China’s ‘wolf warrior’ foreign affairs spokesperson moved to new role | China

The face of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, Zhao Lijian, has been moved from his role as foreign affairs spokesperson to a low-profile department, in what some analysts say is a demotion.

Zhao is the most well-known of the ministry of foreign affairs’ public-facing spokespeople, making a name for himself during his three years fronting the foreign press, with strong criticism and hostility towards the west and combative defense of China’s policies.

However, he has not been seen at the daily briefings since early December, and on Tuesday it was announced that Zhao had been appointed as deputy director of the ocean affairs department’s division of borders and maritime affairs.

Some analysts have interpreted the move as a sign of Beijing softening its “wolf warrior diplomacy” ahead of an incoming new foreign minister, while others thought it could be linked to recent embarrassments stemming from his wife’s Weibo posts.

Zhao was appointed as foreign affairs spokesperson in 2020, after a stint in the Pakistan embassy where he rose to prominence with aggressive posts – often targeting the US – on Chinese and western social media. He was seen as the most prominent of China’s diplomatic wolf warriors – named after a popular Chinese film franchise – who were characterized by an aggressive stance departing from Beijing’s previously more restrained approach.

He was a frequent critic of US policy and western media, often accusing journalists of smearing China and propagating lies, particularly over reports on the Chinese government’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and crackdown on Hong Kong. During the Covid pandemic he also appeared to promote baseless conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus.

With tens of millions of followers online, his unapologetic statements and posts stoked a growing cohort of Chinese nationalists, but often antagonized foreign governments or officials.

In December 2020, Australia’s prime minister was forced into holding a press conference to personally address an offensive illustration Zhao had shared in reference to alleged Australian war crimes, which depicted an Australian soldier cutting the throat of an Afghan child.

In 2019, Susan Rice, the former national security adviser for Barack Obama, called Zhao a “racist disgrace” over tweets he posted about race relations in the US, accusing his government of hypocrisy in condemning China’s abuse of Uyghurs.

His new appointment, while technically a sideways move, takes him out of the spotlight. Other foreign ministry spokespersons have gone on to ambassadorships and other high-ranking appointments, and Zhao was seen as a bureaucrat on the rise.

Zhao’s new role involves the management of China’s land and sea borders. According to the department’s website, the division is also involved in negotiations with other governments over maritime delimitation and border disputes. While it is an important department, political experts have said Zhao’s post as one of three deputies is relatively low profile and unpopular, and in reality a likely demotion.

“He will naturally have little exposure and influence, and will not be the person at the heart of decision-making,” said Chen Fang-Yu, an assistant professor in political science at Soochow University in Taiwan.

The shift has been seen by some as a sign of a softening diplomatic strategy as Beijing and western governments seek to stabilize relations. It comes less than a month after Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to Washington, was promoted to foreign minister. Qin, a trusted adviser to Xi, is a proponent of restoring ties with Washington.

“Transferring Zhao Lijian away is not only a policy and personnel adjustment, but can also send a major signal to the outside world and show the whole world the action of adjusting wolf war diplomacy,” said Chen.

Some analysts and Chinese social media users disagreed, noting there were still firebrand diplomats in other public posts, and speculating Zhao may have been sidelined after a couple of embarrassing incidents.

In November, social media posts by Zhao’s wife were unearthed and shared widely on the internet. Among the posts were revelations that she had been living a “peaceful” life in Germany while much of China was under lockdown, prompting complaints of double standards. Another post in which she lamented not being able to find fever medication also sparked controversy.

“Many netizens believe that a series of remarks by Zhao Lijian’s wife have a negative impact on Zhao Lijian’s image and career,” said one person on Weibo, among what were otherwise primarily supportive visible comments.

Others noted a rare instance of Zhao being left speechless by a question from Reuters about the recent anti-lockdown protests.

Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew school of public policy at the National University of Singapore, and a former US defense department official, warned against “looking for tea leaves in the absence of transparency.”.

“Zhao’s transfer is definitely a lateral move, rather than a clear promotion or demotion,” he said.

“It is also unclear whether it signals a shift in China’s diplomatic approach, whether Xi Jinping is rejecting the in-your-face, obnoxious style of wolf warrior diplomacy that Zhao Lijian epitomizes.”

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