No Wolf Warriors here: foreign minister sends message of ‘responsible China’

Shi Jiangtao, South China Morning Post

Posted at Mar 09 2021 01:12 PM

Foreign Minister Wang Yi tried to present China in a positive light amid growing negative perceptions of his country in the post-coronavirus world, shining a spotlight on how Beijing plans to flip that unfavourable narrative in its rivalry with Western democracies.

In a carefully scripted and controlled press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress on Sunday, Wang fielded more than two dozen questions covering a wide range of international and domestic hotspots, including Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

While most questions were framed in a less critical way this year and were about specific foreign policy issues or China’s relations with various parts of the world, they were by and large centred on one particular topic: China’s global image problem.

Without acknowledging the problem directly, Wang appeared unusually patient and well prepared to take on widespread criticism and concerns about China’s rise, its aggressive post-coronavirus diplomacy and the rapid deterioration of its ties with the United States and its allies.

Wang’s tone was generally modest and less combative, compared to China’s infamous Wolf Warrior-style diplomats, according to pundits. But the major messages he tried to communicate were largely similar to those of his foreign ministry colleagues – that China is innocent and a victim of bullying and vilification by the US and other Western powers.

He defended the coronavirus-hit Belt and Road Initiative and China’s Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy and deflected mounting criticism over Beijing’s handling of Xinjiang and Hong Kong, citing them as the country’s internal affairs. Throughout the press conference, he projected China as a responsible, reliable power, a protector of the existing world order and a champion of multilateralism and globalisation.

“In the year ahead … a compassionate, committed and responsible China that stands by principles will bring more warmth and hope to the world and lend more confidence and strength to the pursuit of development for all,” Wang said at the start of the 100-minute event.

As it was last year, the press conference was held virtually, with a group of selected Chinese and overseas reporters in a separate room, a setting that seemed to have worked in Wang’s favour.

According to Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University, Beijing clearly hoped to use Wang’s press conference, one of the most watched events during the annual parliamentary session, to send out an olive branch and allay suspicion, anxiety and fears.

“Wang was tasked with reassuring the world, particularly the US, that China is not a threat or a disrupter of the existing world order, at a time when Beijing is facing an increasingly hostile environment abroad,” Gu said. “But it was also clear that Beijing harbours no illusions that its relations with Washington and the Western world could be improved substantially given President Joe Biden’s multilateral approach on confronting China.”

In a response to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks last week that classified China as America’s biggest geopolitical challenge, Wang offered a strikingly rosy assessment of the intensifying rivalry and described Washington as a healthy competitor instead of a strategic one. He refrained from levelling criticism at the new administration and even called for renewed cooperation with Biden’s White House on issues such as climate change and Iran.

In the same vein, Wang also tried to play down China’s ideological and geostrategic wrangling with the West and put a positive spin on China’s fraught relations with the European Union, Japan and India, describing them as partners rather than as systemic rivals and threats.

Recent polls in the US, Europe and Southeast Asia showed unfavourable opinions towards Beijing had hit record highs in many countries. A survey by Pew Research Centre last week found nine in 10 Americans saw China as a competitor or an enemy.

Most respondents were in favour of pressuring Beijing on human rights and economic issues and limiting Chinese students’ access to US universities. Another poll among China’s Southeast Asian neighbours this year also showed growing distrust of Beijing, with few countries choosing to side with China over the US in their rivalry.

Huang Jing, dean of the Institute of International and Regional Studies at Beijing Language and Culture University, said it was commendable for China to be willing to play a more constructive and conciliatory role in global affairs.

“Unlike Russia, which is largely a destabilising force in the eyes of the West, China is quite different as it seldom engages itself in intimidation or disruptive activities. It seems Beijing still hopes that Western countries may put aside their deep-seated bias against China and stop forging [an] anti-Beijing alliance,” he said.

However, China’s foreign minister did not shy away from calling out Washington when commenting on China’s mass internment of Uygurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang and the South China Sea dispute. He sought to portray the US as a villain that “has been wilfully interfering in other countries’ internal affairs in the name of democracy and human rights” and a main source of turbulence and conflict in the world. He also blamed the US and other Western countries for disrupting stability and creating divisions among regional countries over the South China Sea dispute.

According to Huang, the most explosive remarks Wang made on Sunday occurred when he denied allegations about Xinjiang as fabricated lies “with ulterior motives” and went on to accuse the US of committing genocide against native Americans centuries ago.

China watchers generally agreed that Beijing’s strong push to counter international criticism was largely because it wanted to calm external relations before the Communist Party’s centenary in July and the Winter Olympics early next year.

“The desire to invest in image repair has much to do with a sense of guilt in Beijing about the global economic implications of the pandemic and concern about the rise of a growing coalition of nations that would like to hold China accountable for the damage,” said Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

“Forestalling the rise of such a coalition is imperative ahead of the CCP centenary and, no less important, the Winter Olympics, to be held less than a year from now.”

But few appeared convinced by Wang’s remarks and observers cast doubt over how effectively Beijing’s efforts could sway negative global opinions.

George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, said resistance against China in foreign countries which left China increasingly isolated might have left the leadership in Beijing with no choice but to counter or try to mollify.

“However, I don’t think Wang Yi did much to deflect the criticisms of China or acknowledge why criticism has arisen and what China could do to reboot international relations. I honestly think that China and much of the rest of the world are like two ships passing one another at night,” Magnus said.

“The trouble for Beijing is that it isn’t just that relations are fraught with the US and other liberal leaning democracies, but that it hasn’t done itself any favours with its relations in large parts of Asia and Africa.”

According to Luft, today’s world can be roughly divided into two groups. The US and its allies, who hold negative views about China, are on one side and the rest, who are sitting on the fence and who share scepticism about Western propaganda and motivations, are on the other.

“Trying to sway the first group is a lost cause. Focusing on the second could generate substantial dividends. For some reason, China still insists on knocking on the door of the club that will remain unpersuaded, no matter what China says or does,” he said.

“Propaganda cannot restore international image. Action does. Money does. Foreign aid and vaccines do. China will be judged by its actions – not by its words.”

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