‘He is always perfect in my heart’
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.”
That Zhao has developed a fervent fan base may surprise some people outside of China, where online expressions of love and devotion are typically reserved for movie stars and famous musicians – the Ryan Reynoldses and Taylor Swifts of the world as opposed to the Ned Prices (the U.S. State Department spokesman).
But while Zhao’s glasses and conservative sartorial style suggest career bureaucrat more than hunky celebrity, his penchant for slapping down the United States with his tough — some say offensive — rhetoric and his ability to stir international controversy through Twitter posts has prompted an online fan group of more than 76,000 members.
Almost daily, Zhao fanatics create music videos highlighting his most swoon-worthy moments, like when he responds confidently to questions at a press conference or adjusts his glasses, a signature Zhao move. His decision to wear a red or blue tie can set Weibo alight with new posts.
“He is always perfect in my heart,” Weibo user Wojiushiwoxiyue said. “Whatever he does, I support it, whatever he says, I follow it.”
The adoration of Zhao fits into China’s embrace of nationalism under leader Xi Jinping, according to experts. The reaction from global leaders, though, has been more mixed, to say the least. While Zhao’s supporters in China appreciate his unusually aggressive remarks in the usually cautious world of international diplomacy, counterparts in other countries have often been put off by the comments.
In July 2019, for example, Zhao, then the deputy chief of mission of the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, wrote on Twitter in apparent response to the Chinese government persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang that white people didn’t go to southeast Washington, D.C., “because it’s an area for the black & Latin.”
Susan Rice, the former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, responded by calling Zhao a “racist disgrace.”
“To label someone who speaks the truth that you don’t want to hear a racist, is disgraceful & disgusting,” Zhao wrote in response, although his posts were soon after deleted, according to news reports.
In 2020, Zhao suggested that the U.S. Army might have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan, which is widely accepted as ground zero for the COVID pandemic.
And he angered Australia by posting a fake image of a soldier holding a knife against the throat of an Afghan child, a reference to an Australian Defense Force inspector general’s report on alleged war crimes committed by a small group of the country’s forces.
It’s through these types of posts that Zhao has come to be seen as a chief practitioner of a more assertive, “wolf warrior” diplomacy. The term refers to a series of nationalistic Chinese films about a special forces soldier.
Despite the international ill will Zhao has inspired, it isn’t clear that his announced move represents a demotion. Zhao may not be as much in the public eye as deputy director-general of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, but he will likely play a large role in one of the most sensitive diplomatic issues facing China — its claims to the South China Sea.
Other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, say China is encroaching on territory that belongs to them.
Some online posters, however, have interpreted the switch as a slight to their hero.And they are clear on who’s to blame: Zhao’s wife, Tang Tianru, whom he met while posted in Pakistan.
“You’ve got your wish. It’s like a curse has been brought upon Zhao’s family by bringing such a worthless, untalented, and unkind beast into their home,” Cuicanchulian posted.
That level of vitriol toward Tang is actually not all that unusual within the chat group, particularly among her husband’s more fervent “girlfriend” fans.
Weibo user Youlanfeimo analyzed photos posted online of the two and declared that they didn’t really love one another. Others have criticized Tang for everything from oversharing to wearing a Patek Philippe watch, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
She’s also been pummeled online for appearing in public without a mask despite her vocal support for “zero-COVID” policies and for describing her life in Germany as “plain and true.” She apparently lived in the country for a time during the pandemic, despite travel restrictions.
Occasionally the anger spills over onto Zhao, as when Xiaobabeibei revealed the deep betrayal the relationship had sparked within her. “What sickens me is that your actions completely make me lose faith in love and completely destroys the impression of men in my heart,” she wrote.
A new diplomacy
Gabriele de Seta, a sociologist who has studied celebrity worship, said Zhao’s fan base may be an outgrowth of an effort by Xi’s government to use social media to promote China as it moves to challenge the United States as another global superpower.
Fan participation can help to amplify the messages the government wants to convey. As such, maintaining an active online presence is now part of a Chinese diplomat’s job description, he said.
“It’s how the ecosystem works,” de Seta said. “The fandom is actively creating more content or amplifying it.”
Every spokesperson within the Foreign Ministry has a fan base that on Chinese Weibo coalesce in Super Topic groups. The Zhao Lijian Super Topic has more than 76,000 followers and 39,000 posts. Hua Chunying, the assistant minister for Foreign Affairs, has 60,000 followers. So does Wang Wenbin, another Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Wang Yi, China’s highest-ranking diplomat, has 36,000.
The idea of politicians engendering heated comments on social media platforms is of course not wholly unheard of in the United States. President Donald Trump had millions of followers on Twitter – and millions of detractors — before he was removed from the platform. (New owner Elon Musk has said he’s welcome back on.)
Trump administration spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany has a Twitter fan club with more than 20,000 followers that reposts pictures of her family and promotes her post-administration accomplishments, like the release of a new memoir.
Michelle Obama has 22 million followers. Her husband has more than 133 million. Zhao has nearly 2 million Twitter followers.
But the fervency of Zhao’s fans seems to set them apart.
Zhao has not been seen in public since a December media briefing, which has prompted worries he had contracted COVID (and more nasty comments directed at Tang).
Woshiweilaiyidaoguang urged Zhao to take care of himself.
“Don’t worry too much about your work during this period, your dedicated and responsible colleagues will handle it well… A diplomatic position needs a vigorous Spokesperson Zhao, and what the fans long to see is also a shining, healthy you.”
Occasionally, a skeptical voice shows up in the chats. A post by Hanliangyishi prompted an incredulous reply and a charge of brainlessness from one commenter.
“I’ve seen people fawn over singing stars and movie stars, but I’ve never seen anyone obsess over a government official!” the commenter said.
Hanliangyishi wasn’t having it: “Not only are you brainless, but you’re also blind! Can’t you see that Uncle Zhao is a star brighter than any other?”