Peter Martin on what makes China’s diplomats tick — and so ticked off

Foreign Affairs

“Their first, second, and third audiences are in Beijing, and the U.S. is somewhere way down the list.” Bloomberg correspondent Peter Martin appeared on the Sinica Podcast to discuss his book on the history and purpose of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

On August 29, 1967, amid the early fervor of the Cultural Revolution, diplomats at the Chinese Embassy in London came to blows with British policemen.
Chinese diplomats have historically been known for their public discretion and discipline — but not always. On August 29, 1967, amid the early fervor of the Cultural Revolution, diplomats at the Chinese Embassy in London came to blows with British policemen. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

We don’t have a lot of ways of understanding how the Chinese government is thinking. There are Communist Party journals like Seeking Truth 求是, state media and propaganda organizations like CCTV, commercial propaganda outlets like the Global Times, and what independent journalists, domestic and foreign, can report — although this is very little indeed.

Chinese Communist Party officials who reach any seniority stay away from journalists, scholars, and foreigners. But not diplomats.

China’s Foreign Ministry and its diplomats are some of the few sources of information from the heart of the beast, the belly of Beijing. And while they prefer their meetings highly scripted, they have to deal with unpredictable foreign environments where they must explain Beijing to an often hostile audience.

It’s a really fascinating subject, and Bloomberg journalist Peter Martin, author of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, talked to us all about China’s diplomats in this week’s Sinica Podcast.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

Kaiser Kuo: Peter Martin, welcome to Sinica!

Peter Martin: Thanks so much for having me.

Kaiser: Delighted. Your book, Pete, goes all the way back to the Party’s very early days, and especially Zhou Enlai’s role in shaping the Party’s diplomatic history. And we are going to talk about Zhou Enlai, but before we get to him let’s go back a little bit further and talk about the state of diplomatic infrastructure during the Qing dynasty even before the Opium War, so in the last 18th and early 19th centuries: how it developed also in the final decades, so the last century of the dynasty, the origins of the zongli yamen, this kind of improvised way the Qing had to conduct its foreign affairs and so forth. What were things like for the diplomats back then?

Peter: Basically you think of foreign ministries as a European institution. This is something that developed in 19th century Europe and spread around the world. And so for countries outside of Europe, including Qing China, this was an alien approach to foreign affairs, to have one centralized ministry in charge of dealing with all foreign countries. That was true for the Qing. So you had different departments tasked with dealing with different parts of the world according to their status and the function that they served for the Qing court. It was really only after the second Opium War that you had this proto for a ministry, called the zongli yamen, which was developed. And then it was after the Boxer Protocols that China developed Foreign Ministry in a form that we could recognize today. I think that’s pretty telling actually — the idea that China’s modern diplomatic infrastructure was born out of two of the most humiliating instances in modern Chinese history tells you something about the foundational psychologies that matter there.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. For sure. For sure. We’ll talk about the narrative of national humiliation, which is very key to all of that.

Jeremy Goldkorn: So Pete, a few weeks ago around the time I was finishing your book, a reader sent me an email titled something like, “The Original Wolf Warriors.” And it had some photos taken outside the Chinese embassy in London in 1967 when embassy staff bearing cudgels got into a physical confrontation with British journalists and police. It was a good reminder of why your book title makes sense and made sense even before more recent use of the word, before the term “wolf warrior” was coined. But the person who really shaped the behavior, even of those cudgel-bearing diplomats back then, was actually cuddly old Zhou Enlai, the man who’s often portrayed as the guy who made Maoist China human. And he’s the main character of your book in many ways as you trace the historical underpinnings of Chinese diplomacy and his shaping of the Communist Party’s first generation of diplomats. So he is canonized as the Communist Party’s last “perfect revolutionary.” But could you say a little more about his early life and some of the events or experiences that shaped his thinking on how diplomacy should be managed and conducted?

Peter: Yeah, of course. Zhou was born in the late 19th century to a kind of gentile family that had hit on hard times. He was raised by an aunt who was incredibly devoted and doting towards him. He witnessed China go through this diplomatic and national nadir that we discussed just now. In that environment Zhou was drawn to Marxism. When he studied abroad and lived in Japan, Germany, France, briefly visited England he began to develop Marxist ideas and eventually became one of the earlier members of the Communist Party helping to start a Paris branch for it. Zhou, from that very early period, was intrigued about the need for the party to build international ties and to reach out to the outside world as a source of strength.

Kaiser: We’ll talk a little bit more about what Zhou Enlai’s role was. The early chapters of your book though they focus on this, as we said, the centrality of the narrative of national humiliation and how it really informed and keeps on informing the conception and the practice of diplomacy in China. Not that national humiliation I should remind people was the sole preserve of the Communists. I think it’s good to remember that Chiang Kai-shek himself for 20 years wrote “avenge humiliation” in his diary every single day. It’s a pretty key piece of it. You mentioned that that was part of the formative experience of it — that these events in the 19th century and after the turn of the century with the Boxer Protocols, they happen at the moments of maximal humiliation. How does that go on to shape diplomacy all the way up to the present?

Peter: Yeah, I mean as I mentioned it’s crucial to understanding the institutional foundations of the Foreign Ministry. I think it’s also really important to remember that for a lot of China’s early diplomats, national humiliation was a lived experience. This is something that we’re used to thinking of now as a kind of CCP talking point. An example that jumped out to me was Wu Jianmin who would go on to be China’s ambassador in Paris, as a kid was playing outside the French Embassy in Nanjing and had a dog sit on him for playing out in the streets there. The guy went on to serve in Paris and to go through this process of seeing China gradually and slowly treated like an equal. But I think that left an indelible mark on China’s early diplomats. I think it’s shaped the institutional culture of Chinese diplomacy as well. This idea that you need to be constantly vigilant against even the smallest slights, the smallest dismissals at China’s status has been really, really crucial.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. For sure.

Jeremy: You just were talking about France and de Gaulle said, “Nations don’t have friends, only interests.” But China has long used this “old friend of China” designation, and it still uses it. But it dates all the way back to Yan’an. Can you talk about what friendship has typically meant in China to the Communist Party and what it means now?

Peter: Yeah. I think this is something that I wish more people dealing with China understood. This concept of friendship has a very specific meaning in Chinese foreign relations. The best definition I’ve heard is that it’s someone who the CCP believes will give China the benefit of the doubt in their assessments of the country. So it’s not necessarily someone they consider totally uncritical, but it’s someone who will be given special access, opportunities to interview top leaders, and visit places that the others might not be able to go, in exchange for maybe tempering your message a little bit. So there have been a variety of these figures throughout PRC diplomatic history. One of the most prominent in the early days in the 1930s was the American journalist Edgar Snow. Henry Kissinger has been given the title. Lee Kuan Yew got it. I would argue that some of the influencers who have been sent to Xinjiang recently also probably fall in that broad framework of “friendship diplomacy.”

Kaiser: Sure, sure. For sure. I mean these days we talk a lot about that. Edgar Snow. The old China hands, in various listservs that I’m on, we’ve been talking about him a lot because he’s been held up as the model of what China wants out of a journalist. Now when you look at his later writings on China, say after the Great Leap famine, things like The Other Side of the River and so forth, I can see why anyone would say he looks like a dupe. He should have known better. He clearly didn’t have his eyes open. He knew he was seeing Potemkin Villages. But go back to 1936 when he published Red Star Over China. Is it really fair to judge him then as a useful idiot? As a dupe? Look, I mean I would have written that book. Right? You stick me in Yan’an with all that upswell of patriotism, that spirit of sacrifice. Yan’an looked pretty damn noble back then. What they were doing in stark contrast to what was happening in the Guomindang camp looked pretty darn good. All the romantic revolutionaries were all flocking to it. We didn’t know that the Communist Party was destined to become what it was under Mao later, right?

Peter: I think that’s fair. Snow was captivated by this infectious enthusiasm that many early Chinese revolutionaries had. And a sense of optimism in the West about what Communism might offer for the transformation of human societies. There were western academics and writers who went to the Soviet Union and wrote in glowing terms in similar ways that we now will think of naïve. But maybe it wasn’t quite as clear at the time. I think you can say that of Snow as well. I think if I put my journalist hat on, the fact that Mao was able to go through word by word of the transcripts of what he wrote, and that his experiences were so closely managed, probably should have been warning signs to him. But certainly it wouldn’t be reasonable to have expected him to predict what would transpire in the ’50s and ’60s in that slightly more innocent phase of Communist Party history. The Party hadn’t been through the rectification campaign yet. Mao hadn’t developed his cult of personality at that point. And so it was somewhat of a different beast, but I think there was also an element of Snow seeing what he wanted to see in the Party.

Jeremy: I mean you mentioned — I’m slightly shaking my head because I was just thinking, Pete, you mentioned sending influencers to Xinjiang. I’m not sure if you were talking about these internet influences, but there is a whole generation of little “Snowlets” in China now who are vloggers on YouTube who go to Xinjiang and see only beautiful pastures and happy dancing minorities. Which, I mean, some of them I don’t think they’re stupid, but they’re for some reason slightly gullible I suppose. There’s no reason to think that Edgar Snow was any different.

Kaiser: I’m even more cynical than you about these people. I suspect that they’re just doing it because they’re making money. I can’t believe that they are just so willfully blind to some of the things that even Beijing talks about pretty openly and how unacceptable these things are. Anyway, one of those rare instances where I’m going to be more cynical than Jeremy.

Jeremy: I don’t know. I mean, how much money can they be making? I mean if that’s what they’re doing it for, that’s pretty sad.

Kaiser: It’s something.

Jeremy: Anyhow!

Kaiser: So Peter, your book introduces the reader to quite a number, I mean it’s a manageable number, of important figures in the PRC’s diplomatic history. We’ve talked about Zhou Enlai. But also some of his contemporaries like Wang Jiaxiang and Huang Hua, who was actually Edgar Snow’s translator and later on went on to be foreign minister in the critical years after Zhou’s death. It’s really fascinating. I really enjoy those chapters. Let’s do a quick rundown of the dramatis personae in the book, looking at some of these diplomats, especially in the post-Mao period, and the issues and the circumstances that they had to wrestle with, and their contributions, their diplomatic styles, their political predilections. Maybe we can skip all the way up to the ’80s and start with Qian Qichen, who I think might be a good person to start with. What should we all know about Qian?

Peter: I think the first thing that you should know is that when you ask people in Washington to recall their memories of him, they smile immediately, which is really telling. That is not the case if you ask them to recall the memories of Yang Jiechi. It’s very, very different. Qian was this kind of bright-eyed, smart, witty character who studied in the Soviet Union as a young man, and was very enamored with the system when he first arrived. He went back to visit later and was struck by how the society hadn’t moved on in the way that he might have expected. He rose to prominence in the ’80s and then really became the face of China’s fight back in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre.

Kaiser: Right, right, right. Very important figure.

Jeremy: Another person you could maybe just give us a sketch of is Dai Bingguo, who made people like me probably believe he was foreign minister, but in fact was state counselor. But he played an important role in the sour days of U.S.-China relations in the Hu-Wen Era. He seems to have a fairly good reputation among foreign diplomats. Why is that?

Peter: Dai is one of those stories that belongs to the history of the PRC, where you see an individual with incredible talent who genuinely wouldn’t have risen to such prominence without the Communist Revolution. He was born into absolutely staggering poverty in the south of China. He would walk barefoot to school and to this day he walks with a — I don’t know quite how to describe it but he —

Kaiser: A little bit of a limp.

Peter: Yeah, a little bit of a limp because his feet are slightly disfigured from that experience. His hair never turned fully black until he was into adulthood because of malnutrition. So he has this remarkable story and rose up through the Party in the ’50s and then as a junior diplomat just at the start of the Cultural Revolution. He went on really to be, I would say, the main interlocutor for Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State leading some of those Obama era dialogues, which were designed to introduce some stability into the U.S.-China relationship. He was one of those figures in PRC diplomacy who was capable of taking this tight leash that Chinese diplomats kept on and stretching it a little bit. Taking official talking points and making them more palatable and appealing to his interlocutors. And so he’s another person I would say who tends to evoke quite fond memories when you ask people about him.

Kaiser: I guess next up we have Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, who I think a lot of Americans will be fresh in their minds from the Anchorage Summit. I think both of them played very big roles in the last dozen years or so. Let’s talk about these two. Yang was of course ambassador to the U.S. and the foreign minister. And then took over the leading group on foreign affairs from Dai Bingguo, so he’s a very, very senior diplomat. But he’s also known for some pretty memorable outbursts. There’s quite a few of the tales of diplomatic overreach in your book in which he figures quite prominently. Talk about Yang Jiechi.

Peter: I think that Yang is probably the — if you had to choose one person to personify the Chinese Foreign Ministry, I think it would probably be Yang. One of the arguments I make is that there has been this back and forth between what we now describe as wolf warrior tactics and charm tactics, a different period of the PRC’s history. Yang is equally capable of doing both. He was hand-picked by Zhou Enlai in the 1970s as Zhou was looking for a way to build ties for China and develop expertise in foreign affairs in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. He was sent off to study in England. He came back and became an Americas hand. He led George H.W. Bush on a tour of Tibet in the last ’70s. He sat by Huang Hua’s side, one of the most predominant foreign ministers’ side, as he delivered diatribes to the Reagan administration about Taiwan. And he developed this skill set where he would use his perfect English at times to make jokes about things he had read in the New York Times culture section and be funny and pithy. And other times he would just launch into these withering diatribes just like he did at Anchorage. You talk to people who have sat through those firsthand, I’ve had people say that they just wanted to run out of the room because of the intensity that he’s capable of mustering. And he’s certainly someone who evokes pretty strong emotions.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah he sure does.

Jeremy: Pete, let’s talk about Wang Yi. He figures prominently in your book. He’s debonair, he’s fluent in Japanese, he has a very impressive resume. He also looks like he wouldn’t be much fun to be around when he gets angry. What is his reputation and what makes him tick?

Peter: Inside the Foreign Ministry if you ask people about him they say that Wang is a true politician, whereas Yang Jiechi is more of a bureaucrat. I think there’s some truth to that. He got very angry with a Canadian journalist in 2016 and has kind of used wolf warrior tactics since then, and we tend to focus on those. But I think it is actually kind of interesting to step back for a second and think about the task that he was handed when Xi Jinping came to power in 2012-2013. Arguably, I think that the most challenging task that any foreign minister has inherited since Qian Qichen in the wake of Tiananmen. This was a Chinese leader who wanted to remake China’s role in the world, to bring it to much greater prominence and seems to have a preference for the Foreign Ministry taking on much tougher tactics than it’s used to carrying out in the past. Wang has handled it with great finesse, I would argue. He has taken the Foreign Ministry’s tone and made it harsher and seems to have stayed on the right side of Xi Jinping. He was promoted to that state councilor position, which provides him with a more senior rank in the government to just being foreign minister. He’s also someone who’s capable of great charm when he needs to. It’s just that that doesn’t seem to be top of Xi Jinping’s list of priorities for diplomats at the moment, and so he’s taken on more of the wolf warrior role in recent years.

Kaiser: Yeah. We mentioned that he had been state councilor and had been in charge of leading these small groups on foreign affairs. Would that be analogous to the American national security advisor, while foreign minister would be analogous to secretary of state? Would that be a good way to think of it?

Peter: I would think of foreign minister probably as a little bit further down the pecking order than the secretary of state. The U.S. government has traditionally, or for the last decade plus, has tried to pair up the state councilor with the secretary of state as a person of equal rank.

Kaiser: I see.

Peter: And Yang probably now has a role with his position on the Politburo that’s a little bit more similar to national security advisor. Obviously it’s highly imperfect but I would tend to think of it in those terms.

Kaiser: Right, right, right. I didn’t get a chance to ask Ambassador Huang Ping about the recently departed Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about his tenure as ambassador and the legacy that he left.

Peter: Yeah. I mean I think of Cui as someone who is very much in that charm offensive type mold of Foreign Ministry figures. He rose up in the Asian affairs section of the Foreign Ministry. He’s an Asia hand and he — when China was resetting its ties with Southeast Asia in the 1990s, Cui was one of the figures together with Wang Yi who was helping to come up with messaging that might be appealing to that region. He is equally capable. Wolf warrior tactics have existed long before Xi Jinping, and Cui is equally capable, when he needs to be of blasting his counterparts and getting very, very angry with people. If you read some of the accounts of the negotiations over Chen Guangcheng when he was in the U.S. embassy, Cui was extremely angry with U.S. counterparts. He is also capable of the withering dress down, but on the whole he’s someone who has tended to err on the side of actually wanting to persuade others of China’s point of view. Interestingly he’s actually publicly differed with Zhao Lijian’s tactics in recent years, which really stands out as a kind of rare point of public disagreement there.

Jeremy: So let’s talk about Zhao Lijian. I mean this guy, I first noticed him when he was still, I guess, not a junior, but he had a minor role in Pakistan at the mission in Karachi originally, but anyway. But a very vocal Twitter account. Now he’s the world famous wolf warrior. What can you tell us about Zhao Lijian?

Peter: Yeah. As you say, Zhao was a relatively obscure figure who had served in a junior capacity in Washington but had mainly been a South Asia hand. He was a deputy chief of mission in Islamabad, I think, when he started to build up this quite substantial Twitter following, which at the time was extremely unusual for a Chinese diplomat. Now it’s pretty standard, but then it really, really wasn’t. He picked a fight on Twitter with former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, which in fact caught the eye of Cui Tiankai in Washington who distanced himself and tacitly apologized to Rice over that spat. But it shot him to fame in China. He was promoted to this position of Foreign Ministry spokesman making him one of the most prominent faces, not just for the Foreign Ministry, but for the whole of the Chinese government. He really wasn’t on that track before, so it’s pretty clear that that promotion came as a result of these tactics that he undertook on Twitter. Since then, as you both know, things have just become more provocative and extreme as time has gone on.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

Jeremy: Remind us, what year was that when he was promoted?

Peter: I want to say it was 2017. Actually I think it was 2019 when he got into that spat. For me, and I think a lot of other people, the Trump administration is one long blur.

Jeremy: Yeah, yeah. I mean that is necessary context that didn’t come out of nowhere. We did have several years of Trump on Twitter lowering the tone.

Kaiser: But it was still pre-COVID though. I still think of the Trump administration in its pre- and post-COVID, especially vis-à-vis China. Anyway. the last person we should talk about is the new ambassador who has just taken up his position in D.C., Qin Gang, who seems to be more in the charm offensive camp so far. No? Am I wrong?

Peter: I think it depends who you ask. Qin has this background of actually being a U.K. and western Europe expert in the Foreign Ministry, so similar to Cui. Not an America hand, which is a real break actually. In the past, China has tended to appoint people who have served for lengthy stints in the U.S., or at least at international organizations in the U.S., to ambassador position. After a series of appointments in Britain and dealing with western Europe, he was appointed head of protocol, which gave him a very significant role in planning Xi Jinping’s overseas trips. Lots of photos of him in high-level meetings with Xi. He was the guy who was dealing with the real granular details of how Xi would arrive at a building and what size the reception would be and all of these things.

Jeremy: So, if I may interrupt.

Peter: Sure, sure.

Jeremy: We used a photo of him when the appointment was announced in a golf cart with Xi Jinping in a Boeing plant near Seattle. He was sitting behind Xi Jinping holding a red folder. So in that red folder would have been Xi Jinping’s itinerary basically is what you’re saying?

Peter: Yeah. And much more than that. I have no idea what was in that folder but he was involved in the really, really small details of Xi’s visits. As you both know, making sure that Xi is presented in a way that is seen as fitting with the stature that he has achieved in Chinese politics, and in a way that promotes his image at home is absolutely central to Chinese diplomacy. So that was a pretty hefty task for him. He seems to have handled it in a way that was satisfactory to the boss. His next position before he really hit a top job was as vice minster dealing with European affairs. In that role, if you talk to European diplomats who dealt with him in Beijing he could be pretty curt and direct. He wasn’t into public wolf warrior tactics but in private I understand that he was. He also has of course during his time as Foreign Ministry spokesman a great deal of media experience and was quite fond of some pretty direct putdowns of western media too.

Jeremy: So one of the things I guess that you must be asked about constantly is how do we understand wolf warrior-ness? What does it mean? What causes it? One of the things that has become a part of that debate recently is Xi Jinping’s speech earlier this summer that called on officials to present a “trustworthy, lovable, and respectable image,” which was interpreted in various ways. What did you make of that speech?

Peter: I thought it was really interesting. There’s a great deal of art that goes into understanding any utterances from Xi Jinping. His remarks on this were brief, so I wouldn’t want to read too much into it. But what I think his remarks showed was kind of a tacit recognition that some of China’s diplomatic tactics, external affairs tactics, have gone a little bit too far and generated a backlash. But I thought what was striking about that recognition was actually the limitations placed on it, right? He was talking about telling China’s story in a more effective way. He wasn’t talking about policy change. And when you look now at the scale and the depth of the backlash against China in a lot of countries it’s caused by China’s industrial policies, China’s policies in Xinjiang, the abolition of presidential term limits, all of these things, which have slowly chipped away at support for engagement with China. And without policy change I think it’s quite hard to see how just tweaking the messaging will make much difference. And actually if you look at the Twitter accounts of Chinese diplomats in the last few weeks I’m not sure they’ve changed the messaging all that much.

Kaiser: I fear not. Let’s talk a little bit about the source material that you used for this. I said there were interviews obviously that you managed to get. The most significant thing though I think were these memoirs that were written by former diplomats. You’ve said elsewhere that you were able to find over 100 such memoirs. To what extent could they actually write freely about their experiences once out of office? How candid are these things?

Peter: I wouldn’t recommend them as anyone’s beach reading. They’re pretty tough to get through. I started out with one or two and I knew that Dai Bingguo had a memoir and that Li Zhaoxing had one. I started out looking at those. Once you get through this turgid detail about, “Then there was another meeting and that was followed by another meeting,” you get some nice little personal insights and asides where I started to think, “Well, if I had enough of these things maybe it could add up to something.” And so I started using Baidu to just get every keyword combination I could think of. I realized that there are loads of them. They tend not to be published by very prominent publishing houses, so it’s like Liaoning People’s Press and Anhui People’s Press. I don’t know how many copies most of these things sold. I can’t imagine that it was very many, but a lot of them came out in the ’90s and the 2000s. You both know there were great limits on what could be said and what couldn’t be said even back then. But compared to now it was a period of relative openness. People were able to reflect within the bounds of what was allowed on their historical experiences. Oftentimes if you took their personal reflections and lined them up with the timeline of Chinese history, it became even more interesting. People would talk about how in the late 1950s they were really hungry and members of their family died. You could line that up with the chronology of the Great Leap Forward and start to put something together. The same for the Tiananmen massacre. No one was able to really address it head-on, but they could talk about how people would cancel on lunches for them or stand them up for meetings. So it’s kind of like taking shards of glass and trying to make something out of it.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah.

Jeremy: Are any of them at all readable?

Peter: Depends on your definition of readable. [laughs] They’re all quite hard work, I would say. I really enjoyed Geng Biao’s memoir and Ke Hua’s memoir. Geng was one of these PLA generals who was made into an ambassador. You get some of the flavor of the very early Foreign Ministry and just how alien the world of international diplomacy was to those guys. It’s also very interesting to read because one of Xi Jinping’s very first jobs was as an aid to Geng in the Ministry of Defense. He doesn’t talk about Xi in the memoir but once you have the context it starts to become a little bit more intriguing. The other figure, who kind of on a similar note, who really fascinated me, and this was by far my favorite of the memoirs, was Ke Hua, who was ambassador to London and was Xi Jinping’s first father-in-law.

Kaiser: Oh right, right, right.

Peter: That marriage didn’t last but Ke was really a very bold and freethinking guy. He went and served in London and had this of course very orthodox Communist take on what U.K. society was going to be like. He discovered the National Health Service and that his kid could get treated there for free. He watched the start of the Thatcher revolution and all of the strengths and weaknesses of British democracy. He wrote cables back to Beijing saying, “Look guys, we need to rethink this because Britain is not on the verge of Communist revolution. By the way they don’t seem to be expropriating the masses in the way that we initially thought.” He even wanted to write a cable about the advantages of democracy, but no one else in the embassy was willing to put their name on it, so he didn’t do that. That probably worked out pretty well for him actually given how things turned out.

Kaiser: If only Xi Jinping had followed his first wife to England. It would have been a very different world we’d be living in right now. I don’t know if Wu Jianmin actually wrote one of these memoirs that you read, but I thought there was a quote that you included from him that I thought was just amazingly insightful. Wu Jianmin was another one of these very, very prominent diplomats. He was at the UN mission and served in the Netherlands as ambassador — quite a few ambassadorships that he’d had, as well as I think he was vice foreign minister. But a quote you had from him was, “Historically, the Chinese people were bullied into being afraid, into a somewhat unhealthy mindset where they’re overly sensitive to the evaluation of the outside world. If someone says we’re good, we’re delighted and get all puffed up. If someone says a couple of bad things about us, we’re incredibly sad or angry. It expresses a lack of confidence.” This particular expression of the old Ah-Q jingshen [阿Q精神] is very recognizable in me. I mean, God, I see a lot of people who are very much like this. That whole kind of susceptibility, puffery, flattery, and sensitivity. Man, what an interesting quote and what a time — he wrote that in 2015. That’s already into the Xi period.

Peter: He actually wrote a series of memoirs. It’s kind of like, it’s a bit of a — They’re all kind of the same.

Kaiser: A blog.

Peter: You can read one of them. I read all of them, but one will suffice. He kept pushing that message of moderation and the need for China to retain this “hide and bide” posture that it’d had for so long, well into Xi Jinping’s tenure. Actually he ended up in a very prominent public spat with Hu Xijin from the Global Times who took objection to that approach.

Jeremy: So the Foreign Ministry in China is generally considered to be a fairly weak government body. It often has to compete with other players for influence, including the Ministry of Commerce, and even state owned enterprises. It’s kind of squeezed from all sides. What makes it so relatively weak? And is that unusual? Are there strong foreign ministries in other countries? Or is that just the way it is?

Peter: Yeah I once heard Kurt Campbell crack a joke when he said that people around him in the State Department would mention how weak the Foreign Ministry was. He’d kind of say, “Well, takes one to know one.” I don’t think that they tend to be as powerful in most political systems as ministries that are charged with the economy or certainly in authoritarian systems as ministries which deal with internal security of the military. It is true that the Foreign Ministry is a weak diplomatic player in China. I do think that it’s worth focusing on, for one reason is that it plays this outsized role in representing China to the world on lots of issues. Xi Jinping and other leaders will speak in these Marxist platitudes, which are very difficult for outsiders to decipher. Chinese business leaders and China’s civil society, China’s culture industry is not capable of speaking out in the same way that the U.S. equivalents are. And so you end up with this very small number of people who articulate the government’s opinion and the Foreign Ministry is definitely one of those institutions.

I think it’s also important to try to think about how the Chinese leadership thinks of diplomacy in the Chinese system. I don’t really buy this analysis which is often brought to the table where it’s like it’s fighting bureaucratic institutions vying for influence. That goes on. But I think from the leadership’s perspective diplomacy is one tool, the external propaganda system is another tool, the military is another one. So are the agencies which are charged with implementing economic coercion or providing incentive to other countries. And so they kind of choose from this litany of different things rather than being actors in the middle with bureaucratic chaos swirling around them. So yeah I guess I conceptualize it slightly differently if that makes sense.

Kaiser: It does. It does make sense. So Pete, as with so many other things when we look at China today, we have to look at Chinese diplomacy and figure out the correct proportions of continuity and change. Discontinuity. Your book’s main thesis is that we can learn a lot about why Chinese diplomats act as they do today by looking at the formative years, the diplomatic corps under Zhou Enlai, this whole idea of wen zhuang jiefangjun [文装解放军], PLA in civilian clothing or whatever. I think you made the case really well. I think it’s good that we also spell out some of the periods of change that you have to account for in the post-Mao period because there are some periods, for example in the pre-Olympic, post-9/11 period, where things go pretty swimmingly for them. There’s not a lot of wolfy going on. It seems like Chinese diplomacy takes on a very different character during these times. There is a looser rein. Yeah?

Peter: Yeah. I think for me the most important characteristic of this People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing that Zhou tried to create is discipline. So when the top leadership articulates charming the world as a goal, Chinese diplomats can be pretty effective at going after it. There are always great limitations on how far they can go and how much leeway they have, but if the goal is to win over foreign opinion and the objectives are thought of in quite a limited way like, “We need to remove sanctions against China in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown. And we want to host the Olympics.” Then actually Chinese diplomats can be incredibly effective at going after that goal. When the priorities of the leadership change and focus more on ideology and cracking down on internal descent and Party orthodoxy, Chinese diplomats tend to respond in a way which stops putting foreign opinion front and center of what they’re doing and starts to look at what the top leadership wants. That happened under Mao and I would argue that it’s also happening now under Xi.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. And we’ll get to that. But how common really is it for in other countries to see a diplomatic corps or a Foreign Ministry deviate at all from the lines set by the PM or by the president or whatever autocrat is in charge? Isn’t it the norm for diplomats to be really all about message discipline? I can’t imagine that there are states where it’s the norm for them to veer wildly off script.

Peter: Yeah. It’s totally a sliding scale. Clearly having people freelancing all over the place equally wouldn’t be an effective approach toward diplomacy. I guess in China it comes down to the degree of stringency, which is expected of Chinese diplomats. I remember talking to one of my interviewees, Chas Freeman, who I know you guys have spoken to on the show before. He talked about diplomacy is this art of persuasion and its ability to take a set of relatively well-defined talking points and use your cultural knowledge of the place where you’re based and the historical context that you’ve garnered over time and the mood in the room to massage those messages in a way that’s going to be persuasive to others. And I think that at their very best U.S. diplomats can be extraordinarily effective at doing that. Not the case with every person, but they can be really, really very effective. I don’t think Chinese diplomats are any less talented, but they are given far less room to run on that. I think it’s to the detriment of China’s diplomacy really.

Kaiser: I absolutely agree.

Jeremy: The only room to run right now seems to be on Twitter where anything goes. If China’s diplomacy has changed a lot with the United States, it’s changed even more when it comes to middle powers, or at least the western ones like Australia and Canada. Can you talk about Beijing’s middle-power diplomacy? Or maybe, diplomacy is the wrong word. Maybe we should call it a middle-power kick in the assery or something. How should we understand what’s going on with Australia and Canada?

Peter: So I think it’s a cliché but it’s true that Beijing, above all, responds to power in the international system. Right? When Chinese diplomats need to talk to their U.S. counterparts they might get pretty snippy and they may deliver some public lectures but there’s always going to be this limit placed on their behavior by the fact that the U.S. has the most powerful military in the world and this dynamic economy that China needs to trade and interact with. That limit is not there when Chinese diplomats are interacting with the U.K. or Canada or Australia. And so the behavior can go so much further just because the consequences are smaller. I think in some ways those countries have become a little bit of a stage for Chinese diplomats to signal their loyalty back to the Party center without the massive repercussions that would come with behaving the same way toward the U.S.

Kaiser: So Pete, there is one thing, I mean just with caveat that I really did think the book was fantastic, but there was one thing I did want to push back on a bit or maybe get your take on how you square this because for most of the book you encourage us to believe that China’s diplomatic corps is very much defined by this strict discipline, their unfailing ability to stay on message, not deviate at all from the Party line. You offer all sorts of examples about how the Foreign Ministry bears that same stamp from its very earliest days when they were building diplomatic capacity from scratch. All this is supposed to lead us to an understanding of why China’s diplomacy has taken such a hard turn and become so pugnacious and so strident. That is the promise in the title, right? “The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.” But it’s exactly these early wolf warrior episodes that stand out from everything else you discussed because they’re not pre-approved. They’re individual initiatives. Some of these real pugilists like Zhao Lijian. And sometimes they even get dressed down. I mean, I guess as I was reading the book as we were approaching the Trump era I expected that you were going to present evidence that Zhao Lijian outbursts were actually authorized, that they were scripted, they were planned, they were by the book. But you actually say quite the opposite. They weren’t. That they were a cause for division. So, where did that famous discipline that you’d spend the first 4/5th of the book convincing us suddenly fly off to?

Peter: It’s a great question. I think the Cultural Revolution as an explanation for what’s going on now in Chinese politics often usually falls short but actually is really instructive in this case. So the discipline that was built up in the Foreign Ministry is very consistent but there have been periods where it’s been challenged a great deal, usually by what’s happening in elite politics. So in the Great Leap Forward, the fact that Chinese diplomats were very, very hungry drove them to steal food from the Foreign Ministry cafeteria and take food from diplomatic receptions to feed their children. They were punished for doing so. And then much, much more dramatically in the Cultural Revolution as Mao launched this grassroots political movement aimed at upending political authority in China and transforming Chinese society, Chinese diplomats found themselves out in front of where the ministry’s leadership had got itself to. And I think that maybe what’s going on now it’s not the same as that, but maybe it rhymes with it. Like Xi set this incredibly assertive tone for Chinese diplomacy. These very high expectations about the degree of deference that China would be shown in the world and how it wouldn’t truck opposition from any courter home or abroad. And I think that in some ways individual Chinese diplomats like Zhao worked toward that goal in a way that was maybe a little bit faster than the ministry’s leadership. And so I see that breakdown in discipline as being very, very similar to what happened in the Cultural Revolution.

Kaiser: That’s great. I mean it’s the spirit and now the letter of instruction, right?

Peter: Right.

Kaiser: It reminds me, I don’t know if you’ve ever read Ian Kershaw’s biographies of Hitler, not to suggest that there’s anything similar between Xi and Hitler, but there’s this idea he introduces called working —

Jeremy: Many would, Kaiser! No need to —

Kaiser: Well, not me. Not me. Very clear. Working toward the Fuhrer. This is not a particular German example either. I mean we see this in a lot of places where there’s this interpretation of what the leader wants and then people work toward. You even use the phrase “work toward,” right? Are you familiar with that?

Peter: Yeah. I mean you will indeed find the phrase “work towards Xi Jinping’s wishes” in my book. I didn’t — I guess people say if you want to lose an argument bring up the second World War. Right?

Kaiser: Godwin’s law. It’s Godwin’s law.

Peter: I didn’t go for it directly but I did use —

Kaiser: And I did.

Peter: I did use —

Kaiser: I lose! [laughs]

Peter: I did use some of that idea but what I think is really interesting about the wolf warrior phenomenon, especially as it plays out on Twitter, is how in some ways it’s really antithetical to the broader Xi Jinping project. Right? Like Xi is about Party discipline, ideological conformity, promoting a vigorous Leninist system for China, and having freelancing diplomats on social media is really not the look that he’s going for in general. Whether you look at his approach to the economy, foreign policy propaganda, et cetera, et cetera. I do think that there will probably be this moment where the place that the bureaucracy gets to comes into line with what Xi expects. I would assume that we’d see a little bit less freelancing at that point. I don’t necessarily think it means a softening of tone. Xi seems to like the tough tone. But I think maybe we’ll see a little bit more uniformity.

Kaiser: I don’t know. I mean as long as it’s continuing to play well at home to the xiao fenhong or whatever then it may not be kiboshed too quickly.

Jeremy: Yeah. And there’s also a lot of state media journalists whose main job seems to be Twitter trolls who might take up the mantle if the diplomats are prohibited from speaking up themselves. Pete, can we talk about the United Nations where China does seem to be focusing a lot of effort? What do you make of China’s activities in the UN? Is its UN diplomacy effective? How is this going to be changed by the pandemic?

Peter: It’s an interesting question. I mean I guess that China thinks of the UN as a venue where it can make headway when perhaps other venues are closed down. Right? Bilateral relationship. The bilateral relationship with the U.S. and to some extent Europe is a little bit stuck. But the UN, because of the role of the General Assembly, is an area of great international importance where China can make its case and feel heard. China also has a preference I think for international institutions which promote quite a traditional view of sovereignty and don’t talk too much about universal values and things that go on beyond the traditional remit of nation states. So, China kind of sees the UN in that mold. I think it sees a way to reinforce its world view using an international institution. If that makes sense. There’s also been China introducing resolutions to have Xi Jinping phrases introduced and to build the international legitimacy of Xi there.

Jeremy: Another thing I’d like to get your take on is the interview Kaiser did with Ambassador Huang Ping, the consul general in New York, which was, I mean, quite a tough thing to do. I was a little bit involved in looking at the questions in advance. It’s really tough to get an answer out of a Chinese diplomat when they’ve prepared for a media interview. They don’t really say anything that you couldn’t write yourself actually, if you paid attention to what Chinese diplomats say. I believe, Pete, after all the research you’ve done you could have totally scripted Ambassador Huang Ping’s answers. But you listened to it. Am I wrong? Did anything stick out or surprise you?

Peter: I’ve been thinking of getting in a Twitter spat with Susan Rice and seeing if I can get myself promoted to the spokesman job actually.

Kaiser: Do it. Do it. I can channel Zhao Lijian pretty well.

Jeremy: But yeah, you know —

Kaiser: But seriously though, anything stick out for you from that interview?

Peter: I thought that he was at his most compelling when he spoke about his personal story. His humble origins, the opportunities he’d got through the diplomatic service, the process of learning that China went through. In many ways that is the best story that the Party-state’s got going for it. And he told it reasonably well. It was tough for him when it got into the, I imagine, when he got into the questions about Xinjiang and Taiwan because there is so little space for deviation there.

Jeremy: Little space meaning no [bleep] space at all, like zero. Zilch. [laughs]

Peter: Yeah. I think that would be a reasonable way of setting it up. I thought that that was — He kind of made an admirable effort. He came to the table with a set of messages, which had been pretty well defined by Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi. Right? That they tried to offer the U.S. a little get-out clause from the escalating tensions in the relationship by saying, “Oh, welcome you guys. Last guy was crazy. We see that. Things seem to have gone bad but we’re all good now, right?” That would be my summary of some of the early speeches that Yang and Wang Yi made. And they’ve been pretty shocked, I think, to find that the Biden administration is not in that mood at all. So I kind of saw the interview when it got to U.S.-China as a little bit of a reincarnation of those early speeches from Yang and Wang.

Kaiser: I absolutely thought so. That was exactly what I expected. Part of me wanted to give them the opportunity to say exactly that. He rose to it there. I think it was interesting though that how you talk about how scripted they are, he used language exactly from Yang Jiechi’s responses on things like wolf warrior diplomacy. This stuff about, “We don’t bully anyone, we don’t do anything. But we have spied.” Or I think he said, “We have bones. We have guts.” He actually used the words guts. It’s not something that colloquially Chinese people learn right away in English. But what did you make of that? I thought it was remarkable that he seems to have actually studied what was acceptable language coming from other people on that topic.

Peter: I definitely recognized the language. I asked Wang Yi a very similar question at the NPC a few years ago and prompted an almost identical set of words from him in response. One of the things that U.S. veterans of dealing with China talk about with the interlocutors is this remarkable institutional memory that they have. And the incredible recall they have for official talking points. You could turn a Chinese diplomat around in circles in Times Square, say the word, “Taiwan,” and you would get a pitch perfect reply on the PRC’s position. You know?

Kaiser: Any one of us could do that now. We know it. We’ve heard it all so many times. I mean I even tried, I used this, “how would you state the American position on” — so that he didn’t have to put it in his own words, but he wouldn’t even do that. That was interesting that he couldn’t really — I knew he knew exactly what I was saying.

Jeremy: And you surely weren’t surprised by any of this, Kaiser. You’re not naïve.

Kaiser: No. I thought though maybe that he would be in a safe space where he could say, “You know, this isn’t my opinion here…”

Jeremy: A safe space? You’re kidding me. [laughs]

Kaiser: Well, I’m an old friend of China. [laughs]

Jeremy: One last question or one other question, Pete. We’ve gone into quite some detail about various characters and some of the ideas that animate your book, but if I was going to look for a soundbite, how should we understand the utterances of Chinese diplomats? When we see them on the news or we see their remarks reported in a news report how should we listen to them?

Peter: I mean I think the key is to remember that domestic politics is always king for Chinese diplomats. So their first, second, and third audiences are in Beijing, and the U.S. somewhere way down the list. Even if they’re talking to your news channel or in a bilateral meeting with you.

Kaiser: Or on a podcast. I’ll remember that.

Jeremy: And that answers some of your questions about your recent guest, Kaiser, I think.

Kaiser: Indeed. Indeed, it does. Peter, thank you so much for taking the time. I really enjoyed the book. It has to have been, I think, the most effortlessly readable books that I’ve come across in quite some time. I learned a ton. I found it really engaging and really enjoyed interacting with the ideas in it. So, congrats.

Peter: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Kaiser: Look forward to having you back on the show, but let’s move on to recommendations. First a very quick reminder that the Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina and if you like the work that we do with this show or China Stories or any of the other many shows that are in our network, the way to show your support is to subscribe to our SupChina access newsletter. Isn’t that right, Jeremy?

Jeremy: That is absolutely right and that is why I was nearly getting distracted because we have a deadline because we got to summarize the news for our members every day. So yeah, let’s get on with the show, Kaiser.

Kaiser: Yeah. I won’t keep you much longer. Recommendations, you go first.

Jeremy: Before I moved to the United States there were certain American animals that were always extremely exotic to me. I grew up in Africa so rhinos and cheetahs were not that exotic, but armadillos and hummingbirds are just pretty amazing. And so this summer I’ve discovered hummingbird feeders, which you just fill with sugar water basically that you can make in the kitchen. Quite large sections of the United States have hummingbirds and they’re just gorgeous little creatures that buzz like little helicopters. It feels to me like little books, comic books I used to read as a kid.

Kaiser: So your recommendation is hummingbirds.

Jeremy: Is buy hummingbird feeders and fill them with sugar water.

Kaiser: Ah, okay, okay.

Jeremy: If you live in certain parts of the United States, which is most of the east I think.

Kaiser: You know what? I had an animal show up that I wasn’t expecting, which I mean I’ve seen all sorts of animals in my neighborhood, but we’ve got a groundhog living nearby.

Jeremy: Yeah, nice!

Kaiser: A fat little groundhog I’ve seen scurrying around. It’s pretty funny. [laughs] Anyway, Pete, what do you have for us?

Peter: I went on a long drive recently and listened to this podcast series called Dolly Parton’s America.

Kaiser: Ah, that’s great.

Peter: You can probably hear I’m not native to this land. It just has got these — First, you come off with the impression Dolly Parton is just this songwriting genius. I really had a whole new appreciation for her process. But you know it’s got these incredible asides about race in America, class, gender, the history of the banjo. All kinds of wonderful and unexpected things. So that’s my recommendation.

Jeremy: I totally second that.

Kaiser: Completely.

Jeremy: As an actual Tennessean, it’s really fantastic. Really, really wonderful.

Kaiser: She is an absolute national treasure. Her take on Americana is just wonderful. Yay. All right. Mine is just a film. First time I went back into a movie theater since the pandemic. I went with my daughter to see this new film The Green Knight. Have you guys heard of this? It’s an adaptation, very close, very faithful, not perfectly faithful to the chivalric romance from the 15th century. It’s really pretty amazing. It’s the Arthurian story of the Green Knight. Visually it’s stunning. It may move a little slowly for some people in parts, but it’s a really interesting take. We walked away just thinking about it for a very long time.

Jeremy: You went to see it in a theater?

Kaiser: In a theater. Absolutely.

Jeremy: Okay. You’re not scared of delta?

Kaiser: I wore a mask and so did my daughter.

Jeremy: Oh, okay.

Kaiser: Yeah. Okay. All right. So, that’s it. Peter, thank you once again. Fantastic.

Peter: Thank you. Really enjoyed it.

Kaiser: The book was great. I’m really glad that we could do this. Book once again is called China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. Give it a read. All right. Jeremy, great to see you, man.

Jeremy: Yup.

Kaiser: And Pete, thanks once again.

Peter: Thanks so much.

Kaiser: The Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. Drop us an email at Follow us on Twitter or on Facebook @supchinanews. And make sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week. Take care.