Former Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian was among the Communist regime’s most aggressive, and frequently offensive, spokesmen, trafficking in all sorts of deranged conspiracy theories and slander against China’s adversaries.
When the regime removed Zhao from his high-profile spot and dumped him into the bureaucracy of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs at the beginning of 2023, Zhao’s surprisingly large and swoony fanbase among Chinese hyper-nationalists was crestfallen. Some of them became weirdly fixated on blaming his wife for sabotaging his career.
Zhao was the top Chinese official trotted out to push every twisted conspiracy theory and libel his ugly government threw at its enemies over the past few years. He was a heavy pusher of the theory that the Wuhan coronavirus was actually developed in the U.S. Army laboratory at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, and exported to China as an act of bio-warfare, for example – a theory China shoveled harder every time the rest of the world asked more questions about the Wuhan Institute of Virology and its shadowy experiments with respiratory diseases.
Zhao also slandered Australia by spreading doctored photos of an Aussie soldier preparing to slit the throat of an Afghan child after the Australian military conducted an investigation of war crimes allegations against some of its soldiers.
Zhao claimed the genocidal regime he represented was unbearably “shocked by the murder of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers.” The Chinese government ignored Australia’s demand for an apology and Zhao’s removal as Foreign Ministry spokesman.
China frequently tries to exploit race relations in the United States for political gain, but Zhao did it with such gusto that Susan Rice, U.S. national security adviser during the Obama administration, denounced Zhao as a “racist disgrace” and “shockingly ignorant” for claiming on Twitter that Washington, DC, is racially segregated.
That particular outburst was so far overboard, even for Zhao, that he eventually deleted his racist tweets. Zhao, like all Chinese Communist Party apparatchiks, is allowed to use Twitter even though ordinary Chinese citizens are not.
Zhao’s unprofessional antics were off-putting to the civilized world, but they made him a huge celebrity among Chinese nationalists, who dubbed him a leader of the “Wolf Warrior” diplomats – a term derived from a series of Chinese action films. His fans were stunned when Zhao was transferred from the Foreign Ministry to become deputy chief of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, a job with far lower visibility.
The BBC noted on Tuesday that Zhao’s transfer occurred with such little fanfare that no one outside the Chinese Communist Party is certain exactly when it happened, or why. Zhao popped up in his new job as a wordless paper-pusher in the first week of the New Year, but his old bosses at the Foreign Ministry had nothing to say about his departure. His three-year career as China’s most bellicose spokesman ended not with a bang but a whimper.
NPR speculated on Thursday that while Beijing would never admit it made a mistake by leaving the bomb-throwing Zhao at the podium for so long, it might have quietly disposed of him as “the latest in a series of tactical tweaks that China has been making to ease friction with other countries and soften its image on the global stage.”
Dumping Zhao might have been a tweak aimed especially at Australia, which China has been feuding with throughout the pandemic. China ended its years-long ban on Australian coal on Thursday. Earlier in the week, the Chinese ambassador offered Canberra a chummy little reminder that Japan invaded both China and Australia during World War II and could turn back into a warmongering empire at any moment, so it might be wise for the Aussies to renew their friendship with Beijing.
This sort of charm offensive would not be helped by the Australians checking out the latest press conference from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and seeing the guy who once posted crude Photoshops of murderous Australian soldiers gleefully cutting the throats of Afghan children. China’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Qin Gang was formerly the ambassador to the United States, and he might have felt Zhao could be an impediment to rebuilding relations with America as well.
“My general sense is that the Chinese recognize they have an abundance of problems at home and would like to minimize their problems abroad in order to concentrate on the more pressing challenges that they confront domestically,” ventured Ryan Haas of the Brookings Institution.
Another interesting subplot to the Zhao saga is that the typically smug and belligerent spokesman faltered badly during a press conference in December when he was asked about China’s shifting coronavirus policies. The stumble might have been bad for his career prospects at a moment when Beijing was very nervous about rising public unrest over coronavirus lockdowns.
Whatever the reason for his departure, Zhao’s loyal fans on social media were anguished at the unceremonious castration of their beloved “Uncle,” as Radio Free Asia (RFA) observed on Wednesday:
Weibo user “Lilaoshilifuzhen” is taking the news of Zhao Lijian’s new job hard. She says she was in tears over learning Zhao, one of China’s best-known wolf warrior diplomats, would leave his post as the high-profile Foreign Ministry spokesman to become the deputy head of the lesser-known Department of Boundary and Oceans Affairs.
“China’s foreign affairs are always fascinating, but following you has made my life even more so,” she wrote.
“Niuniulovegungunbaobao” responded with a bit more equanimity. She urged Zhao’s fans to “look at Uncle’s healing smile and bid him farewell properly.” Zhao, she added, is “just changing a position and continuing to safeguard the motherland.”
“He is always perfect in my heart. Whatever he does, I support it. Whatever he says, I follow it,” one Zhaoaholic sighed. Others cobbled together music videos celebrating his career at the Foreign Ministry and fondly recalled swooning over his choice of ties at press conferences.
Both RFA and the BBC noticed that quite a few of Zhao’s fans blame his downfall on his wife, Tang Tianru, who they deride as an arrogant jet-setting diva who felt free to disregard mask laws during the heights of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tang is criticized incessantly for her wardrobe and expensive jewelry. Zhao’s online “girlfriends” obsess over photos of the couple, studying their body language to conclude that Zhao does not really love her.
“It’s like a curse has been brought upon Zhao’s family by bringing such a worthless, untalented, and unkind beast into their home,” one disappointed fan railed on social media. Tang is a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman, but following Zhao stans on Weibo would make you think he married the doll from “Annabelle.”