China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

What Is Behind China’s Diplomacy of Indignation?

China’s emotional assertiveness has a long history, but recently the government has begun targeting even non-state actors.

By Andreas B. Forsby for
What Is Behind China’s Diplomacy of Indignation?
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

State representatives sometimes seem to deliberately emotionalize diplomacy, yet do their utmost to prevent popular emotions from flaring up at other times. Emotions often run high in Chinese foreign policy, fueled by a mixture of anger and humiliation to produce what we may call a “diplomacy of indignation.” When on January 27, 2020 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a cartoon with coronavirus symbols in place of the yellow stars on China’s flag, the Chinese embassy in Denmark reacted strongly, demanding an official apology from the newspaper and declaring that the cartoon “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people. […] We express our strong indignation and demand that Jyllandsposten and Niels Bo Bojesen [the cartoonist] reproach themselves for their mistake and publicly apologize to the Chinese people” (emphasis added).

Over the past few years, China’s diplomacy of indignation has been vented on many occasions. For instance, on February 3 a Wall Street Journal article entitled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” drew the ire of the Chinese government, prompting it to call repeatedly for an official apology. In the words of Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang, the Wall Street Journal article “smeared China with a racially discriminatory title [that] triggered indignation among the Chinese people.” Similarly, in September 2018, in response to a comedy skit on Swedish national television (SVT) mocking Chinese tourists, the Chinese embassy in Sweden on several occasions urged SVT to “apologize to China and the Chinese people in a serious and sincere manner.” Similar episodes have also involved the Marriott Hotel, Mercedes-Benz, and the U.K. Conservative Party.

Amid heated debate about Chinese assertiveness on the international stage, its diplomacy of indignation can be regarded as a distinct type of “emotional assertiveness,” whereby state representatives publicly invoke the feelings and national identity of the Chinese population in an assertive manner by demanding an apology or similar acts of repentance from the offending party. Putting aside the question of whether such demands are reasonable, China’s diplomacy of indignation raises questions about when and why Beijing resorts to emotional assertiveness and whether the observed episodes constitute a new development trend in any way.

Like other great powers China employs various types of assertive measures to advance or safeguard its core interests, including military intimidation, economic coercion, and covert influence activities. Where China stands out, however, is its frequent use of emotional assertiveness. The Chinese government has a long track record of explicitly referring to “the feelings of the Chinese people” in public statements in order to exert pressure on foreign governments that are perceived to threaten Beijing’s core interests. Moreover, the Chinese government is equally notorious for its proclivity to demand official apologies from foreign governments that have violated these core interests.

While the history of China’s emotional assertiveness is thus long and well documented (e.g. here and here), the recently observed episodes differ in that they involve non-state actors directly targeted by the Chinese government for undermining its core interests. This has caused widespread concern for two main reasons. First, it suggests that the Chinese government seeks to extend its tentacles of censorship to foreign companies and even Western media corporations such as Wall Street Journal, Jyllands-Posten, and Swedish National Television. Yet, with no substantial commercial interests in China these media corporations have not been vulnerable to public pressure from the Chinese government, unlike several private companies which have yielded to China’s emotional assertiveness with controversial public apologies (e.g. Marriott Hotel and Mercedes-Benz).

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Second, underneath the well-known cases of China’s diplomacy of indignation lies a significantly larger cluster of related episodes where private companies over the past few years have apologized, admitted mistakes, or taken other preemptive measures to forestall any sort of coercive action from the Chinese government. A case in point is last year’s much-debated apology from the NBA, following a tweet by the Houston Rocket’s general manager in support of the Hong Kong protesters. Tellingly, when confronted with the incident, a Chinese government official merely stated that “It [the NBA] knows very well what it should say and do.”

China’s diplomacy of indignation has imposed considerable reputational costs on Beijing as indicated by growing negative perceptions of China in each of the countries where non-state actors have been targeted. This is puzzling since China’s emotional assertiveness in these cases seems somewhat misguided from a social-psychological perspective given the relative insignificance of the non-state offenders. Even so, there are good reasons to believe that China’s diplomacy of indignation is, to a considerable degree, motivated by identity-related concerns about status and self-esteem. Chinese state officials refer publicly to such concerns – but after all, state officials may at the same time inflame nationalist sentiments to pursue instrumental objectives related to shoring up regime legitimacy or deterring others from challenging Beijing’s core interests. More telling are the popular bottom-up reactions on Chinese social media, which in most cases (e.g. here and here) have been quite overwhelming and clearly triggered by identity-related concerns among the netizens.

Are we, then, likely to see a series of new episodes where China directs its diplomacy of indignation toward non-state actors? One reason not to expect this might be the recent pushback among some Chinese scholars against the so-called “wolf warrior” style of assertive diplomacy which, allegedly, will merely help Washington in orchestrating a coalition of like-minded states to counter the “China threat.” However, as the Chinese government has long used “patriotic education” to propagate notions of national trauma and humiliation at the hands of foreigners, we should probably prepare ourselves for new waves of China’s diplomacy of indignation.

Andreas B. Forsby is a postdoc researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at University of Copenhagen. His main fields of expertise are Chinese foreign policy and Nordic-Chinese relations.