In October 1938, Chairman Mao Zedong, addressing the Chinese Communist Party faithful, coined an expression — “lift up a rock only to smash your own foot” — to describe British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s failure in his negotiations with German leader Adolf Hitler. Xi Jinping, Mao’s successor as Communist Party boss, would do well to take a lesson from the chairman.
Across the globe, Xi’s diplomatic representatives in Europe, Beijing, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, are lifting up rocks and smashing their own feet. The moves are befuddling — with a buoyant economy and a practically COVID-free country, China is poised to see its influence rise if it plays it smart.
But it’s not; instead, it’s alienating individuals and nations across the world.
China’s most recent missteps have occurred in Europe and now risk scuttling Beijing’s biggest foreign policy win there in years. Last week, the European Union joined with the United States, Britain and Canada to sanction four relatively low-ranking officials from China over the treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. Those sanctioned pointedly did not include Chen Quanguo, a top Communist Party official in the region, making it seem that this united front against China was more a diplomatic checking-of-boxes than anything else. (The United States is the sole nation to have sanctioned Chen.)
China however, decided to double down. It struck back at Europe by sanctioning 10 individuals, including members of the European Parliament, and four organizations, among them the widely-respected Mercator Institute for China Studies.
In picking up this rock, China has likely smashed any chance that the European Parliament will approve a major investment deal with Europe: the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). The CAI was concluded despite opposition from the incoming Biden administration. But now that China has sanctioned politicians from four main political parties in the European Parliament, Beijing has done more than President Biden to roll back China’s influence in Europe.
China’s goof up in Europe is just the latest in a string of diplomatic misadventures that have become a hallmark of the rule of Xi Jinping. The Chinese have termed these type of interactions “wolf warrior” diplomacy, inspired by a shoot-em-up action film of the same name. China’s wolf warriors might play well in Beijing, but across the globe China’s envoys are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Take Taiwan. In 2019, President Tsai Ing-wen, who is disliked by China’s government, resigned from her position as chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party after her party bombed in local elections. Her polling numbers were low and allies urged her to drop out of the presidential race. The stage was set for a win by Taiwan’s Nationalist Party, which is far more amenable to entreaties from Beijing.
Enter China. Beijing’s complete unwillingness to reach a compromise with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong along with the passage of a draconian (and unnecessary) national security law there saved Tsai’s political career. In January 2020, running on a platform that, understandably, sought to highlight fears of China, Tsai crushed her Nationalist opponent, Han Kuo-yu, winning 57% of the vote to his 39%.
China has repeated this failure in Canada. In 2018, while the Trump administration was slapping tariffs on Canadian goods, Canada and China were well on their way to concluding a free-trade agreement. Then Canadian authorities detained Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese business executive, on a United States extradition request. Instead of letting the courts decide, China took two Canadians in China hostage. Beijing’s relations with Ottawa went into a deep freeze and that free trade agreement is currently dead.
Same holds true for Australia, where the government’s criticism of China’s human rights practices has resulted in China slapping tariffs on Australian wine, barley, beef, copper, sugar, lobsters, timber and coal.
I’ve been studying China for my entire adult life and I have to admit to being bewildered by China’s performance. But I’m in good company.
Thirty-one years ago, the great political scientist Lucian Pye wrote, “Just when all appears to be going well, Chinese officials create problems for seemingly unaccountable reasons.” Pye argued that a key to understanding China’s “perversely self-damaging behavior” starts with the observation that much of it is a show.
China’s political system demands expressions of exaggerated loyalty — from wolf warrior diplomats and commoners alike — exactly because so many people don’t actually believe in what they are doing. Take Regina Ip for example. She’s a prominent pro-Beijing politician from Hong Kong. On Friday she tweeted a photograph of herself sitting on a couch, surveying mournfully her collection of Burberry scarves. The British luxury brand is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, a group that in October announced it was suspending its approval of cotton sourced from Xinjiang, citing human rights concerns.
“I will stop buying or using Burberry products until Burberry has retracted or apologized for its unfounded allegations against Xinjiang,” she wrote. Ip clearly feels the need to help China pick up that rock. Chairman Mao would’ve smiled.
John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, is the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”