But that all changed in mid-July, 2016, after an international tribunal ruled against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. A select group of journalists was invited into the embassy for an on-the-record briefing with two visiting foreign policy academics about why the ruling was wrong and Australia should butt out of the dispute.
A foreign embassy asking journalists to meet visiting officials is unremarkable – the Americans have been doing it for years– but it was a marked change for the Chinese and the start of a more proactive local diplomacy push.
As tensions between the two governments worsened, Cheng’s speeches – particularly at the Australia China Business Council’s annual Canberra networking day at Parliament House – have become barometers for the state of the relationship.
It might be effective inside China but what works inside China doesn’t work outside China.
— Richard McGregor, Lowy Institute
Cheng has also given several media interviews in his time, often chiding Australia. During a notable interview with The Australian Financial Review last month, he went as far as warning that the Morrison government’s pursuit of a COVID-19 inquiry could result in a Chinese consumer boycott of Australian universities, tourism, beef and wine. This prompted Foreign Minister Marise Payne to accuse China of “economic coercion”.
The embassy has also taken to issuing sternly-worded statements. And, in a breach of diplomatic protocol, even released a transcript of the phone call between Cheng and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Secretary Frances Adamson following his interview with the Financial Review.
This week, the Chinese embassy stepped it up another notch, disparaging as a “joke” any Australian claim to vindication for the coronavirus inquiry the World Health Assembly had just adopted.
It claimed the review agreed to by the assembly was very different to what Australia had sought. However, other than the review being conducted under the World Health Organisation’s auspices, through its independent oversight council, it largely achieves what the government set out to do.
With China desperate to avoid being “blamed” for the pandemic, AFR Weekend has been told that one of the sticking points with the European Union-initiated motion, which was co-sponsored by more than 130 countries, was the language over how the review should be described.
While it might seem a distinction in search of a difference, words such as “inquiry” and “investigation” carried with them a connotation the Chinese found unacceptable. That’s why negotiators settled on calling the review an “evaluation”.
Australia is not alone in seeing Chinese diplomats adopt a more muscular tone, although belittling and bullying their hosts is an eyebrow-raising approach to win friends and influence people.
China’s envoy in Stockholm, Gui Congyou, has been summonsed to the Swedish foreign ministry more than 40 times in two years for his attacks on the Communist regime’s critics.
“We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns,” Gui said in a radio interview last year.
But China’s local envoy, Cheng, does not typically fit the Wolf Warrior mould. One observer describes him more as a foreign policy traditionalist.
The embassy in Canberra notably did not echo the Chinese Foreign Ministry in peddling the conspiracy theory US soldiers had brought the virus into Wuhan, unlike other posts around the world.
But Cheng, like his overseas counterparts, has taken on a more aggressive approach to his position.
The wolf warriors – named after a Chinese action film series heavy on nationalistic fervour – tend to be younger diplomats. Twitter is a favoured medium to get the message across, even though it is banned in China.
Late last year, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi encouraged the diplomatic corps to show more “fighting spirit” as China came under pressure over issues such as trade, technology, Hong Kong, maritime disputes and foreign aid.
“Wolf Warrior diplomacy is basically in line with Xi Jinping’s own view of diplomacy that it needs to be more assertive and more intolerant of any criticism,” Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor says.
“The Foreign Ministry and its diplomats are displaying fealty to Xi Jinping.
“Is it effective? You would have to say no. It might be effective inside China but what works inside China doesn’t work outside China. The language it uses is rough and abusive and doesn’t work well outside the Communist Party.”
France last month hauled in ambassador Lu Shaye after a post on the embassy’s website claimed that French nurses had left retirement home residents to die of hunger and disease.
Another website post claimed that 80 French parliamentarians had co-signed a letter with Taiwanese authorities labelling World Health Organisation head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus a “negro”. Negro was not in the statement.
In Estonia, Chinese diplomats asked for a section of an intelligence report that warned of rising Chinese influence in the Baltic country to be deleted.
There are reports China’s foreign ministry veterans are questioning the shrill and aggressive tone, believing it is counterproductive but McGregor says the internal debate is one over tactics, not aims.
“A lot of criticism of Wolf Warrior diplomacy is veiled criticism of Xi himself for bringing superpower competition with the US to its head,” he says.
“The other way of looking at it is you have diplomacy displaying the true face of China to the world – that it’s a superpower determined to get its way.”