ‘just the facts,’” Paal said.
Some retired diplomats and researchers at state think tanks, wary of provoking anti-China sentiment globally, have been writing cautionary internal reports, the researchers said.
Some cite the pragmatism of first Chinese minister of foreign affairs Zhou Enlai (周恩來), who sought to make as many friends as possible for the country and avoid making enemies.
Zhou’s spirit of diplomacy was largely adopted by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), whose policy of “biding our time and nurturing our strength” enabled China to keep a low profile internationally while focusing on economic growth.
“The young diplomats are taking control of strategy and want it to be more pugnacious to win domestic public opinion,” said a veteran government researcher who wrote one of the reports.
The younger generation only know a rising China and think this is a law of nature, Kausikan said.
“It sometimes seems as if this new generation feels obliged to have a public quarrel to prove their patriotism,” he said.
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