Over the past year, media outlets have described China’s tough new diplomatic style with the term “wolf warrior diplomacy,” named after a patriotic Chinese action film franchise.

During high-level U.S.-China talks in Alaska in March, for instance, top Chinese diplomats hit back at criticism over Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang, detailing U.S. human rights problems and arguing that the United States was “not qualified” to lecture China. Shortly after, Swedish politicians accused the Chinese ambassador in Sweden of threatening a journalist with an email demanding he cease his criticism of Beijing’s policies — or “face the consequences of your own action.” And after Japan announced plans to release Fukushima wastewater into the ocean, a Chinese diplomat dared Japan’s deputy prime minister to drink the treated water.

Analysts and the media tend to view wolf warrior diplomacy as a response to rising nationalism within China, and believe the strategy is doomed to fail — at least with regards to boosting China’s image around the world. But our research, based on analysis of Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) news conferences, suggests this type of diplomacy may succeed in a different sense — allowing Chinese diplomats to placate domestic nationalists and uphold President Xi Jinping’s diplomacy, while still leaving room for the Chinese government to control escalation of disputed issues.

Xi’s new diplomacy encourages demonstrations of the ‘fighting spirit’

China’s MFA has long trained diplomats to be “plainclothes soldiers,” loyal to the Communist Party. In 2016, Xi advocated a “dare-to-fight” spirit in defending China’s core interests. In addition to sovereignty and security, Xi emphasized the fight for a say in international discourse. Foreign Minister Wang Yi soon echoed this language, vowing to “fully apply and follow the guidance of Xi Thought on diplomacy.”

When Xi again emphasized this in 2019, Wang Yi urged diplomats to show a stronger fighting spirit. Chinese diplomats and embassies opened Twitter accounts and began to actively confront any negative narratives, using increasingly harsh language.

But China’s revamped diplomacy also emphasizes the importance of international cooperation, including the establishment of “a community of common destiny.” Xi’s speeches stress China’s responsibility to assist developing countries, and the importance of going beyond the narrow pursuit of China’s own interests.

How we did our research

How do Xi’s instructions translate into China’s everyday diplomacy? To find out, we analyzed transcripts from MFA news conferences over the past 20 years, calculating the percentage of speeches with insulting and combative language over time and across different issues.

We found that the share of speeches using hostile language increased sharply during Xi’s presidency. On average, about 10 percent of MFA speeches before 2012 were combative and hostile. In 2019 and 2020, more than 25 percent of MFA speeches were hostile in nature. The year with the fewest hostile speeches in Xi’s presidency — 2017 — is about on par with the most hostile year (2008) before Xi’s presidency.

The level of hostility varies — on matters pertaining to human rights and sovereignty, China’s diplomats consistently adopt hostile language. And we also saw a sharp increase in hostile MFA responses to human rights and Taiwan questions after 2017.

We also noted increased hostility in statements related to multilateral cooperation in the past two years, mostly responding to criticism of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, involving infrastructure projects in over 100 countries. But we found Chinese diplomats expressing few hostile words regarding areas where China receives little criticism, such as the North Korean nuclear issue.

Tough talk doesn’t mean tough action

The increased level of hostility in these statements often corresponds to harsh language and insults, without clear associated actions. For example, MFA spokespeople often label criticism of China as “vile attempts” to disrupt China’s stability and claim that China will “take all necessary measures” to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

Recent research indicates that Western criticism of China, framed as an “us” vs. “them” geopolitical clash, actually helps boost domestic support for the Chinese government. At the same time, harsh posturing may help the MFA appear to be taking a strong stance, satisfying citizens with strong nationalist feelings — yet still leave room for more measured diplomacy. One recent study, for instance, found an increase in popular approval after the Chinese government made vague but ultimately empty threats, even in the absence of tough action.

Confrontational language also redirects public attention away from foreign criticism of China. After the U.S.-China talks in Alaska, Chinese netizens praised the pushback from the Chinese team as a victory: One Weibo user noted that only China would “dare to put the United States in a corner like this on American territory.” The harsh rhetoric satisfies netizens, and reinforces rising overestimates of China’s global influence among Chinese citizens.

Wolf warrior diplomacy is probably here to stay

Media analysis to date has focused largely on how the United States and its allies — the target of China’s insults — view this type of diplomacy. Polling results in 2019 show developed and developing nations have divided attitudes toward China: Citizens in low-GDP countries tend to have more favorable views toward China.

When 39 Western countries condemned China last year for human rights concerns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Pakistan and Cuba, on behalf of 65 countries, issued statements supporting China and urging other countries to “refrain from making unfounded allegations against China out of political motivations.” For developing countries that are dissatisfied with the United States and the West, China’s boldness in confronting the United States and its multilateral institutions might serve to strengthen China’s image as a capable leader.

In fighting foreign criticism of China, Chinese diplomats respond with loaded language and “whataboutism,” embracing Xi’s demand for the fighting spirit. As outside criticism of China’s human rights and other policies shows little sign of receding, it’s likely we’ll continue to see wolf warrior diplomacy. However, Beijing doesn’t have to follow up the tough talks with tough actions because many in China see the vague confrontational language as a victory.

Yaoyao Dai is assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research areas include authoritarian politics, populism and information manipulation.

Luwei Rose Luqiu is assistant professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research focuses on censorship, propaganda and social movements in authoritarian regimes. Follow her on Twitter @roseluqiu.