In spring 2020, as China began what became three years of self-isolation from COVID-19, its foreign ministry played a front-line role in downplaying the emerging pandemic and fought back accusations of mismanagement. Now, observers say the fierce defense of Beijing’s authoritarian model appears to be softening, but only on the surface.

On January 31 that year, a Friday, Hua Chunying, who heads the ministry’s Information Department, said the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory on China was “not a gesture of goodwill.” By the following Monday, the regular media briefings in Beijing had gone virtual, but Hua insisted the virus’s mortality rate remained “very low” and described the U.S. reaction as excessive.

When in-person press conferences returned to the ministry’s “blue room” three weeks later on February 24, Hua introduced Zhao Lijian, a new spokesperson who went on to host the next 10 briefings. By mid-March, he was amplifying the conspiracy that COVID had emerged not from Wuhan, but from a U.S. Army base in Maryland. Americans “owe us an explanation!” he said on Twitter, his go-to medium for riling Western audiences.

China’s propagandists defended the counterargument, however distasteful, as a justified response to the Wuhan lab leak theory popularized by former President Donald Trump and fellow members of the Republican Party. The trend held in both Beijing and Washington, and Sino-American ties took a nosedive.

Last year, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Zhao, who had been promoted for his combative tweets from his time at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, attempted to replicate his domestic narrative success by echoing Kremlin talking points, including an unfounded theory about Kyiv’s U.S.-backed biological weapons program. He last appeared behind the lectern in December and was transferred to the ministry’s Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department this month in a “lateral demotion.”

Xi Jinping's China Charm Offensive Explained
Zhao Lijian, former Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, during a daily media briefing on April 8, 2020, in Beijing. Zhao was officially transferred from the ministry’s Information Department on January 9, 2023.
GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Retooling the Ministry

Zhao may not have been perfectly suited to Beijing’s primary foreign-facing institution, but he was a diplomat who fit the age of intensifying nationalism in Xi Jinping‘s China, which had also become extremely isolated during the excesses of the Chinese president’s zero-tolerance pandemic campaign.

At a time when few were traveling abroad but most felt safe, Zhao won praise for contrasting China’s political achievements with the West’s mishandling of the pandemic, the U.S.’s inexplicable tolerance for gun violence, and the disrepair of American democracy. These topics seemed to highlight Xi’s effective governance as he was boosted to an unprecedented third term as leader of the Communist Party last October.

Now China is headed toward a post-pandemic reopening, Zhao and his like are no longer the right tools for the diplomatic job. It was perhaps fitting that he was shuffled into relative obscurity in the same month Beijing dismantled the last remnants of its yearslong COVID policy.

It coincided with changes at the top, too. Qin Gang, the former Chinese envoy to Washington, was promoted to foreign minister just days before Zhao was axed from his post. Qin replaced Wang Yi, now China’s top diplomat, who holds the title of office director of the Communist Party‘s policy-setting Central Foreign Affairs Commission.

Qin, 56, spent all but 17 months in Washington, having been drafted in to fill the ministry’s most important foreign posting at a time when bilateral relations were still spiraling toward rock bottom on the back of Trump’s tumultuous presidency, Biden’s own solidifying positions, and Congress‘s hard line on China.

The Chinese diplomat had requested more meetings at the White House, the State Department or on Capitol Hill than his U.S. interlocutors were ready to grant. After exhausting official channels, Qin went the unofficial route, engaging with communities, universities and think tanks. In one of his departing tweets, Qin said Americans had left him “deeply impressed.”

“That was the most difficult period in the U.S.-China relationship,” said Suisheng Zhao, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Qin sought to highlight positives in the relationship, was flexible when he could be, and would have left Washington in good standing, he said.

Qin’s appointment ahead of March, when the Chinese government typically fills its cabinet positions, “showed Xi’s urgency to improve relations with the United States,” Zhao told Newsweek. “Although in public he criticizes all the time, I think he knows how consequential the relationship with the U.S. is, and although they talk about the U.S. declining, how powerful the U.S. is still.”

Zhao believes Qin’s outreach could be limited by his new role. “The foreign ministry is not a policymaking institution. It implements policies made at the top. There’s not much room for flexibility, particularly if he has political ambitions,” he said.

As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its 12th month and China’s posture continues to occupy the thoughts of many in the U.S. and Europe, there is also some continuity to Qin’s presence—he was the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson in spring 2014, when President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea.

Xi Jinping's China Charm Offensive Explained
Foreign Minister Qin Gang of China gestures during a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart on January 15, 2023, in Cairo. Qin was promoted to the Chinese foreign ministry’s top job on December 30, 2022.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

“There is a Chinese effort underway to recalibrate its diplomatic presentation,” said Sense Hofstede, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands. “This coincides with personnel changes.”

“Zhao Lijian’s de facto demotion could also be related to personal missteps, but it does symbolize a turn to more professional communication,” Hofstede told Newsweek. “That does not take away from the fact that Wang and Qin can lash out too and have shown themselves nationalists loyal to the party.”

Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, “expects to continue a productive working relationship” with Chinese counterpart Qin, a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek. “The United States will continue to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage the U.S.-PRC relationship,” the official said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

Makeup Diplomacy

Xi’s assertive foreign policy, known in some circles as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, serves his “us vs. them” brand of nationalism well. The unquestioning defense of Beijing’s policy choices, from COVID to human rights, particularly in the face of foreign criticism, has successfully engendered a powerful sense of national pride among the youth, whose loyalty is crucial to linking the Communist Party to contemporary notions of China and Chinese identity.

However, the same fervor, while resonating in the global south, has alienated China’s main trading partners in the West just when its economic outlook has turned especially bleak. The group of advanced economies led by the U.S., which are equally reliant on Beijing for prosperity, accounts for more than a third of China’s two-way trade each year.

Xi Jinping's China Charm Offensive Explained
U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and President Xi Jinping of China shake hands as they meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit on November 14, 2022, in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The more congenial tone being struck by Chinese diplomats conceivably aims to make calls against further decoupling politically possible in Western capitals. Similarly, Xi’s apparent willingness to walk back statist economic policies is meant to inspire investor confidence. Even the Chinese film bureau’s lifting of an unofficial ban on American superhero movies follows this softening trend.

“This is a tactical rather than a fundamental adjustment. I don’t see a 180-degree turn on the foreign policy front,” said Zhao, the political scientist. “What they have done is not on their overall foreign policy direction, but to the big powers they have to work with, like the U.S. and the European countries.”

To be sure, many had thought a course correction impossible, or at least very unlikely, under Xi, whose authority risked being undermined by a sudden about-face on signature positions like zero COVID. Xi’s very public reversals may speak to his stronger power base atop the Communist Party, or they are the mark of an outwardly assured leader who has been forced to change tack by unpopular policies that threatened the party’s legitimacy.

“The COVID U-turn and foreign policy are linked. He became vulnerable,” Zhao said. “He realized he had to make adjustments, not only in foreign policy, but also on other fronts such as his treatment of the private sector, the real estate sector and the education sector.”

“He has a clear instinct to survive. The bottom line for his survival is the economy—investments, consumption, exports and imports. In order for the economy to survive, he has to improve the international environment,” the professor said.

Low-Hanging Fruit

In successive year-end meetings with Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, and European Council President Charles Michel, Xi portrayed China as a dependable international partner ready for dialogue. With the war in Ukraine weighing heavily on their minds, the European leaders came away with the impression that Xi could help constrain Putin.

Biden, who also met Xi late last year for their first in-person talks as presidents, was among those who said the Chinese leader had opposed the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, in an apparent rebuke of Putin’s saber-rattling. None of Beijing’s official readouts reflected this position, but Western leaders, having walked away with the lowest of low-hanging fruit, clung to the private commitment.

Meanwhile, Xi called Putin on December 30 to consolidate their “close coordination and collaboration in international affairs.”

Xi Jinping's China Charm Offensive Explained
A Russian Navy rocket boat takes part in the Vostok-2022 military exercises in the Peter the Great Gulf of the Sea of Japan on September 5, 2022, off Russia’s eastern port city of Vladivostok. China’s military forces also took part in the war games in Russia’s far east from September 1 to 7.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

America’s transatlantic allies may be more receptive to Xi’s overtures despite being wary of what the U.S. calls a “say-do gap” in China. European capitals are “giving Beijing the benefit of the doubt because decoupling is too terrible to contemplate,” said Tuvia Gering, a researcher with the Diane and Guilford Glazer Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“Whenever they get even a sliver of signaling from China that there is an about-face, they jump in all hands and take it,” Gering told Newsweek. “They are too quick to accept China’s words at face value and fail to follow China’s deeds.”

Topping U.S. concerns is China’s seemingly higher risk tolerance on the military front. Senior Pentagon officials pursing talks with their Chinese counterparts for the better part of two years have found Beijing unwilling to discuss “crisis communications or strategic risk reduction,” Michael Chase, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, told the American Enterprise Institute last month.

There remains little letup by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in regional hotspots like the East and South China seas or the Taiwan Strait, where American air and naval forces are meeting their PLA counterparts on a regular basis.

“Even our closest partners want us to be at least communicating with the PLA in a way that will prevent miscalculation and other forms of inadvertent conflict. So the region is looking to Washington and Beijing to manage this competition more responsibly,” Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said at the same event.

“The U.S. always talks about needing to establish guardrails in the relationship. It’s because they don’t exist right now. That’s why it’s so scary,” said Gering. “There are no conditions whatsoever for China to change the tone strategically because of this lack of trust—it just doesn’t exist.”

What Xi Jinping's Diplomatic Facelift Reveals
Chinese President Xi Jinping. His government has launched a “charm offensive” in the West to help end China’s economic woes, researchers say.
Getty/Newsweek

A Long Shot

At the halfway point of Biden’s first term, the Democrat’s administration has enjoyed a measure of success in multilateralizing some previously bilateral sticking points with Beijing, rallying allies and partners behind immediate concerns about Taiwan and long-term anxieties about economic dependence, especially in high technology.

In the past 12 months, the White House has been aided by easy analogies with Russian adventurism in Ukraine and the Chinese leadership’s noncommittal attitude toward the same conflict. The Western squeeze has simultaneously added to Beijing’s economic woes and reinforced its internal readings of an all-out containment effort coordinated from Washington.

China’s “charm offensive” is a response to “headwinds at home and abroad,” according to Adrian Ang, a researcher and U.S. program coordinator with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“As Beijing regroups and allows it to possibly play divide and conquer and prevent other countries from joining the U.S. bandwagon, the question is how long it will last—and of course will it succeed?” Ang said.

Both Washington and Beijing are “feeling their way towards some sort of floor in the bilateral relationship,” he told Newsweek. “There is talk of President Xi maybe attending the APEC summit in San Francisco later this year. If that is the goal, we should and can expect to see some degree of at least short-run stability this year before we get into the U.S.’s 2024 presidential election cycle.”

Blinken’s upcoming visit to Beijing, slated for early next month, is seen as another potential icebreaker for frosty U.S.-China ties, even as bipartisan hawks continue to gain momentum in Congress, leaving little room for nuance and pragmatic diplomacy between the two capitals.

Few expect relations to return to their rosier past, but many hope the tensions have bottomed out, despite remaining challenges that may also hinder Beijing’s desire to pry apart Washington and Brussels.

“The two biggest obstacles for Beijing’s refreshed approach are the fact that the underlying political conflicts between China and Western countries have not gone away, and that Beijing has burned much of its credibility and goodwill in recent years,” said Hofstede of Clingendael’s China Center.

“China’s focus on the U.S. as the supposed cause behind Europe’s stances on core issues from semiconductors to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is only going to further alienate European capitals,” he said. “The COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion have driven home structural geopolitical issues among Western political elites that no Chinese charm offensive can make them unsee.”

Do you have a tip on a world news story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about China? Let us know via worldnews@newsweek.com.

newsweek