Furious patriots: China’s diplomatic makeover backfires

This file photo taken on April 8, 2020 shows Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian taking a question at the daily media briefing in Beijing. (AFP / Greg Baker)
This file photo taken on April 8, 2020 shows Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian taking a question at the daily media briefing in Beijing. (AFP / Greg Baker)
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Updated 27 June 2021

Furious patriots: China’s diplomatic makeover backfires

Furious patriots: China’s diplomatic makeover backfires
  • President Xi Jinping wants top political leaders to help cultivate a “reliable, admirable and respectable” international image of China
  • Years of stoking nationalism at home has left Beijing with little room to make more complex diplomatic maneuvers, observers say

BEIJING: For over a year they have whipped up outrage against the West, but as China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats are told to tone down the fury, they face an unexpected source of opposition: nationalists at home.
Under fire in recent years over issues ranging from human rights abuses to blame for the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing unleashed a new breed of diplomat that became known as “wolf warriors” — a popular term for belligerent nationalism inspired by a Chinese blockbuster film.
Foreign ministry spokespeople and officials abroad adopted a strident and indignant tone to loudly defend the Communist-led country and even promote conspiracy theories or openly insult foreign counterparts.
But in something of an about-turn, President Xi Jinping this month urged top political leaders to help cultivate a “reliable, admirable and respectable” international image in a bid to improve China’s soft power.
Officials and state media, he said, should help to “better tell China’s stories.”
For some analysts, the comments spoke to a growing realization that years of stoking nationalism at home has left Beijing with little room to make more complex diplomatic maneuvers.
While the change shows a “broader realization at the top of the party that China’s recent diplomatic strategy... has not been well received abroad, including among potential allies,” said Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Center in the Netherlands, the new approach requires a delicate balancing act.
“China’s leaders have maneuvered themselves into somewhat of a trap. On the one hand, they have promised the world a mild and benevolent China — on the other hand, they have promised domestic audiences a strong and assertive China.”

Officials and intellectuals calling for subtler messaging have faced nationalist pushback — leaving them torn between their domestic and international audiences.
“Patriotic” Weibo influencers in June turned against prominent Chinese intellectuals who participated in a Japanese government-sponsored study exchange program, branding them “traitors” for accepting Japanese money and writing positively about the country.
Beijing eventually stepped in, calling the program a way to “build up trust and deepen friendship” — in stark contrast with Weibo users who called one writer a “Japanese running dog undeserving of sympathy.”

"If China tries to soften its image, patriots at home will be furious. If it plays to the patriots, the world community reacts negatively.” 

Jonathan Hassid, political science professor at Iowa State University

The online campaign against the exchange program coincided with a visit by US senators to the democratic island of Taiwan to donate coronavirus vaccines, to which the foreign ministry gave an uncharacteristically mild rebuke that prompted the scorn of nationalist Internet trolls.
“Why aren’t we shooting them down, they’ve violated our airspace!” one furious Weibo user wrote, a sentiment shared by a number of other users.
“So weak and incompetent,” another lamented.
Beijing has often encouraged nationalism when convenient, including online campaigns that flared this year for boycotts of foreign clothing brands that made statements about avoiding cotton from China’s Xinjiang, due to allegations of forced labor.
But even some of China’s most strident apologists have admitted that toned-down rhetoric would be more fitting of the major-power status the country claims.
Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, wrote last month that government social media accounts should “hold high the banner of humanitarianism” after a Communist Party-run Weibo account posted a mocking comparison between a Chinese rocket launch and the cremation of Covid-19 victims in India.
“Sometimes this ‘wolf warrior’ sentiment can get out of hand,” Jonathan Hassid, a professor of political science at Iowa State University told AFP.
“(But) if China tries to soften its image, patriots at home will be furious. If it plays to the patriots, the world community reacts negatively.”

A change in tone has not equalled a change in approach.
Beijing rolled out a law in mid-June that will allow it to hit back at companies that comply with foreign sanctions, and has stepped up incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
China also made global headlines this week after a national security law imposed by Beijing was used to crush a popular Hong Kong tabloid that offered unapologetic support for the city’s pro-democracy movement.
The paper’s senior executives have been arrested, as well as owner Jimmy Lai.
Adam Ni, an analyst at the China Policy Center in Canberra said Beijing is grappling with goals that are “in tension with each other.”
“Beijing wants a better international image,” he told AFP.
“But the domestic political drivers, as well as the need to assert its interests, means that it will continue to take actions that run in the opposite direction.”

 


Sydney eases more COVID-19 curbs as vaccinations pass milestone

Sydney eases more COVID-19 curbs as vaccinations pass milestone
Updated 48 min 13 sec ago

Sydney eases more COVID-19 curbs as vaccinations pass milestone

Sydney eases more COVID-19 curbs as vaccinations pass milestone
  • Masks will no longer be mandatory in offices and more people will be allowed to gather in homes and outdoors

SYDNEY: Thousands of children returned to school in Sydney on Monday after months of home learning as Australia’s largest city, buoyed by rising vaccination rates, eased more COVID-19 restrictions.
Masks will no longer be mandatory in offices and more people will be allowed to gather in homes and outdoors after New South Wales state, home to Sydney, reached an 80 percent double dose inoculation rate for people aged over 16 over the weekend.
The latest in a series of planned easing of restrictions marks a shift by Australia’s largest cities to living with the virus, a strategy officials have warned will bring a greater number of COVID-19 cases in coming weeks.
“This is not over, there is a long journey to go,” New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet said on Monday, urging people to strictly follow the remaining health rules.
Retail stores, pubs and gyms can allow more vaccinated patrons and nightclubs can reopen for seated drinking, while weddings can have unlimited guests. However, all must follow social distancing measures.
The return to the classroom has been staggered, with the youngest and eldest students — those in kindergarten, year 1 and year 12 — returning on Monday. All others return next week.
New South Wales reported 265 new cases on Monday, the lowest single-day rise in 10 weeks and well below a high of 1,599 in early September.
Neighboring Victoria reported 1,903 new cases, up from 1,838 a day earlier. State capital Melbourne is on track to begin exiting its lockdown on Friday as full vaccination levels near 70 percent. The city has endured around nine months under strict stay-home orders since March 2020 — the longest in the world, according to Australian media.
Some virus-free states, however, have flagged they will keep internal borders closed amid fears that reopening could overwhelm their health systems.
By contrast, the federal government said it would roll out its vaccination passport for international travel from Tuesday, a key step in its plan to allow Australian citizens to travel abroad from next month.
Authorities said last week that vaccinated international travelers, initially only citizens and permanent residents, will be allowed to enter Sydney from Nov. 1 without the need to quarantine.
With some 145,000 cases and 1,543 deaths, Australia’s exposure to the coronavirus pandemic has been relatively low.


Myanmar opposition welcomes ASEAN’s junta snub, wants summit invite

Myanmar opposition welcomes ASEAN’s junta snub, wants summit invite
Updated 18 October 2021

Myanmar opposition welcomes ASEAN’s junta snub, wants summit invite

Myanmar opposition welcomes ASEAN’s junta snub, wants summit invite
  • ASEAN will invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to its Oct. 26-28 summit
  • Myanmar has been in turmoil since the coup, which ended a decade of tentative democracy and economic reform

Myanmar’s shadow government, formed by opponents of ruling military, welcomed on Monday the exclusion of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing from an upcoming regional summit, but said it should be the legitimate representative.
However, the opposition said it would accept inviting a truly neutral alternative Myanmar representative, as decided over the weekend by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
ASEAN will invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to its Oct. 26-28 summit, in an unprecedented snub to the military leaders behind a Feb. 1 coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government.
The opposition National Unity Government (NUG), which has been outlawed by the military, said the non-political figure who attends the summit must not be a representative of the junta in disguise.
“ASEAN excluding Min Aung Hlaing is an important step, but we request that they recognize us as the proper representative,” said its spokesman Dr. Sasa.
The decision was an unusually bold step for the consensus-driven bloc, which traditionally favors a policy of engagement and non-interference.
Brunei, ASEAN’s current chair, issued a statement citing a lack of progress made on a roadmap that the junta had agreed to with ASEAN in April to restore peace in Myanmar.
A spokesman for Myanmar’s military government blamed “foreign intervention” for the decision which it said was against the objectives of ASEAN, the ASEAN Charter and its principles.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the coup, which ended a decade of tentative democracy and economic reform. Thousands of its opponents have been arrested, including San Suu Kyi.
Security forces have killed more than 1,100 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an activist group that has tracked the arrests and killings. The military has called its opponents “terrorists.”


New Zealand PM Ardern extends COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland

New Zealand PM Ardern extends COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland
Updated 18 October 2021

New Zealand PM Ardern extends COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland

New Zealand PM Ardern extends COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland
  • No changes in the social restrictions that have already been in place for over two months in Auckland under alert level 3

WELLINGTON: New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that the country’s biggest city Auckland will remain in lockdown for another two weeks as it looks to control the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
There will be no changes in the social restrictions that have already been in place for over two months in Auckland under alert level 3, Ardern said at a news conference.


Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week

Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week
Updated 18 October 2021

Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week

Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week
  • News comes amid reports of rift between govt and army chief over the appointment

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s interior minister said on Saturday that matters relating to the appointment of the new head of Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s premier intelligence agency, would be resolved within a week.

The army is arguably the most influential institution in Pakistan, with the military having ruled the country for about half of its 74-year history since independence from Britain, and has enjoyed extensive power even under civilian administrations.

The head of the intelligence in turn, is one of the most important posts in Pakistan.

The army’s media wing on Oct. 6 announced Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmad Anjum as the agency’s new head, and posted the current chief, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, as Corps Commander Peshawar.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, though, has yet to issue an official notification about the posting, fueling reports of a rift between the government and army over the appointment.

Earlier this week, the prime minister and head of the army, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, held consultations over the role.  

“From this Friday, which passed yesterday, till the next, all issues will be resolved,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said at a ceremony in Islamabad.

“The ones who wish ill of our institutions and can’t stand Imran Khan’s democracy keep talking, but they will not succeed,” he added.

Created in 1948,  Inter-Services Intelligence gained importance and power during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and is now rated one of best-organized intelligence agencies in the developing world.

The agency is seen as the Pakistani equivalent of the US Central Intelligence Agency, or Israel’s Mossad. Its size is not publicly known but the agency is widely believed to employ tens of thousands of agents, with informers in many spheres of public life.

The threat to Pakistan from nuclear-armed neighbor India has been a main preoccupation of the ISI throughout its existence.

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Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region
Updated 18 October 2021

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region
  • Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin headed to the Black Sea region Sunday aiming to shore up alliances with countries pressured by Russia and show gratitude for their contributions to the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

Austin will visit Georgia, Romania and Ukraine before taking part in the in-person defense ministers summit at NATO in Brussels on Oct. 21-22.

“We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the front lines of Russian aggression,” a senior US defense official told reporters ahead of the trip.

All three countries are in the NATO orbit — Romania a full member and Georgia and Ukraine partner states.

All three also sit on the rim of the Black Sea, where Russia has sought to expand its own influence and prevent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the US-European alliance.

Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Kiev is battling pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, in a conflict that has cost 13,000 lives.

In June, Russian forces menaced Dutch and British warships as they sailed near Crimea.

Austin will also extend thanks to its partners for their contributions, and significant losses, as part of coalition forces in Afghanistan over two decades, before the hasty US exit this year that ceded the country to the Taliban.

“We are going to be showing recognition and appreciation for the sacrifices and the commitments of our partners and allies,” the official said. In Georgia, Austin will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze, with a key aim to keep up defense cooperation as a three-year US Army training program expires this year.

Georgia hopes Austin’s visit will help advance its case for becoming a full NATO member.

It will be “another clear message from the US in support of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, its stable and democratic development, and for the country’s Euro-Atlantic goals” Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said Wednesday.

“We expect that meetings will be focused on further deepening our cooperation, regional security issues, and the process of Georgia’s NATO integration,” he said.

In Ukraine, Austin will have talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky and Minister of Defense Andriy Taran, both of whom visited Washington at the beginning of September to press their case for NATO membership with President Joe Biden.

And in Romania, he will see President Klaus Iohannis and Minister of National Defense Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca, amid a fresh political crisis in the country.

In all three, the US wants to expand defense support but also sees problems of democratic development and corruption.

In Georgia, tens of thousands of protesters were out in the streets this week over the arrest of ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili and over allegations of fraud in recent elections.

Ukraine is under heavy pressure from the West, which provides the country extensive aid, to halt rampant graft.

“It is our belief that strengthening democratic institutions creates greater resilience against Russian influence and external manipulation,” the US official said.

“Our bilateral assistance is actually very much focused on the specific aspects of institutional reform that are necessary for NATO. And that applies to both Georgia and to Ukraine.”

Austin will end the week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where ties with the US, frayed by the previous administration of Donald Trump, took a fresh hit last month when Washington unexpectedly announced a new pact with Australia and Britain focused on China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US official said Austin would reinforce US commitment to the pact and press for military adaptation to address future threats.

“NATO needs to keep building its credible deterrence capabilities for its deterrence and defense mission,” the official said.