China has barely been out of the news in the last few months. Headlines have been fuelled by the increasingly strident administration of President Xi Jinping cracking down on human rights, slapping tariffs on overseas goods and its diplomats undiplomatically throwing shade on any nation that doesn’t acquiesce to Beijing’s demands.
By all accounts the powers that be in China are chuffed with themselves, feeling this more forceful approach is just the thing for battering nations into doing its bidding.
You might call it a take no prisoners approach – except Beijing seems quite keen on taking as many prisoners as possible – including a number of Australians some of which have yet to be charged.
But while the Chinese Government’s approach may win it friends within the Communist party hierarchy; aboard its losing friends faster than a septuagenarian going out for coffee while waiting for a COVID test result on Sydney’s northern beaches.
The strategy may be one of Beijing’s biggest strategic miscalculations yet.
After many years of China’s star rising, attitudes towards the nation are plummeting to new lows. And that’s making it harder for countries to be seen to capitulate to its demands.
Nowhere is this starker than in Australia.
“Negative views of China increased most in Australia, where 81 per cent now say they see the country unfavourably, up 24 percentage points since last year,” stated a report from the US Pew Research Centre, a think tank.
The same report said distrust in President XI was at an “unprecedented high” across most nations it surveyed and that had been “especially sharp” in the last year.
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China has a word for its relatively recent and forceful style of international relations: “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
The term was coined from a Rambo-style Chinese action film, Wolf Warrior 2.
The slogan of the movie was: “Whoever offends China will be punished, no matter how far they are.”
It has seen China not only lash out at any criticism levelled it but also to deliberately provoke nations that have displeased it.
Beijing’s dealings with Canberra – from refusing to take Australian minister’s phone calls to leaving lobsters to die at airports while spurious customs checks take place – have hardly been polite.
But perhaps the clearest example of the ‘wolf warrior’ strategy was a tweet from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian which showed a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of a young child.
It was a reference to the Brereton Report into alleged war crimes by Australian SAS soldiers in Afghanistan. It was all very hypocritical given the reams of abuses China has been criticised for. The tweet led to a furious response from Prime Minister Scott Morrison who has demanded an apology. It has not been forthcoming.
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Communist Party mouthpiece The Global Times has praised the wolf warrior approach, declaring it a push back against “fake news”.
“This change in China’s diplomatic style has won a round of applause as many Chinese people want to see diplomats responding to Western accusations with not just humble explanations or inactive silence, but also the ability to resolutely to fight back against the stigmatisations and to bravely challenge Western hegemonic bullies.
“The West will adjust to China’s new assertive and confident diplomatic style one day when they genuinely accept peaceful coexistence with a powerful China, and admit that containment and confrontation against China is both meaningless and useless.”
The hope is that bashing nations into submission will ultimately see Beijing emerge victorious in international disputes. It appears it may be a vain hope.
In the middle of the year, the Pew Centre surveyed 14,300 adults in 14 countries about their views towards China. As well as Australia, these nations also included Spain, the US, Germany, South Korea and the Netherlands.
It found China’s reputational stocks have plummeted. The sharp fall in favourable views came down to two factors: China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of confidence in Mr Xi.
More than 60 per cent of respondents said China had done a bad job with the pandemic while 78 per cent did not believe Mr Xi could be trusted to “do the right thing regarding world affairs”.
“This lack of confidence in Xi is at historic highs in (almost) every country for which trend data is available,” said the report.
“Japan stands out as a country where less than 0.5 per cent of the public – effectively no one – reports having a lot of confidence in China’s president.”
The trade dispute between China and Australia and the increasingly heated rhetoric from Beijing has not gone down well with the Australian public, the research found, which was published in October. The view of China in Australia is at its bleakest since polling began in 2008.
More than 80 per cent of Australians surveyed said they now view China unfavourably. Given the report was done several months ago, it’s very possible Australian sentiment towards China has dropped even further.
“In Australia, 54 per cent had little or no confidence in Xi in 2019, and now 79 per cent say the same, a 25 percentage point increase,” the report stated.
Older Australians are more inclined to see China negatively. But, for the first time, a majority of younger Australian also look unfavourably towards the country.
The Pew findings mirror those from the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. That said in 2020, Australians’ trust in China to “act responsibly in the world” had fallen to their lowest level ever.
Only North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was seen as less trustworthy to pay fair in world affairs than Mr Xi.
Last month, the Chinese embassy leaked a list of 14 demands that it’s suggested would help restore the bilateral relationship. They included Australia no longer calling out China’s human rights abuses; keeping quiet on the ongoing erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and threats to independent Taiwan as well as preventing MPs and the media from criticising China.
“China is angry,” a Chinese official remarked at the time
“If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.”
But even if China’s “demands” were reasonable – and muzzling MPs or the media is clearly not in a democratic society – the research shows there is little appetite from the Australian public to appease the nation.
A Guardian Essential Poll from last week showed almost half of Australians think the country should now back away from China, at least partially; and that Australia is the victim of Chinese bullying.
More than half of respondents backed Mr Morrison’s call for China to apologise for the doctored social media post.
“China don’t want Australia to be expressing views about what we think is important in regional security,” Peter Jennings from researchers the Australian Strategic Policy Institute told Channel 9 last month.
“No Australian can live with that, no democracy can live with that.”
If the Chinese plan was to demoralise the Australian public and, in turn, put pressure on the Government to sue for a normalising of relations on Beijing’s terms, the forceful wolf warrior tactics maybe doing the exact opposite.

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