BOOK EXCERPT: China's Civilian Army - The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy by Peter Martin
A Beijing to Britain bonus brief
Six years ago today, Chinese President Xi Jinping was deep in discussion with British Prime Minister David Cameron in the Cabinet Room of Downing Street. Xi was on a state visit to the UK and the Golden Era was in full swing. He spent the day signing £40bn worth of contracts with the Prime Minister, confirming Chinese companies would be investing in British nuclear power stations, looking around Imperial College London with Chancellor George Osborne, and visiting Huawei’s London base in the evening. UK-China relations were at an all-time high.
Fast forward 72 months, and things are less rosy. China’s Ambassador has been banned from visiting the Parliamentary Estate, Britain’s Ambassador has been summoned over an “arrogant” article on WeChat, and MPs have beefed with Chinese Embassy officials on Twitter, even referring the matter to the Speaker of the House. This is to say nothing of the wider geopolitical and economic changes that have taken place.
Running throughout has been a stream of aggressive Chinese diplomatic rhetoric, referred to as ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’. Chinese officials have called Parliament’s actions “shortsighted, reckless and cowardly”, promised that those “evil forces” calling for supply chain scrutiny regarding slave labour will face “the condemnation of conscious and the reckoning of justice”, and “urge[d] the handful of individuals in the UK Parliament to stop playing political tricks, or they would only make things worse for themselves.”
Where has this rhetoric come from? Who pioneered this thinking? What motivates Chinese diplomats to engage with the outside world like this?
China’s Civilian Army tells the story of China’s transformation from an isolated and impoverished communist state to a global superpower from the perspective of its diplomats. In the early days of the People’s Republic, diplomats were highly disciplined, committed communists who feared revealing any weakness to the threatening capitalist world. Remarkably, the model that revolutionary leader Zhou Enlai established continues to this day despite the massive changes the country has undergone in recent decades. Even today, Chinese diplomats work in pairs so that one can always watch the other for signs of ideological impurity. China’s Civilian Army charts the history of China’s diplomatic corps from its earliest days through to the present, drawing on the memoirs of more than a hundred retired diplomats and dozens of interviews.
Peter has kindly given us permission to share a fascinating couple of paragraphs. The excerpt looks at Ke Hua, China’s former Ambassador to Britain in the late 70s and early 80s - a time of significant societal, economic and political change in both countries. Ke also holds the unique role of having been President Xi Jinping’s first father in law. During his time in London, Ke began to question the world around him, even going as far as to consider sending cables home outlining the benefits of a capitalist democracy.
Read on and do buy “China's Civilian Army, The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”
Excerpt - Rethinking Capitalism (Chapter 8)
Deng was determined to get his country unstuck. His decision to make “practice the sole criterion of truth” at the Third Plenum meeting a few weeks earlier in Beijing had laid the domestic groundwork for a dramatic turn in Chinese history, while his geopolitical shift toward the United States would provide him with breathing space to pursue reform at home.
Deng was already looking to draw lessons on how to reform China’s economy during his trip to the United States. He visited a Boeing factory in Seattle, where he told his hosts that China had “many things to learn from the innovative industrial culture of the American people.” Deng also asked if he could see a state-owned enterprise and was taken to the National Mint, although it was closed for the weekend when he arrived. He also demonstrated a knack for engaging the American public when he donned a ten-gallon hat in Houston.
Deng’s domestic economic reforms and his outreach to the West marked the start of an extraordinary period of learning and experimentation in China.
Diplomats were at the vanguard of this process. Far more exposed than even the most powerful Beijing officials to just how far China had fallen behind, they found themselves confronted with unsettling truths: the capitalist model they had long reviled had delivered greater prosperity and higher living standards than communism. Some even began to question the Party’s monopoly on power.
One of the most open in his thinking was Ke Hua, Xi Jinping’s soon-to-be father-in-law. Posted to London in 1978, at the tail-end of Prime Minister James Callaghan’s embattled Labour government, Ke found himself on the front lines of the neo-liberal moment. In Britain and across the world, the prosperity and stability of the postwar economy had given way to new risks and surprises as policymakers began to lose faith in Keynesian economics. As workers went on strike and sometimes rioted in the streets, prominent think tanks such as the Center for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute were pushing for Britain to free markets from state control. By May 1979, Margaret Thatcher would be prime minister. Before long, Augusto Pinochet was pushing markets in Chile and Ronald Reagan was campaigning for the White House against Jimmy Carter’s failed policies that had led to high inflation and low growth—“stagflation.”
Ke’s revolutionary credentials were impeccable. As a student, he’d become involved in political activism, traveled to Yan’an, and served in the Red Army. After taking up roles in local government after 1949, he was transferred to the foreign ministry, where he weathered the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution before being appointed to London just as China’s reforms were getting started. His daughter, Ke Xiaoming (also known as Ke Lingling), would soon marry Xi Jinping, the son of another high-ranking official, Xi Zhongxun. (The couple went on to fight “almost every day” and eventually divorced when Ke Xiaoming moved back to England, but Xi refused to move with her).
From the outside, there were few signs that Ke was doing much serious thinking about his situation. When he met and dined with British officials in London, he was personable and courteous, but stuck closely to his talking points. Inside the embassy, he was experimenting with heresy.
At first, Ke’s observations about Britain were highly personal. When his son fell ill, he found that all of the healthcare costs associated with the treatments were taken care of by the UK government—even including fruit and milk—despite the fact that the family were not even citizens. It got him thinking about whether the system he was looking at was really as evil as he had believed for most of his life. “It seemed that we needed to rethink capitalism,” he later recalled.
These were brave thoughts for an official from a country where challenging the Party’s stance could be dangerous. Although Deng had begun pushing market reforms at home, no one knew how this experiment would work out or even how long he would be able to stay in power.
Chinese diplomats across the world were having similar experiences. Some dwelled on how different social and economic habits were in the capitalist West. In Chicago, diplomats saw twenty-four-hour stores, shopping carts, bar codes, and car trunks filled up with perishable goods all for the first time in their lives. In New York, they saw their first Western-style “white weddings” (in traditional Chinese weddings the bride usually wore red).
Others focused on the lessons China could take from these experiences. In Norway, diplomats were struck by the country’s apparently constant flow of students traveling overseas and returning with new ideas. In the Netherlands, China’s first female ambassador, Ding Xuesong, sent Beijing reports on the kinds of technology China would need as it modernized based on her visits to Royal Philips NV factories and Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s natural gas fields.10 China’s first ambassador to Ireland, Gong Pusheng, helped alert Beijing to her host country’s experiment with the kind of free trade zones that would later inspire China’s Special Economic Zones in Shenzhen and elsewhere.
Ke felt that simple factual reporting on what he saw wasn’t enough. Instead, his cables back to Beijing challenged Marxist doctrine head-on: “Contrary to what we were taught in books, capitalist profits have not been derived from expropriating the surplus value of labor for quite some time,” Ke wrote. He added that there was no chance of revolution in the UK or any other European nation.
Telling the truth wasn’t always easy. In fact, it was often painful for staff in the London embassy. As Ke’s own beliefs began to shift, he encouraged those under him to challenge theirs. “You must all speak the truth,” he told his diplomats. “After the ‘Cultural Revolution,’ speaking the truth is not easy. Everyone likes to speak falsehoods without even thinking about it. If any of you think telling the truth is too difficult, then at least speak fewer falsehoods or don’t speak at all.”
It was a sign of the times that Ke’s conclusions on economics didn’t land him in trouble at home. But there were still limits. Ke had wanted to cable Beijing with his observations on the advantages of “capitalist democracy,” but none of his colleagues wanted their names attached to something so sensitive. Ke ended up keeping these observations to himself.
His colleagues were right to be concerned. Deng Xiaoping’s government had rounded up activists in Beijing and across China after they called for free elections in 1979. In an important statement in 1981, Deng and the rest of the Party’s leadership would rule that any opposition to the Party’s continued monopoly on power would not be tolerated.
Undeterred, Ke spent his spare time compiling information on the workings of inter-party competition and a free press. “I’m personally very clear that the question of democracy is unavoidable for this generation and subsequent generations,” Ke later wrote. Quietly, many in 1980s China were reaching similar conclusions. For now, though, Chinese diplomats had to deal with a new occupant in the White House who was causing problems for Sino-American relations.
Thank you to Peter and the Oxford University Press team. Do buy “China's Civilian Army, The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”