Twitter has become a new battleground for China's wolf-warrior diplomats

Jing Zeng
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

When Wuheqilin – a Beijing-based CG-artist – disembarked his plane at Beijing Airport on Monday, he immediately found himself caught up in the latest round of the China-Australia diplomatic boxing match. His illustration Peace Division, which he published on the dominant Chinese microblogging site Weibo a week earlier, had been tweeted by China’s spokesperson Zhao Lijian, alongside a caption, in which Zhao condemns the alleged killing of Afghan civilians by Australian special forces soldiers. This digital illustration was quickly condemned by the Australian government and triggered a furious video response from the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison.

Related: China rejects Australian PM's call to apologise for 'repugnant' tweet

For Wuheqilin, a political satirical illustrator, Morrison’s condemnation is nothing short of a blessing. Following the Chinese media’s reports about the prime minister’s comments, screenshots of tweets featuring Wuheqilin’s work were widely propagated on Chinese social media. The artist even posted a public video reply directed at Morrison and claimed that he “may draw another one tonight”.

Alongside being endorsed by a number of high-profile state media outlets, the artist was widely praised by Chinese social media users as a hero. Some sarcastically wrote: “Yes, @Wuheqilin should apologise for ‘falsifying’ the image, because the inquiry report suggests that two kids were killed, but only one is shown in his picture!”

In response to Morrison’s comment that the Chinese government should be ashamed by Zhao’s tweet, Hua Chunying, the director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department, said in a press conference: “Shouldn’t the Australian government feel ashamed that their soldiers are committing such atrocious crimes, shouldn’t they feel ashamed that their soldiers are killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan?”

The video clip showing Hua’s response became a trending Weibo topic on Monday and was viewed over 30 millions times within 24 hours of publication.

Wolf-warrior diplomacy

The new generation of China’s foreign affairs officials under Xi Jinping have adopted a more pugnacious approach to communicating with their western counterparts, an approach that has been given the moniker “wolf-warrior diplomacy” – after a 2015 patriotic Chinese blockbuster.

Despite being permanently banned domestically in 2009, Twitter has become a new battleground for China’s wolf-warrior diplomats. Since its Twitter debut in late 2019, the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs and its spokespersons have been actively using the platform to directly confront perceived smearing by the western media. Such Twitter accounts have a clear agenda: to assert more influence over online discourse around China-related issues such as through “fact-checking” foreign reports on issues related to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Zhao, who joined Twitter in 2010, has a much longer and more controversial tweeting history compared to his colleagues. In July 2019, he exchanged fire on Twitter with US former national security adviser Susan Rice, who called him a “racist disgrace” following a tweet from Zhao about “racial segregation” in Washington DC. In 2020, he criticised the Trump administration for a perceived lack of transparency, and later shared an article promoting conspiracy theories from an untrustworthy information source.

Zhao’s combative tweeting history has nevertheless earned him praise in his native country. Followed by over one million Weibo users, he has a big fan base in China. Because of his “daring and tough” communication style toward the west, his fans have given him nicknames such as “wolf-warrior Zhao” (Zhao zhanlang). On Tuesday, his fan page on Weibo, where his followers have published more than 16,000 pro-Zhao articles and memes, was flooded by proud fans praising their idol’s criticism of the Australian government.

The pink generation

Zhao’s fans embody a wave of young nationalist Chinese netizens, or “little pinks” (xiao fenhong) in Chinese internet language. They integrate Generation-Z digital creativity with east Asia’s fangirl aesthetics into their political expression. Unlike China’s state-run troll armies of a generation ago, little pinks are self organised. They are highly professionalised and demographically diverse but ideologically homogeneous.

Related: Does Australia really have to be so strident when it comes to China? | Hamish McDonald

During the 2019 Hong Kong protest, under the slogan “united to fight against external enemies”, rival fangirl groups formed a pink army to break through the great firewall and demonstrate their outrage.

Though often dismissed as “brainless” party followers and targeted as state-organised trolls, this pink generation of Chinese netizens consist of predominantly educated youth, including large numbers of overseas Chinese college students, who are sincerely patriotic and disapprove of the general stance toward China taken by western governments and media outlets. To them the recent war crime allegations and Morrison’s very public indignation in response to Zhao’s tweet smacks of hypocrisy.

With Australian-Chinese relations reaching a new low ebb, it remains to be seen how many more online episodes, such as we have just witnessed, will occur. What is clear though is that the Australian PM’s fury has become a new trophy for Chinese wolf-warriors diplomats and has served to stir more anti-Australian sentiment within China.

• Dr Jing Zeng is a senior research and teaching associate at the University of Zurich