Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
Four years ago this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a joint news conference with his then-counterpart Stéphane Dion in Ottawa. That’s when Amanda Connolly, a Canadian reporter from iPolitics, asked Mr. Dion about human rights in China, mentioning a Canadian couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, who had been detained in China in 2014 and accused of spying.
Although the question was directed at Mr. Dion, the Chinese Foreign Minister took it upon himself to respond. He accused Ms. Connolly of prejudice and arrogance. “This is totally unacceptable,” he declared.
In rapid-fire fashion, he launched into a series of hectoring questions in return. “Do you understand China? Have you been to China? ... Do you know that China has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty? And do you know that China is now the second-largest economy in the world from a very low foundation? ... And do you know China has written protection and promotion of human rights into our constitution?”
“You have no right to speak on this,” Mr. Wang added. “So please don’t raise such irresponsible questions again.”
This diatribe was an early example of what is now known as China’s wolf warrior diplomacy, named after the popular Wolf Warrior Chinese film franchise, which features Rambo-like action plot lines and characters. Mr. Wang, the original wolf warrior diplomat, was leading the charge even before that style had a name.
Ms. Connolly’s question was prompted in part by the detention of the Garratts in China, weeks after a Chinese citizen, Su Bin, was arrested in Canada in the wake of an extradition request from the United States. While his wife was released on bail in February, 2015, Mr. Garratt was charged with espionage. He was released after Mr. Su waived extradition hearings and pleaded guilty in the United States to stealing military secrets.
There is an eerie resemblance between then and now. Today, China again holds two Canadians on espionage charges – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – detained days after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, a top Huawei executive, in December, 2018 after an extradition request by the United States.
Despite speculation of linkage between the Meng and Kovrig-Spavor cases, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa insisted on Saturday that they are not related, even as a spokesperson denounced “megaphone diplomacy.” The use of this term suggests that China is open to quiet talks with Canada and that some kind of deal can be worked out – as long as it is not publicized.
Whether Canada wants to go down that road is something that it will have to decide.
Hostage diplomacy is so heinous that no country openly condones it. That China is suspected to practise it is because of the national image that its words and actions have created, with aggressive diplomats working hand in hand with an increasingly assertive military.
A foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, is one such diplomatic warrior; on Twitter, he accused American soldiers of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan without any evidence. In Australia, ambassador Cheng Jingye issued thinly veiled threats of an economic boycott if Canberra pushed for an inquiry into the origins of the virus.
Relations with neighbouring India are fraught after a clash on their disputed border on June 15, which left 20 Indian soldiers dead and an unknown number of Chinese casualties.
In the south, maritime disputes with a number of Southeast Asian countries remain unresolved – and are growing in number: In April, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing ship in the South China Sea. Significantly, the Philippines backed Vietnam’s protest.
To the east, China’s relations with Japan, which showed signs of improvement last year, are again strained. A visit to Tokyo by President Xi Jinping, originally scheduled for April, won’t happen any time soon due to COVID-19, but many Japanese people would be happy to avoid it altogether. Chinese government vessels spotted in Japanese waters and their “stalking” of Japanese fishing boats, as well as China’s announcement last month that it would impose a national-security law on Hong Kong, caused the enthusiasm for a presidential visit to drop precipitously.
Then, of course, there is the increasingly confrontational relationship with the United States in almost all spheres.
From Canada in the far north to Australia in the southern hemisphere, China is stoking the flames with its assertive and ruthless diplomacy – a surefire formula for alienating friends and losing influence.
It is time for China to change tactics and adopt new policy goals. The thuggish behaviour associated with its diplomacy is repulsive to traditional diplomats – and should be an embarrassment to such a major power.
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