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Image: Oxford University Press, 2021

Over the past two years, China's previously reticent diplomats have taken to Twitter and the airwaves to feature a raft of highly nationalistic and sometimes combative positions, often directly damaging their relationships with their host countries. A new book explains this shift in behavior.

The big picture: An increasingly tense political environment at home, combined with a growing belief that China's time has come, has convinced many Chinese diplomats that the safest way to advance their own careers and their country's interests is through displays of patriotism.

Meetings with Chinese diplomats can often feel scripted and formal, and it's difficult to develop the kind of personal working relationships that are common among diplomats from many other countries.

But in his new book, "China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy," Bloomberg reporter Peter Martin paints a deeply human portrait of China's emissaries, pulling back the veil on their motivations and struggles.

  • Martin draws on dozens of interviews and more than 100 Chinese-language memoirs of former Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, digging up behind-the-scenes anecdotes and mining the often-stilted formal writing for occasional glimpses into the personalities and true feelings of China's diplomats as they navigated career, politics, bureaucracy and the rest of the world.
  • Chinese diplomats may act differently than officials from many other countries, Martin told Axios in an interview, but "they’ve got a comparable set of anxieties about their careers, and the system, and how their families fit into things. It’s just that the system sets them up with a different set of incentives than Western diplomats and thus they behave differently."
  • "But they make a great deal of sense when you meet them on their own terms."

The book is a masterful retelling of modern Chinese history through the lens of China's diplomats, following top Communist Party cadre Zhou Enlai as he seeks to build a Foreign Ministry from the bottom up after the 1949 founding of the People's Republic.

  • The book's title comes from a phrase that Zhou used to describe his vision of the Foreign Ministry as a "civilian army" that emulated the strict discipline and ideological dedication of the People's Liberation Army.
  • The story follows the earliest ambassadors, a group of battle-hardened generals, as well as new diplomats fresh from China's countryside, as they learned the basics of diplomatic protocol from Soviet counterparts, took etiquette classes, and tried to balance the austere communist values back home with the gilded lifestyles of diplomatic communities abroad.
  • But the Foreign Ministry, like every other organization in China, suffered through periodic waves of political paranoia, including the violence and abuse of the Cultural Revolution as diplomats were sent to labor camps in the countryside, family members of fallen officials died by suicide, and one top official was locked in a single room for years.

What's happening: "The impulse for Chinese diplomats to follow Xi's lead is rooted in fear as well as ambition," Martin writes. "The easiest way for diplomats to work towards Xi's wishes is to assert Chinese interests forcefully on the world stage."

  • "As the domestic political environment becomes increasingly tense, and there is more focus on one individual leader at the top and more focus on ideology throughout the system, Chinese diplomats start to behave in ways that they feel will advance their careers and manage uncertainty. This is entirely consistent with what has gone on in the past," Martin told Axios.
  • What's different this time, Martin said, is that the Chinese leadership is now convinced that the West is in decline and that China's time has come.
  • "Because of this confluence of factors, it makes most sense from their perspective to be very combative in the way they defend China."

Go deeper: China's "Wolf Warrior diplomacy" comes to Twitter

Go deeper

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