Diplomatic Epithets: On Peter Martin’s “China’s Civilian Army” and Yuan-Tsung Chen’s “The Secret Listener: An Ingenue in Mao’s Court”

By Anatol KlassFebruary 23, 2022

Diplomatic Epithets: On Peter Martin’s “China’s Civilian Army” and Yuan-Tsung Chen’s “The Secret Listener: An Ingenue in Mao’s Court”

China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy by Peter Martin
The Secret Listener: An Ingenue in Mao’s Court by Yuan-Tsung Chen

WILL ROGERS ONCE described diplomacy as “the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.” The “nice doggie” tradition, with its emphasis on a genteel code of conduct, can be traced back to the era when diplomacy was the preserve of the high-born and refined, such as counts and princes. Given that international politics is no longer the exclusive domain of the nobles of Europe or their counterparts in other places, it can sometimes be surprising to see the level of opprobrium that ensues when a nation’s representatives transgress against these rules of civility.

In recent years, Chinese diplomats have received much attention and condemnation for doing just this, as part of a trend labeled by foreign media as “wolf warrior diplomacy” (zhanlang waijiao). The term is derived from the title of a 2017 action film, Wolf Warrior 2, in which a charismatic Chinese commando travels to a fictitious African country to save stranded Chinese citizens from Big Daddy, the evil American commando. Often compared to Rambo, this stridently nationalistic macho movie was the highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time until a few months ago, when a stridently nationalistic film about the Korean War (The Battle at Lake Changjin) surpassed it.

The actual practice of wolf warrior diplomacy is far less swashbuckling than its cinematic namesake. Its partisans are known for issuing brash statements and fiery online posts that range from the comically ham-fisted to the jarringly distasteful. This past summer, for example, a cultural attaché at the Chinese embassy in Pakistan tweeted out an image showing two hands, one giving a thumbs-up gesture to China’s friends while the other raised its middle finger to China’s enemies. Less than two weeks later, the Chinese consul general in Rio de Janeiro posted a series of tweets mocking the US response to the collapse of the Surfside condominium in Miami that killed 98 residents, noting that the American government was all too capable when it came to destroying buildings, but had little practice rescuing people inside them.

As these examples suggest, wolf warrior diplomacy is a discursive practice rather than a coherent approach to foreign policy. It is a tone that some Chinese diplomats deploy not just via social media, but also when meeting with foreign interlocutors. Wolf warrior incidents are almost always rhetorical in nature, with the notable exception of a fistfight that two Chinese diplomats in Fiji instigated in 2020 after discovering a cake decorated with Taiwan’s flag.

Peter Martin’s engaging new book, China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, is the first historical work on this subject. With the present in mind, he traces the precursors to wolf warrior diplomacy back to the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Martin, a journalist with Bloomberg who has reported on China since 2017 and spent years in the country before moving to the United States, has mined the memoirs of PRC diplomats to piece together a portrait of Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as it developed in parallel with the new nation. While reporting from China, Martin published numerous articles about wolf warrior diplomacy. Some dozen of those pieces are cited in his endnotes, showing that the term’s rise in usage owes more to foreign journalists looking for snappy headlines than it does to Chinese actors who rarely utilize it. Wolf warrior diplomacy, he argues, is not a novel by-product of China’s superpower ascendancy, but rather has its roots in the institutional and bureaucratic culture of the ministry, a system that has always prioritized military-style loyalty and discipline over diplomatic courtesies.

Zhou Enlai, the PRC’s first foreign minister, is identified as the originator of this martial spirit. His dictum that “diplomatic personnel are the People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing” appears throughout the book, as repeated by successive generations of Beijing’s representatives overseas. China’s diplomatic corps has undoubtedly developed and professionalized in the seven decades since Mao selected a motley assortment of revolutionary generals as his first ambassadors, most of them without any foreign language skills or overseas experience. Yet, despite the accumulation of sophisticated expertise and skills, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains more beholden to the political climate in Beijing than the conventions of international politics.

Since 1949, Martin argues, China’s foreign policy has repeatedly vacillated between charm offensives and periods of retrenchment. The charm offensives give China’s “civilian army” an opportunity to deploy its global expertise, such as during the PRC’s push to cultivate relations with the developing world in the decade after the Korean War and the more recent campaign to win back friends after the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. In periods of heightened political paranoia, however, diplomats speak exclusively for the benefit of a domestic audience, demonstrating their loyalty by lecturing and berating rather than negotiating. The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) is the prime example of this diplomatic retreat, when the fear of having one’s actions reported back to Beijing led Chinese embassy workers to cease all but the most politically correct of activities. Diplomats swapped their Western-style jackets for Mao suits and took to the streets of their assigned countries to hand out copies of Mao’s little red book. According to Martin, wolf warrior diplomacy is a modified return to this insular form of Chinese diplomacy, a manifestation of the political climate in Beijing that does not allow for more collaborative forms of international engagement.

Martin has a keen eye for humorous anecdotes, perhaps best on display in his account of how PRC’s first generation of diplomats threw mock cocktail parties to practice socializing and peeped through keyholes to learn how foreign diplomats performed the ritual of presenting credentials. At times I found myself wishing that Martin had drawn more than just anecdotes from diplomatic memoirs: I was left with little sense of the personality and perspective of the diplomatic rank and file. Only Zhou Enlai emerges as a fully formed character, although a few of the ministry’s post-Mao figures get some individual attention such as Qian Qichen, Dai Bingguo, and Yang Jiechi (Qian and Dai as veterans of China’s post-Tiananmen charm campaign and Yang as a transitional figure who can switch back and forth between discussions of The New York Times’s culture section and blistering tirades about Xi Jinping Thought). Martin’s book falls into the hagiographical tradition of Zhou biographies, celebrating his personal sophistication as a diplomat and level-headedness as a politician. Yet, unlike most other celebrations of Zhou that focus on his behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Martin gives us a unique glimpse of him as the king of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Within this little fiefdom, small but bold acts of loyalty to Zhou took place, including embassies hanging his portrait on the wall next to Mao’s or diplomats defying orders from Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) to attend Zhou’s funeral.

Zhou Enlai is also a crucial figure in Yuan-Tsung Chen’s new memoir, The Secret Listener: An Ingenue in Mao’s Court. Chen, previously the author of a widely taught novel based on her experiences during the land reform campaigns of the 1950s and a history of her husband’s unusual Chinese-Trinidadian family (his paternal grandfather fled to the Caribbean after participating in a 19th-century uprising), offers a vivid account of her own early years in pre-communist China and young adulthood during the Mao era (1949–1976). Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Chen’s fortunes rose and fell with successive waves of revolutionary campaigns. One minute she was ensconced in Beijing’s “magic circle” — her term for a nebulous assortment of internationally minded PRC intellectuals — and in the next she was exiled to the countryside precisely because of the political suspicions attached to such figures. Zhou was at the center of the circle. Chen first encountered the premier at a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin where they flirted briefly until she realized that he was looking over her shoulder at Gong Peng, the famously glamorous PRC diplomat and, according to Chen, the great love of Zhou’s life. This romantic version of Zhou, more Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence than revolutionary forefather, eventually fades into the more familiar trope of the premier as a beleaguered martyr at a time when nights at the opera give way to Maoist purges. Indeed, Martin’s and Chen’s books converge at a moment in 1967 when Zhou Enlai interposed his own body to prevent Red Guards from attacking Chen Yi, then the foreign minister, in the halls of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Like China’s Civilian Army, Chen’s memoir includes a portrait of a bureaucratic system responding to the pressures of factional politics. In The Secret Listener, the relevant government body is the cultural propaganda bureaucracy where both the author and her husband, Jack Chen, worked. She describes the ranks of propaganda workers as filled with figures who were part of the cultural elite during the era of Nationalist Party rule, now deploying their expertise in the service of the Communist Party. This kind of bourgeois background was often a major liability during the Maoist period, but it was also at times an asset, a source of connection with powerful figures who could provide assistance and protection in times of turmoil, such as when Zhou Enlai arranged for the Chens to leave the mainland in 1971. Even the work of the cultural bureaucracy was tinged by this cosmopolitanism — in one memorable instance, Chen invited a hotel manager to visit her workplace for a private screening of Greta Garbo’s Camille so that he could learn how to wait upon visiting Englishmen by studying the film’s butler characters.

Martin, on the other hand, describes the development of PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs after 1949 as a complete break from all that came before, with the entire pre-revolutionary diplomatic corps cast aside in Mao’s policy of “cleaning the house before inviting guests.” Historians of 20th-century China, however, have spent decades pushing back against the idea that 1949 was a moment of total rupture. Most scholarship now emphasizes the bureaucratic and social continuities that connected Mao’s government to its predecessor regimes. In part, historians are wary of rupture narratives because they risk repeating and reifying the story that the Chinese Communist Party tells about its own past.

Martin’s insistence that the post-revolutionary Ministry of Foreign Affairs was an entirely new enterprise is possibly a result of applying too little scrutiny to the autobiographies that he so frequently references. These books, written at the height of China’s reform and opening era in the 1980s, constitute a particular genre of bureaucratic memoirs with its own recurring tropes. The tidy rupture narrative presented in such sources is called into question when one reads Chen’s account of the same period, a very different kind of memoir written in the Xi Jinping era. Of course, The Secret Listener is itself a product of the political environment in which it was written: the prologue describes the author writing her book as a resident of Hong Kong at a time when a national security law imposed by Beijing has led to political persecution tactics disturbingly like those of the Mao era. Such biases do not invalidate memoirs as historical sources, but they must be acknowledged and scrutinized.

Even though Zhou replaced all of China’s ambassadors and overseas staff after 1949, appointing revolutionary generals and loyal cadres in their place, a country’s diplomatic system is far more extensive than just the most publicly visible personnel. Especially within the foreign policy research apparatus, there were many prominent figures with ties to the previous regime who continued their work after 1949. Even the theme of militarization, which Martin returns to numerous times and includes in his title, has deep roots in the Republican period when diplomatic trainees, like many other students and bureaucrats, spent their weekends taking part in military drills. The constant comparison to soldiers hardly set diplomats apart from other groups in Maoist China. During the Great Leap Forward, peasants marched into the fields in military formations with accompanying drums, to give just one prominent example.

This long view also reveals that wolf warrior diplomacy is merely the latest in a string of epithets that have been attached to different iterations of Chinese foreign policy in the 20th century, some coined by foreigners and others by Chinese actors themselves. In the 1920s, in response to China’s diplomatic failures at the Paris Peace Conference, there was a widespread movement for “citizen diplomacy” in which popular sovereignty would be applied to diplomacy, and citizens would be able to directly shape foreign policy. The 1930s saw the rise of “revolutionary diplomacy” as Soviet-influenced left-wingers within the Republican government advocated for an explicitly anti-imperialist foreign policy. Zhou’s combination of mobilizing “old friends” and reaching out to the Third World after 1949 was referred to as “people’s diplomacy.” The twilight of the Mao period brought on “ping-pong diplomacy” and “panda diplomacy” while the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted discussions of “vaccine diplomacy.” Each of these phases, like wolf warrior diplomacy, represented not just a reaction to elite politics at the center, but a broader transposition of the Chinese national project onto the international stage.

China’s Civilian Army is largely sympathetic to the plight of PRC diplomats, leaving the reader with the sense that they are unwilling wolf warriors, forced to debase their craft in order to cater to a domestic audience of party leaders and patriotic netizens. Though Martin stops short of making explicit policy recommendations, this portrait of shackled diplomats who must perform political theater rather than negotiate in good faith offers some promising cues for policymakers in Washington. It suggests that if Xi Jinping’s centralization of political power continues then China’s representatives on the world stage will be increasingly constrained by their need to demonstrate loyalty. There will be opportunities to out-maneuver and out-charm Chinese counterparts, even as the PRC’s economic and military power continues to grow. Journalists, scholars, and policymakers should all approach the topic of wolf warrior diplomacy in these concrete terms, seeking its roots in China’s historical experience and its indications of the political headwinds coming out of Beijing.


Anatol Klass is a doctoral candidate in history at UC Berkeley. He studies the intellectual and bureaucratic origins of contemporary Chinese diplomacy.

LARB Contributor

Anatol Klass is a doctoral candidate in History at UC Berkeley. He studies the intellectual and bureaucratic origins of contemporary Chinese diplomacy.


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