Shock move for Chinese official at centre of cartoon controversy

Zhao Lijian was the poster boy for China's 'wolf warrior' diplomacy – but his promising career may have now come to an abrupt halt.

He's the nationalistic diplomat who made a name for himself with his no-nonsense approach fielding questions on China's foreign affairs.

But with the revelation Zhao Lijian's three-year stint as foreign ministry spokesperson has come to an end, what does it mean for him and China as a whole?

Zhao had become somewhat of a poster boy for China's assertive"wolf warrior" diplomatic approach, which has seen Chinese officials aggressively condemn any criticism of China. Fans have previously branded Zhao "a male God" for his exploits.

Zhao Lijian wearing a suit and tie at a press conference in Beijing.
Zhao Lijian's stint as a foreign ministry spokesperson has come to an end. Source: FMPRC

He came to the attention of Australians in late 2020 when he shared a deliberately provocative tweet showing a graphic artist's doctored image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child. Then prime minister Scott Morrison described his behaviour as "deeply offensive".

Zhao, 50, has now been appointed as deputy head of the ministry's Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs – a move that suggests China may be considering a softer approach to its communication by muting those most vocal.

Professor David Goodman, Director at the University of Sydney's China Studies Centre, said he believed the move appeared to show China was moving away from its previously hostile diplomatic approach.

Zhao's new role a 'polar opposite'

Zhao's change of role has been seen by several experts as a demotion as opposed to a promotion.

Chinese political expert Wen-Ti Sung at the Australian National University suggested China's wolf-warrior "prototype" had been "defanged".

"[The change in role is a] a lateral move in protocol rank, but with one hundredth the visibility," he said, suggesting his career progression may be coming to a standstill.

"Substantively he is getting de-platformed," he told Yahoo News Australia on Tuesday.

Mr Wen-Ti pointed out the two departments of Zhao's former and latest roles are "polar opposites" when it came to Chinese nationalism.

The fake image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child was shared by Zhao in November 2020. Source: Twitter/ Zhao Lijian
The fake image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child was shared by Zhao in November 2020. Source: Twitter/ Zhao Lijian

"In his previous role as spokesperson he got to be a champion of Chinese nationalism and talked tough in public," he said.

"Whereas in his new role, to get any progress on border disputes going he will have to play nice with foreign counterparts — in other words, the new job is an express lane to getting labelled as a sell-out by ultranationalistic Chinese netizens, whose fervor he once helped foment."

Yun Sun, an expert on Chinese diplomacy at the Stimson Center in Washington, told the Financial Times the move to a less popular department could be because he had "caught too much attention... and needs some time and space to cool off".

Zhao was a renowned critic of the US and its allies, particularly Australia and the Morrison government. His approach has seen him build a following of nearly two million on Twitter, a platform he would often use to take aim at China's critics.

The move comes after China promoted Qin Gang, its ambassador to Washington and a trusted aide of President Xi Jinping, to be its new foreign minister – further evidence Beijing is considering easing its hostile diplomatic approach. Qin was seen as taking a softer approach during his 17 months in Washington and has vowed to continue to work to improve US-China relations.

Australia's relations with China have improved since Anthony Albanese became prime minister, with Beijing expressing its desire to get the relationship back on track after a torrid two-and-a-half year period.

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