China and the World, Talking Point

Beijing’s Beltway guy

The career of top diplomat Cui Tiankai is a good way to assess Sino-US ties


Cui Tiankai: the outgoing ambassador to the US

In 1996 the United States was threatening to unleash a trade war against China following a dispute over copyright piracy. “Confrontation will lead nowhere,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said at the time, arguing that the only way forward was for there to be “negotiations as equals” between the two countries.

Twenty-two years later, the Donald Trump administration imposed punitive tariffs on Chinese imports after a similarly themed investigation (under Section 301 of the 1974 US Trade Act) which accused the Chinese of stealing American intellectual property.

But Beijing’s response was entirely different this time. “We will certainly fight to the end… We don’t want a trade war… But if people want to play tough, we will play tough with them, and we’ll see who will last longer,” China’s ambassador to the US warned.

A video comparing the two differing responses – from “negotiations as equals” to “we’ll see who will last longer” – was widely circulated across Chinese social media platforms in June. In the 1996 footage the young spokesman looks cautious, almost on the brink of nervousness. The second clip is marked by a much more confident, almost uncompromising tone. But what resonated with netizens was that both responses were delivered by the same person: Cui Tiankai, China’s longest-serving ambassador to the US.

Much has changed in the intervening 22 years, including Cui’s hair, although the style and tone of China’s diplomatic outreach has undergone the more dramatic makeover as Cui bids farewell to the international stage.

He announced his departure from the high-profile post after an eventful eight years last month. But what does the 68 year-old’s career tell us about the changing nature of Sino-US relations?

Who’s Cui Tiankai?

Born in Shanghai in 1952, Cui is just a few months older than Chinese President Xi Jinping. When Henry Kissinger secretly visited China in July 1971, Cui was working on a farm in Heilongjiang as a ‘sent-down youth’. He spent five years growing soyabeans during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution. That rural experience later came to the fore. According to an account he gave to Chinese newspapers, during an informal gathering in 2010 at the farm of Kurt Campbell, then US assistant secretary of state, Campbell brought out a 1950s tractor and Cui drove it around the lawn. Cui later gifted Campbell a tractor made by Chinese state-owned enterprise Dongfeng.

Today Campbell is once again the top official for Asian affairs in the new Biden administration. But don’t expect any more tractor diplomacy. At a conference at Stanford University in May Campbell said that the era of engagement with China was now over.

Was Cui a prism for how China-US relations evolved?

During a much earlier period when bilateral relations were blossoming between 1979 and 1989, Cui was one of the first crop of Chinese officials sent to the US to broaden their diplomatic horizons.

“When I read about the news of Dr Kissinger’s visit to China [in 1971], I just had a fancy idea that someday I would come here to see this great country with my own eyes,” he told an audience during his welcome reception as China’s new ambassador in 2013.

He was well groomed for the role. After studying foreign languages at East China Normal University, Cui’s first posting abroad was as an interpreter to China’s United Nations delegation in New York. In 1986 he spent a year studying public policy at Johns Hopkins University, opening the door to a personal network of contacts that comprised many of Washington’s next generation of political operatives and think tankers.

Cui then rose through the ranks of the Chinese foreign ministry. Following promotion to the role of vice foreign minister in 2009 his mandate was primarily to deal with US affairs. The diplomat was one of Xi Jinping’s top aides when Xi toured America in 2012, then as China’s leader-in-waiting. Cui spent time briefing Xi on what to expect from Joe Biden, then the American vice president – with Xi and Biden said to have met at least eight times in “25 hours of private dinners” in 2011 and 2012 (see WiC518).

Cui’s advice must have been valued as he was appointed as China’s lead envoy to the US shortly after Xi became president. His eight-year tenure has spanned three American presidents and he has witnessed the transition of power from the Democrats to the Republicans and back again.

More importantly, Cui has also experienced first hand a period in which Sino-US relations have deteriorated sharply. As the senior representative of the Chinese state in the American capital, he has rarely expressed his own views publicly, although he must rank as the Chinese official to have delivered the most media interviews and public speeches in the US.

He also built an extensive portfolio of contacts among Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Take Kurt Campbell, who was also Barrack Obama’s top advisor on Asia. He was Cui’s opposite number when Chen Guangcheng, a high-profile human rights lawyer, turned up at the American Embassy in Beijing asking for asylum during a visit to China by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012.

Cui responded with a 30-minute rant about Chinese sovereignty after Clinton refused requests that the embassy hand the activist over. Cui even briefly lost his temper with Campbell when the American suggested a compromise plan in which Chen might attend the East China Normal University as a face-saving measure before being granted asylum in the US (see WiC242). “I will not share an alma mater with that man!” Cui fumed theatrically.

“He is very strategic, always comes with a game plan, is never rattled, and if he did express anger, it was as part of a show,” Campbell told the New York Times in 2013.

By then the same newspaper was describing Cui as “the Chinese diplomat with perhaps the deepest knowledge of the United States”.

According to Reuters, Cui would also establish a kind of “back-channel relationship” with Jared Kushner, son-in-law of former President Trump, during the lengthy and fractious trade talks between China and the US. This was credited with helping both sides reach their ‘phase one’ trade agreement early last year, albeit leaving much to do to restore the relationship to anywhere near cordial status.

What does Cui’s departure signal?

The Chinese haven’t named a replacement for Cui, although Reuters reported last month that Qin Gang, 55, a vice foreign minister known for his “sharp retorts to criticism of China”, is set to be the new ambassador.

Beijing’s decision to withhold – for now – the appointment of a successor looks to be another tit-for-tat dig at Washington, whose former US ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, left Beijing in November last year. In a clear break with protocol the ambassadorship has been left unfilled for over half a year, although former diplomat Nicholas Burns is tipped to be appointed to what is now Washington’s most significant overseas posting.

Of course, not appointing replacements is marginally better than both sides ‘recalling’ their respective ambassadors. But if the situation doesn’t change soon, for the first time in recent memory neither the US nor China will have a top diplomatic envoy in each other’s capital.

“Relations between China and the US are at a critical crossroads, with the US engaging in a new round of restructuring in its government policy towards China, and it is facing a choice between cooperation and confrontation,” Cui warned in a farewell letter to the community of overseas Chinese in the US last month.

Cui’s exit is a sign of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy in the ascendancy?

Cui’s contribution has generally been seen as positive in the American media. In the past he has argued with CNN journalists on air, for instance, but the news network reckons the 68 year-old was a “rare stabilising element” in an increasingly volatile Sino-US relationship.

“He is typical of China’s old-school diplomats, adept at expressing a firm stance in a moderate manner and measured tone. And that sets him apart from Beijing’s younger and growing cohort of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats, known for their aggressive defence of China and hostile public attacks of its critics,” CNN reported.

The ‘wolf warrior’ label is said to have been inspired by China’s top grossing movie franchise Wolf Warrior (see WiC376). A line from the action genre’s first film found popularity among Chinese audiences for promising that anyone who attacked China would be killed, no matter how far away the target. Who first applied the description to China’s consular officials overseas is hard to pin down, although the BBC’s Chinese-language service used it in reporting a heated exchange on Twitter between Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesperson, and former US national security adviser Susan Rice about alleged racial segregation in Washington.

The term is now widely used in the West to describe the more strident reaction from Chinese officials to perceived criticism of their country and a dramatic departure from former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s advice that the Chinese should “hide brightness, nourish obscurity; bide our time and build our capabilities” (i.e. keep a low profile and stay on good terms with other countries: see WiC173).

In this context, Cui has typically been seen as a stalwart of the older diplomatic school, especially when he rejected a conspiracy theory promoted by Zhao that the coronavirus had originated in a US military lab.

“How can we believe in all these crazy things?” Cui said in an interview in March last year.

In citing this remark Cui was not only rebuffing Zhao but also rejecing allegations that Covid-19 had originated from a lab leak in China’s Wuhan. His message was that it should be left to the scientists to investigate how the virus had emerged and that it was dangerous for journalists or diplomats to jump to their own conclusions.

All the same, his intervention was enough to cement the view that Cui was trying to distance himself from his outspoken colleague Zhao, a man that has come to be seen as the public face of China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomatic style.

Pingshi diplomacy’ is the new term being used. What is it?

There has been speculation in recent weeks that Beijing wants to dial down the more aggressive approach from some of its diplomatic representatives. At a ‘study session’ of the Politburo last month, an expert on international communications was invited to speak about how to cultivate a “credible, lovable and respectable” image for China overseas (see WiC544). According to a report in the Wall Street Journal this week, the Foreign Ministry is also taking steps to rein in the most combative of its overseas officials, including drafting new guidelines for them on how best to use Twitter. High-level meetings about the adjustment were arranged as early as April, the newspaper said, motivated by concerns that the ‘wolf warrior’ strategy had alienated the Americans and its allies in ways that risked isolating the Chinese and their economy.

However, the punchier style has a sizeable fanbase in China and there have been mixed messages from the very top of government about whether it is welcome or not. Zhang Weiwei – the Fudan University professor that Xi invited to address the Politburo last month – certainly doesn’t see much wrong with the approach. “We need to make the West get used to this,” the Global Times reported him as saying last month, with advice that the Chinese “be straight” in responding to “arrogant and ignorant people” but “humble” in talking to more amenable audiences.

The Wall Street Journal also noted this week that Xi himself has demanded that his diplomats show “fighting spirit” in defending China’s interests overseas. And in another recent interview with French newspaper L’Opinion, China’s ambassador to France Lu Shaye went further, saying that he was proud to be part of the wolf pack. “We want to stand in the way of the ‘mad dogs’ that attack China,” he insisted, adding that Chinese diplomats should be judged on whether “our people are satisfied or not”. Echoing the warning from Zhang Weiwei, Lu said that politicians in the West need to get accustomed to the new way in which the Chinese are responding in international affairs too.

What Lu was suggesting reflects another speech given by Xi during China’s parliamentary gathering in March this year, when he claimed that China’s younger generation can now “view the world on level terms” (the term he used was pingshi) rather than via the sense of inferiority felt by previous generations, who saw that their country was technologically and economically backward compared to more developed nations.

The term has since become a buzzword and ‘pingshi diplomacy’ has been gaining traction too (in written Chinese, it can also be a pun on Xi’s name and his views) – although it is rarely mentioned in the international media.

Time will tell if pingshi diplomacy offers a more modulated approach – confident but not appearing to the outside world as aggressive or arrogant (Australian diplomats will be watching carefully, given they have borne the brunt of the wolf warrior approach). Perhaps policymakers in Beijing have noticed that international perceptions of the Chinese have worsened too (negative opinions were close to historic highs in most of the 17 advanced economies surveyed in the Pew Research Center’s latest polling, published last month). Of course, the counter argument from the Chinese is that rising criticism was probably inevitable from nations unaccustomed to China’s status as a superpower, as well as its new determination to defend its own interests. The more hawkish voices in China’s foreign policy elite have argued that there will be less need to curry diplomatic favour in future, too, as China’s economic and political reach grows.

But in the shorter term, the next litmus test for diplomatic ties between the two superpowers is going to be a face-to-face meeting between Xi and Biden later this year. The Wall Street Journal reports that Chinese diplomats were initially cool on the idea but they are now more open to a summit on the sidelines of the G20 leader’s meeting in October in Rome.

Maybe Cui will be called in for his advice. A positive meeting could be be crucial for a thawing of tensions. This may even matter more for Xi than Biden ahead of China’s hosting of its first ever Winter Olympics next February. After all, it would be a major loss of face for the Chinese leader were Biden to heed the call of House Leader Nancy Pelosi and other US politicians and orchestrate a ‘diplomatic’ boycott of the Beijing Games. Such a move by Biden might persuade other world leader’s to snub an event that Xi has invested a lot of personal political capital in (not to mention tens of billions of yuan in new infrastructure spending; see WiC390).

Indeed, more ultra hawkish voices, such as Senator Rick Scott and six of his Senate colleagues introduced a resolution this year asking the International Olympic Committee to take the games away from host city Beijing and to hold them elsewhere; Nikki Haley, former US ambassador to the UN, has said that no American athletes should be sent, repeating the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott.

Amid such sound and fury, Xi will be keen to make sure Biden leaves his Olympics well alone, and as such he may be prepared to be more emollient in his approach to the October summit – if it stops things going ‘downhill’ further ahead of February’s event.

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