Flotillas of Chinese warships steaming across the Taiwan Strait. Squadrons of fighters and bombers encircling Taiwan. Missiles hurtling into the waters surrounding the island and, in a major escalation of regional tensions, into territory claimed by Japan as well. Chinese state-run media throbbing with threats of retaliation, calls for war, and imagery depicting U.S. leaders as war-mongering arsonists and Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen as a colonial lap dog. All of this because U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dared to visit Taipei for an afternoon of ceremonial talks!
Concerned observers are wondering whether China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is really reckless enough to start a war over Taiwan. Or are these just empty gestures to placate flag-waving Chinese citizens who, fed a steady diet of “China Dream” promises, now see themselves as a superpower ready to “reunify” smaller nations with the motherland?
“China Dream” arguments hinge on key tropes: that the U.S. is in irreversible decline and China is the new global leader, that the usual dealings of international diplomacy are a conspiracy to “contain” China’s rise and that reversing the country’s history of humiliation by foreign powers requires a robust and aggressive China to “stand up” and reclaim its lost role as the Middle Kingdom. Like squashing democracy in Hong Kong, crushing dissent in Tibet or quelling an alleged terrorist uprising in Xinjiang, pulling Taiwan back into the fold is a key element in Xi’s “China Dream” promises. Making China great again is a recipe for swaggering unilateralism.
Having stoked nationalist fervor for the past decade and never failing to celebrate China’s overcoming of its history of humiliation at the hands of foreigners, Xi’s “China Dream” has become a threat to regional stability. The recent military drama in the Taiwan Strait is a physical manifestation of what happens when a regime ruling through propaganda and inflamed nationalism loses control of the narrative. Xi and his state-controlled media have been promising the Chinese people the imminent “reunification” of Taiwan with China. Trapped in the endless echo chamber of party propaganda and deprived of alternative voices and viewpoints, Chinese citizens can be forgiven for believing such promises. In China’s Global Times or People’s Daily, and in the party’s online encomia to “Xi Jinping Thought,” one finds a steady drumbeat of claims that Taiwan seeks “reunification” with China but is held captive by the United States, that Taiwan is an “inalienable” part of China, that Taiwan’s democracy is a threat to China’s sovereignty and so on. From this perspective, the “China Dream” requires Taiwan’s return to the motherland. Pelosi’s visit is thus seen as a slap in the face to China’s sovereignty, further evidence of America’s trying to “contain” China’s emergence as a superpower.
The perspective from Taiwan is the exact opposite. As the overwhelming, even joyous reception for Pelosi’s visit demonstrated, Taiwan is not a wayward province longing for salvation by China. It is a free and independent nation-state whose people are eager to preserve and strengthen their democracy. When I was last in Taiwan, every local leader I spoke to said things like “Why would a democracy agree to being crushed by a dictatorship?”; “Why would we give up our free speech for China’s censorship?”; and “Why would we turn our backs on freedom?” For most Taiwanese citizens, the “reunification” Xi keeps promising would be nothing less than what the scholar Yew Chiew Ping calls Taiwan’s “political suicide.”
China’s saber-rattling over the past weeks thus points to a much deeper conundrum. What China calls its onrushing “reunification” with Taiwan strikes the locals as colonization. What China calls salvation, the Taiwanese call suicide. The Chinese press condemned Pelosi as “meddling” in China’s internal affairs, but the Taipei Times hailed her as a brave ally advancing the cause of international democracy. To understand these dramatically opposed viewpoints, we need to turn to the past.
China’s international posture during the post-Mao period of “opening and reform” was marked by Deng Xiaoping’s famous line “tao guang yang hui,” often translated as “hide your strength, bide your time.” As explained by China’s Global Times, the phrase could more accurately be read as “keep a low profile,” meaning “China should stick to the principles of being modest and cautious” in foreign affairs. Deng’s position reflected China’s relative international power: “Our strength is limited,” he noted in 1982, “as is our role.” According to Suisheng Zhao, editor of the Journal of Contemporary China, Deng’s post-revolutionary strategy embodied a “pragmatic nationalism” rooted in a “goal-fulfilling and national-interest driven doctrine” that was “ideologically agnostic, having nothing, or very little, to do with either Marxism or liberalism.”
Under Hu Jintao’s leadership, the Communist Party of China (CPC) moved beyond Deng’s humble approach by launching a much-publicized, “go global,” soft-power campaign. In 2008, propaganda chief Li Changchun outlined its purpose, arguing that a rising China needed to share “our voice” with the world while “communicating our own perspectives.” By 2013, when Xi started pushing his “China Dream” narrative, China’s relative strength on the world stage had grown, and so Xi moved away from Deng’s quiet caution and Hu’s careful “go global” platform toward a more robust posture, which Xi would call “major country diplomacy.” Xi’s strategy offered a “sense of mission” and imagined nothing less than China assuming “a sense of responsibility for [the] whole [of] mankind,” in the words of Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi. Spread across newspapers, television, radio (China Radio International reaches 65 nations) and social media apps, these pro-China messages touched a global audience of billions.
Initially, this push for “soft power” took the form of the country’s media outlets trying to “tell China stories well.” However, as China’s aggressive actions in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, the South China Sea and elsewhere indicate, the party has now moved to a new strategy of throwing its weight around to placate nationalists at home. This turn to nationalism indicates in part the waning power of Marxism as a unifying national discourse — justice-seeking internationalism is out, national aggrandizement is in. Referencing the title of popular Rambo-esque films, commentators are referring to Xi’s flag-waving diplomatic style as the “wolf-warrior” approach.
By the spring of 2020, China’s ambassadors in Australia, Britain, Brazil, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Spain and almost two dozen African nations had behaved so badly in official venues and unofficial social media outlets that they were “rebuked” by their host nations for engaging in wolf-warrior diplomacy marked by “hypocrisy and hubris.” Across the globe, the wolf warriors were, according to The New York Times, “seeding mistrust and damaging [China’s] own interests.”
While this “torrent of bombast,” in the words of journalist Steven Lee Myers, has satisfied nationalist desires at home, it has backfired overseas. A Pew Research Center study from October 2020 showed that China’s international image had sunk to unprecedented lows: 81% of those surveyed in Australia ranked the People’s Republic of China as “unfavorable”; in Sweden the figure was 85%; in South Korea, 75%; in Japan, 86%; and in the United States, 73%. The range of controversies besetting China is overwhelming — from crushing democracy in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, committing genocide in Xinjiang, to soft-peddling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — so it is difficult to know how significant wolf-warrior diplomacy has been in driving these “unfavorable” ratings. Yet the point is clear: Whereas Xi’s major country diplomacy aimed to win hearts and minds globally by pushing an alluring vision of China, the nation’s strident, aggressive, unilateral posture has merely helped it alienate friends and lose influence.
China’s response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is typical of its wolf-warrior posture. Beijing is indifferent to international opinion. All that matters is stoking the fury of over 1 billion citizens raised on a diet of chest-thumping national bravado. But as the Trump supporters in the U.S. discovered, while alternative realities might make for useful media narratives and booming speeches, they don’t solve problems, balance the budget or persuade those committed to evidence-based thinking. Propaganda regimes begin to sink under the weight of their own unreality.
While Xi’s state-controlled media pump out nationalist rhetoric, party insiders know the dangers of saber-rattling and the loss of credibility and that credibility can be lost when one isn’t ready to follow through with their threats.
Consider the warning issued by no less of a party icon than Chou En-lai, then serving as Mao Zedong’s top lieutenant. In the late spring of 1949, with the communists on the verge of winning the civil war, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party retreating and chaos spreading everywhere, Chou contacted Col. David Barrett, who was serving in Peking as assistant military attache. Barrett passed his notes to Edmund Clubb, who had risen to the position of consul general in Beijing, and Clubb sent the message along to Washington on June 1. Despite all the ill will and bad decisions of the past years, Chou reported, “there is no real bar to relations between [the] USA and other governments.” Chou told Barrett he thought the “USA has genuine interest in [the] Chinese people, which could become [the] basis [of] friendly relations between [our] two countries.” In short, Chou was asking Washington to reach out so the two nations could together avert disaster. In his follow-up note to U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Ambassador John Leighton Stuart accordingly described Chou’s message to Barrett as a “call for help.”
Chou was calling for help because China was on the verge of what he called, in Clubb’s words, “complete economic and physical collapse.” Worse, Chou recognized how “[the] Party has frequently made [a] fool of itself through propaganda, which is doing much harm because [the] party itself is beginning [to] believe it.”
These remarkable comments indicate how Mao’s chief lieutenant foresaw the coming disaster of a shattered postwar China unable to feed its people while drowning in disinformation. As early as 1949, Chou and other realists in the party knew that ramming dogma down the throats of the masses was hampering strategic decisions. The masses were starving, but party posters depicted bountiful crops. National infrastructure was shattered, but placards depicted factories humming along. Once party leaders began to believe their own propaganda, disasters followed.
If Xi’s wolf-warrior diplomacy is turning the world against China, and if, as Chou’s confession indicates, party leaders have long feared the damage of “drinking their own Kool Aid,” then why does Xi’s leadership team continue its industrial-level production of alternative realities about the forthcoming “reunification” with Taiwan? Why would Xi risk something as perilous as war with the United States, presumably with Washington’s Asian allies providing backup?
Because Xi is unconcerned with public opinion in Canberra or Tokyo and faces a more fundamental dilemma regarding his political legitimacy at home. Speaking before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2009, historian Nicholas J. Cull offered a keen insight about China’s communication strategies. The barrage of Chinese propaganda internationally was not designed to entice foreigners, he argued, but to show domestic audiences how hard the government was fighting for them. Beijing, according to Cull, was “conducting domestic propaganda by conducting foreign propaganda.”
China scholar Nimrod Baranovitch argues that the CPC is facing a “legitimacy crisis” that flows from the “growing factionalism within the party . . . massive corruption, a sharp economic slowdown, staggering environmental pollution and growing social unrest” coupled with “the eruption of ethnic unrest in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia” and the debacle of televised repression in Hong Kong. Because of this, the party suffers from an “unrelenting sense of threat.” Bashing foreigners or threatening Taiwan is not meant to change minds in Washington or Taipei but to bolster Xi’s tough-guy image with domestic audiences whose nationalist desires need feeding. As the scholars Zhao Alexandre Huang and Rui Wang argue, “China’s foreign policy . . . is managed and guided by internal affairs.”
This poses a conundrum, however. For the more Xi tries to massage his legitimacy crisis at home by stoking nationalist desires, the more captive he becomes to them. Under these conditions, engaging in multilateral negotiations with the United States or Taiwan will be interpreted as weakness, even capitulation, at home, making international peace less likely.
Wolf-warrior diplomacy has built a dynamic that is unilateral, declarative and escalatory, all in the hope of masking a domestic legitimacy crisis. Even the missiles hurtling into the waters surrounding Taiwan and Japan are symbolic gestures intended mainly to impress a domestic audience. The problem, of course, is that the leadership of the Chinese military is now accustomed to such gestures, which they perceive not as performances for the mainland masses but as test runs for an imminent invasion of Taiwan. At a high-profile panel held in Beijing in December 2018, a number of elite policy figures said things like “The PLA [People’s Liberation Army, Beijing’s military] is capable of taking Taiwan within 100 hours with only a few dozen casualties”; “It is time for the PLA to deploy troops”; and “It is time to achieve unity.”
Some in China see a coming war over Taiwan not only as inevitable but also as desirable. For them, wolf-warrior rhetoric offers both justification for, and a road map to, war. Given this, the question is: Can Xi manage his domestic political needs by playing tough on Taiwan without tripping into an actual war? Or has he relied too heavily on the crowd-pleasing rhetoric of nationalism, leaving himself boxed into a corner of his own making? As Chou feared with Mao, perhaps Xi has come to believe his own propaganda, pushing the nation into the abyss of a war that can end only in tragedy.