Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 1 April 2021


China butchers Aesop fable in latest act of wolf-warrior diplomacy

Chinese embassy in Ireland Twitter account riffs on fable Wolf and the Lamb, with onlookers asking, ‘Who is the wolf?’

Uighur protesters in Istanbul, Turkey, hold Uighur flags and placards at a protest against China.
Uighur protesters in Istanbul, Turkey, hold Uighur flags and placards at a protest against China. Photograph: Tolga Bozoğlu/EPA

A butchered Aesop’s Fable from the Twitter account of China’s embassy in Ireland has drawn mirth from observers and highlighted the growing sensitivity of Chinese diplomats to international criticism.

As China engages in international disputes ranging from fist fights with Taiwanese officials to trade sanctions to threats of conflict, the behaviour of current foreign officials has earned the nickname “wolf warrior diplomacy” – a belligerent and aggressive style of communication that is most fervently conducted online.

Thursday’s tweet pushed back on such accusations, but appeared to lose something in translation as the author navigated English allegories and the need to maintain an image of Chinese strength.

Riffing on the fable of the Wolf and the Lamb, a story of tyrannical injustice in which the lamb is falsely accused and killed, Thursday’s post queried: “Who is the wolf?”

It continued: “Some people accused China for so-called ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’. In his well-known fable, Aesop described how the Wolf accused the Lamb of committing offences. The wolf is the wolf, not the lamb … BTW, China is not a lamb.”

The confused analogy prompted attempts to unpack its meaning.

“[H]e leaps in with the fable of the wolf and the lamb … but as he gets to the end, he realises he’s left himself open. China can’t be portrayed as a weak lamb that will be eaten up. China is strong, powerful! So he adds the ‘BTW’,” said Foreign Policy’s deputy editor, James Palmer, in a breakdown of the likely context behind the tweet.

“I honestly don’t think the embassy staff meant to say that China is the wolf in this fable but I scratch my head about what they meant to say through this fable,” said Victor Shih, a University of California San Diego academic on China. “[If] it’s something like ‘China is innocent like the lamb in the fable except China is a wolf’ then don’t use the fable!”

But while Thursday’s post might have sparked ridicule, it also illustrated the growing enthusiasm of Chinese diplomats to show toughness, regardless of whether it is done well.

“There’s always been this performative aspect of being an official in the party structure,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor and China specialist at Seton Hall University, New Jersey. “But we’re hearing it louder now.”

In the online age, wolf-warrior posts are usually on western social media platforms like Twitter (banned in China) and pushing back on international reactions to Beijing’s human rights abuses, pandemic failings and obfuscations, and regional aggression by targeting other nations or figures.

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Some have landed a hit – an illustration and post about findings of suspected war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan prompted an angry press conference by Australia’s prime minister. But Foreign Policy’s Palmer said their intended audience is usually Chinese government superiors, and it doesn’t necessarily matter if the post is any good.

“It counts as success if your boss, or your bosses’ boss, sees it and thinks it reflects the right political line,” said Palmer. “There’s maybe some small bonus in a dumb post that gets mocked a lot because if you’re getting measured for impact at all it takes no account of the qualitative impact only the quantifiable one.”

But there are significant implications.

Lewis said wolf-warrior diplomacy was geared towards domestic politics but if Beijing “turns the temperature up too high” it could facilitate US desires to strengthen alliances and coordinate response to China, or push more conciliatory EU partners towards harder measures like sanctions.

Palmer said as China’s autocratic system tightens, it’s people who are happy to toe any party line who get ahead, and those who have views “in opposition to the prevailing political mood – in this case Xi-ist xenophobia and ethnonationalism” are pushed to the margins.

“I think it’s done wonders in alienating foreigners from China and helping probably doom [the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with the EU], but the people who realise how self-defeating the wolf-warrior stuff is are very much pushed to the margins of the system at the moment,” he said.

International pressure on Beijing is growing, and the focus on abuses of Uighur and other ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang appears to be causing the most anger.

In return Beijing’s wolf warriors have ratcheted up their rhetoric, and there has been an apparent rise in both domestic propaganda and orchestrated social media campaigns – most recently against international retailers moving away from using Xinjiang cotton.

Recent news reports have described state media’s use of foreigners inside China to write or blog stories that counter western “smears”, and earlier this week CGTN published one such account by a French journalist who said she had lived in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, for seven years.

In the article, which remains online, Laurène Beaumond, described as a freelance journalist who had worked for several Paris titles, said “I do not recognise Xinjiang which is described to me [by western media] in the one I know.”

But on Thursday, the French publication Le Monde revealed the journalist, Beaumond, did not exist. The outlet said there was no record of a journalist of that name having worked in France.


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