The Man Behind Xi Jinping’s Foreign Policy

An Excerpt from ‘China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’

As the Biden administration searches for a way to deal with an increasingly assertive China, one of the key figures across the negotiating table will be Wang Yi. Wang is China’s foreign minister and a state councilor, making him the counterpart of Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In his dealings with the administration so far, Wang has projected the confidence that Xi Jinping appears to expect of his top foreign policy team. But when Wang was appointed foreign minister early in Xi’s tenure, he was handed the daunting task of remaking Chinese foreign policy in Xi’s image.

This is how he set about handling the task.

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The daunting task of keeping up with Xi Jinping’s foreign policy ambitions fell to Wang Yi. Born in Beijing in 1953, the same year as Xi, Wang also spent a good chunk of his adolescence as a “sent down” youth during the Cultural Revolution, when he spent eight years laboring on a farm in the northeast. Always a harder worker than others, Wang taught himself literature and history, a former classmate told the Christian Science Monitor. He was “quite open minded. He did not just accept what he was told,” the classmate remembered.

After the Cultural Revolution, Wang was admitted to Beijing International Studies University, a foreign ministry feeder school. He then joined the Asian Affairs Department in the foreign ministry and started climbing the ranks as a Japan specialist. He became fluent in both Japanese and English and even spent a year in Washington studying at Georgetown University from 1997 to 1998.

Wang’s background was modest but, like Li Zhaoxing and Dai Bingguo before him, he married into China’s foreign policy aristocracy. Wang’s father-in-law, Qian Jiadong, had been one of Zhou Enlai’s top aides and China’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva.

A smoother talker and far more naturally charming than his predecessor, Yang Jiechi, Wang proved to be popular inside the ministry. Chinese diplomats would later describe Wang as a true “politician,” whereas Yang had been simply a “bureaucrat.” It didn’t hurt that Wang was a looker. With bushy eyebrows and salt-and-pepper hair that cut a sharp contrast with the generic black dye used by his peers, even China’s usually prudish state media dubbed him a “silver fox.”

Like any foreign ministry Japan hand, Wang had long been aware of the need to prove his nationalist credentials. He’d also fulfilled several high-stakes assignments from conveying China’s wishes to Pakistan after 9/11 to helping shepherd the Six-Party Talks on North Korea. Ensuring that the foreign ministry lived up to Xi’s expectations was his greatest challenge yet.

Wang’s solution was to double down on the founding values of the ministry. After all, it had been set up to help a closed and paranoid political system cope with a more open outside world. Many of these founding principles were perfectly suited to the emerging mood in Beijing.

Wang started with the rank and file. In August 2013, just under six months after being appointed foreign minister, he addressed a group of 251 fresh recruits in the ministry’s Olive Room. He welcomed the “new comrades-in-arms” to the “diplomatic front,” embracing the military metaphor that had helped Chinese diplomats understand their role since 1949. “I hear that more than half of you were born in the 1990s. When I was your age, I was still laboring in the villages,” he told them. “I didn’t go to university until I was 24 years old, after the college entrance exam was reinstated, and so I envy you, but I’m also happy for you.”

He framed their roles in terms of Xi’s ambitions for China. “You’ve entered the diplomatic corps at a special and important time in our history,” Wang told them. “Our country is closer to the goal of national rejuvenation than at any other time, and closer than ever before to becoming a global power,” he said. “History has handed you the final baton.”

Wang also acknowledged the view in some quarters that the ministry had been too weak in the past. “Ideals and convictions are our spiritual calcium. Without them we risk osteoporosis,” he said, referring to the disease that softens the bones. “General Secretary Xi has told us that ideals guide our lives and convictions determine the success or failure of our cause.” Wang’s message was clear: Under his leadership, the ministry would shake off the image for weakness that had prompted members of the public to send it calcium tablets in the 2000s.

Wang looked to foreign ministry traditions to fulfill Xi’s ambitions. “Zhou Enlai will always be a model for diplomats,” Wang told the group. “He famously said that diplomats are the People’s Liberation Army in civilian clothing. A civilian army not only needs to maintain strict discipline and obedience to commands, but also needs to cultivate a strong character and work style . . . to serve the people like the PLA.”

China’s diplomats had to show more than just a newfound confidence. They had to demonstrate political obedience. Xi’s rapid consolidation of power at home had been accompanied by a sweeping crackdown on free speech and civil society, as well as an anti-corruption campaign that would go on to ensnare more than 1.5 million officials.

In early 2013, a confidential directive called Document 9 began to circulate. It took aim at “Western constitutional democracy” and “universal values,” while warning that “Western forces hostile to China” were “infiltrating the ideological sphere.” The document sent a chill through government ministries, educational institutions, and China’s already embattled civil society. The following year, Qiao Mu, an outspoken liberal professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, another foreign ministry feeder school, was removed from his teaching duties for unspecified “discipline violations.” China’s diplomats would once again be operating in a high-stakes domestic environment, with serious consequences for perceived political mistakes.

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The significance of the foreign policy changes underway truly became clear a year later in Kazakhstan. In September 2013, Xi Jinping announced a vision for a “New Silk Road” in a speech to officials and students at Nazarbayev University in the capital, Astana. “I can almost hear the ring of the camel bells and wisps of smoke in the desert,” he told his audience as he presented his vision for a prosperous and interconnected Asia, bankrolled by China. The next month, speaking to the Indonesian parliament, he announced plans for a complementary “Maritime Silk Road.” He also spoke of his intention to create an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that would help fund these initiatives. These policies, later rebranded the “Belt and Road Initiative,” marked the boldest departure yet from Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that China should “hide” its capabilities and “bide” its time.

In October, Xi presided over a “work forum” on China’s diplomacy toward its neighbors—the first such meeting since 2006. It was attended by the entire Politburo Standing Committee, top Party and government leaders, and a select group of Chinese ambassadors. Xi said China’s foreign policy should be more “proactive” (fen fa you wei). Xi also used the phrase “top-level design” to describe his approach to diplomacy, an engineering term his predecessors had applied to economic policymaking. It was a hint that more centralized control was coming.

Xi’s actions on China’s periphery seemed to further confirm the creeping assertiveness of the country’s foreign policy. China had seized the Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea a few months before he took office. Xi followed up by declaring the Air Defense Identification Zone that Wang Yi would end up defending to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in November 2013. Alarm in Washington escalated even more dramatically for those with the right kinds of security clearance. Unknown to the general public, American spy satellites began to pick up images of rapid Chinese island-building in the South China Sea in late 2013. Over the next 20 months, China dredged and reclaimed 17 times as much land as all the other claimants combined had dredged over the preceding four decades. Beijing was now taking a far more provocative approach to its territorial claims in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes each year. China’s claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei.

In a March 2014 speech in Paris, Xi laid out the changes to Chinese foreign policy in the most explicit terms yet. “Napoleon Bonaparte once said that China ‘is a sleeping lion,’ and ‘when China wakes up, it will shake the world,’” he said. “In fact, the lion of China has awoken, but what the world sees now is a peaceful, amiable, civilized lion.” In a speech in Shanghai in May that year he called on “the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia.” The United States, Xi implied, was no longer welcome in China’s neighborhood.