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The provocateur driving China’s ‘wolf warrior’ pack

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Zhao Lijian thrives on controversy. Aggressive promotion of China’s interests is expected for a foreign ministry spokesperson, but Mr Zhao has pioneered an extreme approach by becoming a populist provocateur who owes his career to a willingness to shock, needle and troll Beijing’s critics on Twitter.

For Beijing, he has crystallised a model for diplomacy with a jagged edge and driven the shift away from an older generation of more conservative and restrained engagement, analysts said.

The diplomatic furore that Mr Zhao set off last week, when he tweeted a computer-generated image of an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of an Afghan child, was the latest in a string of incendiary incidents that delight Chinese nationalists.

In a sign of acceptance of Mr Zhao’s tactics, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a think-tank that reports to China’s State Council, in May released a series of strategy documents on the need to “strengthen China’s ability to fight for international public opinion”. It said China had to “counterattack” against critics on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all of which are blocked in mainland China.

As China’s most high-profile official on Twitter, with nearly 860,000 followers, Mr Zhao, 48, has built a personal brand that is rare for a foreign ministry spokesperson.

A position of middling power in the Chinese bureaucracy, spokespeople had typically confined themselves to scripted reiteration of Beijing’s stance and the occasional outburst over issues such as the South China Sea or Taiwan.

“Historically, there was quite a lot of criticism [within China] of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for being too willing to compromise or even lacking in backbone,” Dali Yang, of the University of Chicago, said. 

Mr Zhao’s eagerness to push boundaries has occasionally sparked resistance in China’s foreign policy establishment.

When he backed a conspiracy theory in March that the US army could have brought the virus to Wuhan during Military World Games, it was followed by a flurry of statements from senior diplomats, including Fu Ying, deputy chairperson of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, calling for restraint in diplomacy.

But these differences probably reflect contrasting styles among diplomats rather than a substantive disagreement, said Mr Yang. 

“Overall [the young generation’s] hardline stance and ability to have such influence on the global discourse means they clearly enjoy support within the Chinese leadership,” he said. 

Chinese president Xi Jinping has done away with China’s policy to “bide its time and hide its strength”, instead calling for Beijing to be more assertive in spreading its message.

In response, the foreign ministry has raised its profile, intensifying a no-holds-barred approach to combating perceived slights, which has been dubbed “wolf warrior” diplomacy after a series of jingoistic Chinese action films.

Zhao Lijian, with 860,000 Twitter followers, is known as an ‘internet celebrity diplomat’ © Roman Balandin/TASS/Getty
A journalist holds a copy of a graphic computer-generated image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat, which was released on the social media account of China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian © Mick Tsikas/EPA-EFE

The tactics, however, risk a backlash. Surveys suggest perceptions of China are at an all-time low in western democracies but the new strategy is hugely popular at home, said Yun Jiang, a director at the China Policy Centre, a research institute in Canberra. “Everyone loves good old-fashioned nationalism,” she added.

Starting in 2015, Mr Zhao pioneered his aggressive Twitter use while rebuffing criticism of China’s investment in Pakistan as minister counsellor at the embassy in Islamabad. As his following grew, he began to post outside his brief, frequently accusing the US of hypocrisy and ulterior motives in sanctioning Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.

In July 2019, Mr Zhao engaged in a sparring match with Susan Rice, former national security adviser to Barack Obama, the former US president. He had defended China’s mass internment campaign in Xinjiang by comparing tensions between the Han majority and mostly Muslim Uighur minority with race relations in the US.

In a now deleted tweet, Mr Zhao wrote: “If you’re in Washington, D.C., you know the white never go to the SW area because it’s an area for the black & Latin. There’s a saying ‘black in & white out’.” Ms Rice responded by calling him “a racist disgrace”.

A month later, he was promoted to foreign ministry spokesman.

Mr Zhao is a relative outsider of China’s diplomatic establishment, having attended Central South University instead of one of the usual feeder universities for the foreign ministry. His career has instead been propelled by his loyal following on Chinese social media, where he is known as an “internet celebrity diplomat”.

Many of his fans are young, tech savvy and openly nationalist. Hua Zhong, a student in her early 20s, said she liked Mr Zhao because of his sharp tone and his “persistence in fighting tirelessly [with] shameless western politicians”.

Despite Twitter having been blocked in China since 2009, their diplomats have opened dozens of new accounts in the past two years. Posts from Chinese officials are often translated and shared widely on social media.

Mr Yang said China’s foreign ministry had an advantage against interlocutors because it has ready access to international social media platforms, while accounts of foreign leaders and diplomats are regularly censored in China.

Last Wednesday WeChat, one of China’s largest social media platforms, removed a post by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison about Mr Zhao’s tweet directed at Chinese Australians.

“I don’t think the west has fully appreciated that China can create a bubble of its own [at home],” said Mr Yang, “and at the same time interact with the rest of the world in this new way [on western social media].”

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing



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Ukraine accuses Russia of blocking talks to ease military tensions

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Kyiv has accused Moscow of blocking attempts to begin talks aimed at calming military tensions sparked by the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops close to the Ukrainian border.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has not received a response to his request for a telephone call with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, his spokesperson said, amid concerns from the US and other European powers that an escalation in military deployments could result in full-blown conflict.

More than 14,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since 2014 in fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine’s army for control of Donbas, a region in the east of the country bordering Russia. The fighting first erupted after Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

“The request has been forwarded from the office of the president of Ukraine to the office of Vladimir Putin to have a conversation, a telephone talk. And we have not received an answer yet,” Zelensky’s spokesperson Iuliia Mendel said on Monday.

“The office of the president of Ukraine hopes that it doesn’t mean that Vladimir Putin refuses to have a dialogue with Ukraine,” she said, adding that the request was made on March 26.

Separately, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said on Monday that Russia had refused to engage “in consultations aimed at reducing security tensions” and boycotted an OSCE meeting on Saturday where the troop build-up was scheduled to be discussed.

Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky (above) made a request for a telephone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 26 © Gints Ivuskans/AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s spokesperson responded by saying that he was not aware of any recent requests for talks from Zelensky.

“In recent days, I have not seen any requests. I am not aware that there have been any requests in recent days,” Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

“In terms of defusing tensions and preventing a potential war, Vladimir Putin always has something to say,” he added, when asked whether Putin had anything to say to his Ukrainian counterpart. “We hope that political wisdom will prevail in Kyiv, and the matter will not take a serious turn.”

Mendel said Russia had stationed more than 40,000 troops on the eastern border area and sent another 9,000 to Crimea, in addition to the 33,000 troops already there.

That build-up, supplemented by tanks and other armed vehicles, has led to accusations that Moscow plans some form of military intervention. The Kremlin said it is permitted to station its soldiers wherever it likes, and that they are no threat to any other country.

Both Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in Donbas accused the other side of sporadic violations of a ceasefire agreement over the weekend.

Kyiv says 28 of its troops have been killed so far this year, more than half the number who died over the whole of 2020.

Russian officials have dramatically increased their belligerent rhetoric towards Ukraine in recent weeks. Putin has warned that the situation could provoke a repeat of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, while his deputy chief of staff said any escalation by Kyiv would be “the beginning of the end” for the country and provoke from Russia “not a shot in the leg, but in the face”.

Ukraine has responded by calling on Nato to speed up its membership application, while US president Joe Biden has pledged his support to the country.

In addition to the US and European powers, concerns over the military build-up have drawn in regional power Turkey, which lies across the Black Sea from Crimea. The Nato member has deepened ties with Russia in recent years but opposes Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and in 2019 sold military drones to Kyiv.

Zelensky on Saturday held talks with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, who called for dialogue and for a peaceful resolution
in line with Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”. Those talks came a day after a telephone call between Erdogan and Putin, in which the Russian leader accused Ukraine of “dangerous provocative actions”.

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Ankara



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Technology will save emerging markets from sluggish growth

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The writer, Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s chief global strategist, is author of ‘The Ten Rules of Successful Nations’

Emerging economies struggled to grow through the 2010s and pessimism shrouds them now. People wonder how they will pay debts rung up during the pandemic and how they can grow rapidly as they did in the past — by exporting their way to prosperity — in an era of deglobalisation.

The freshest of many answers to this riddle is the fast-spreading digital revolution. Emerging nations are adopting cutting-edge technology at a lower and lower cost, which is allowing them to fuel domestic demand and overcome traditional obstacles to growth. Over the past decade, the number of smartphone owners has skyrocketed from 150m to 4bn worldwide. More than half the world’s population now carry the power of a supercomputer in their pockets.

The world’s largest emerging market has already demonstrated the transformative effects of digital technology. As China’s old rustbelt industries slowed sharply over the past decade, and ran up debts that threatened to explode in crisis only a few years ago, the booming tech sector saved the economy.

Now, often by adopting rather than innovating, China’s emerging market peers are getting a push from the same digital engines. Since 2014, more than 10,000 tech firms have been launched in emerging markets — nearly half of them outside China. From Bangladesh to Egypt, it is easy to find entrepreneurs who worked for Google, Facebook or other US giants before coming home to start their own companies.

As well as the so-called Amazon of China, there are Amazons of Russia, Poland, Latin America and south-east Asia. Local firms dominate the market for search in Russia, ride-hailing in Indonesia and digital payments in Kenya. 

By one key metric, the digital revolution is already as advanced in emerging economies as developed ones. Among the top 30 nations by revenue from digital services as a share of gross domestic product, 16 are in the emerging world. Indonesia, for example, is further advanced by this measure than France or Canada. And since 2017, digital revenue has been growing in emerging countries at an average annual pace of 26 per cent, compared with 11 per cent in the developed ones.

How can it be that poorer nations are adopting common digital technologies faster than the rich? One explanation is habit and its absence. In societies saturated with bricks-and-mortar stores and services, customers are often comfortable with and slow to abandon the providers they have. In countries where people have difficulty even finding a bank or a doctor, they will jump at the first digital option that comes along. 

Outsiders have a hard time grasping the impact digital services can have on underserved populations. Nations lacking in schools, hospitals and banks can quickly if not completely redress these gaps by establishing online services. Though only 5 per cent of Kenyans carry credit cards, more than 70 per cent have access to digital banking. 

The “digital divide” is narrowing in many places. Most of the big countries where internet bandwidth and mobile broadband subscriptions are growing fastest are in the emerging world. Last decade, the number of internet users doubled in the G20 nations, but the biggest gains came in emerging nations such as Brazil and India.

The digital impact on productivity, the key to sustained economic growth, is visible on the ground. Many governments are moving services online to make them more transparent and less vulnerable to corruption, perhaps the most feared obstacle to doing business in the emerging world.

Since 2010, the cost of starting a business has held steady in developed countries while falling sharply in emerging countries, from 66 per cent to just 27 per cent of the average annual income. Entrepreneurs can now launch businesses affordably, organising much of what they need on a smartphone. Lagos and Nairobi are rising as local fintech hubs, where leading executives vow to raise Africa’s “digital GDP” by widening access to internet financing.

It’s early days, too. As economist Carlota Perez has shown, tech revolutions last a long time. Innovations like the car and the steam engine were still transforming economies half a century later. Now, the fading era of globalisation will limit the number of emerging economies that can prosper on exports alone, but the era of rapid digitisation has only just begun. This offers many developing economies a revolutionary new path to catching up with the living standards of the developed world. 



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China’s wolf warriors refuse to back down

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Late last month the EU, acting in concert with the US, UK and Canada, imposed sanctions on four obscure Chinese officials for alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been systematically detained over recent years.

China retaliated immediately, imposing counter-sanctions on 10 European individuals, including five EU parliamentarians from five different political parties.

In doing so President Xi Jinping’s administration threatened a contentious trade deal provisionally agreed on last year between the EU and China, despite US opposition. The sanctioned parliamentarians’ parties are now reluctant to start reviewing the deal unless Xi’s counter-sanctions are lifted.

Before Beijing imposed sanctions on the EU MPs, it was expected that the European parliament would eventually ratify Xi’s geopolitical coup, which had strong backing from France’s Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.

But when Merkel and Xi spoke on Wednesday, China’s official account of the call did not mention the trade deal or Xinjiang.

“We had seven years of negotiations for the deal,” said Joerg Wuttke, head of the European Chamber of Commerce in China. “Now it looks like it will take another seven years.”

The Xinjiang sanctions exchange is just the latest diplomatic dispute that Xi’s pugnacious “wolf warrior” foreign ministry officials are embroiled in. Chinese diplomats are sparring with countries and organisations that Beijing enjoyed relatively good relations with during Donald Trump’s one-term presidency. But they are expressing no regrets.

Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef off the Philippines’ Palawan Island © Philippine Communications Operat/AFP

Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, set the tone for Beijing’s clashes with a long lecture to his US counterpart on March 18 in Alaska, where he told Antony Blinken that no country would ever again “speak to China from a position of strength”.

Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat who worked for Yang, said his former boss’s diatribe was “groundbreaking”. “Chinese leaders believe they have momentum and time is on their side,” he added. “Nothing can stop their rise.”

Chinese state media contrasted Yang’s comments with paintings of foreign colonial powers lording it over late Qing dynasty officials, who were repeatedly humbled in a series of conflicts with European, Japanese and American enemies.

The country’s “century of humiliation”, according to the Chinese Communist party, ended only after its revolutionary victory in 1949.

“China today is not the China of 1840,” Xu Guixiang, a senior party official in Xinjiang, said last week. “The days of Chinese people being bullied by the west have passed. We are not an easy target any more . . . We will fight tooth for tooth until the end.”

Many Chinese officials viewed Trump’s years in office as an unprecedented “strategic opportunity” to build bridges with Washington’s frustrated allies. But analysts said that, like Trump, those officials also believed that the Chinese Communist party could benefit domestically from diplomatic confrontations.

“Heated nationalism is good for strengthening the legitimacy and authority of the central government and [Xi],” said Yun Sun, a Chinese foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington.

“It all comes back to [Xi’s] mentality and the course he has charted,” she added, especially as the CCP prepares to celebrate the centennial of its founding in July. “The party needs to demonstrate its strength and achievements. A soft approach is not going to work.”

Last week Beijing challenged comments by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization director-general who had previously been criticised for his reluctance to confront Beijing. Tedros said that Chinese officials had withheld information from WHO experts investigating the origins of coronavirus.

“After coming under pressure from the Europeans, Canadians and Americans, Tedros didn’t want to give China a pass because that would have provoked a crisis with the west,” said a diplomat involved in the WHO’s deliberations.

“Meanwhile the Chinese had to stick to their rhetoric that ‘[Covid] is a bigger problem, we had it and we dealt with it, but now we have to look elsewhere [for its origin]. They have bats in Myanmar and Laos, too’,” the diplomat added.

“It also has to be seen in the context of what had just happened in Alaska where they said don’t lecture us and don’t talk down to us.”

Chinese diplomats have recently clashed with Manila, too, over an alleged incursion of Chinese fishing vessels in Philippine territorial waters, as well as Tokyo over Japan’s concerns about the Xi administration’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, warned his Japanese counterpart on Monday not to join US efforts targeting China.

“A certain superpower’s will does not represent the international community,” Wang said. “As a neighbour Japan needs to show at least a modicum of respect towards China’s internal affairs.”

Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, sees no end to such disputes. “Xi has said multiple times that Chinese officials and diplomats must unsheathe swords to defend the dignity of China,” he said. “The wolf warriors are just acting on Xi’s call to arms.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing



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