One of China’s most combative and recognizable spokesmen is now in an obscure position without explanation, prompting widespread speculation about what he might have done to annoy the nation’s political leadership, or whether he might have volunteered to step down.
Until this week, Zhao Lijian had been the model of a diplomatic “wolf warrior,” castigating the nation’s critics at daily Foreign Ministry briefings while building an online audience of 1.9 million followers on Twitter and almost 7.7 million on Weibo, the Chinese counterpart.
By Tuesday, he was settling into a new role as deputy director-general in the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, a little-known agency with limited responsibilities and virtually no public profile.
Zhao’s new post was announced at Tuesday’s Foreign Ministry press briefing in Beijing by Wang Wenbin, one of the ministry’s three official spokespersons. “Comrade Zhao has assumed a post in exchange in accordance with needs,” Wang said in response to a question from a Reuters reporter.
The change in Zhao’s fortunes was swift and unceremonious.
As of 3:55 a.m. in Beijing on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry website still listed Zhao along with Wang, Hua Chunying, and the newly appointed Mao Ning as spokespersons for the ministry. Two minutes later, Zhao’s name could no longer be seen on the page.
His Twitter profile still shows the same youthful-looking man with a sort of crew cut, nondescript eyeglasses, head bent down slightly, a smile showing teeth. While Twitter identifies him as a Chinese governmental official, a common practice by the platform, Zhao has changed his title to reflect his new post.
Zhao made his first appearance as a spokesperson on February 24, 2020, and quickly became a fixture in the post. He remained in good standing as of late last year, handling the briefing every weekday from November 1 to 11 and from November 28 to December 2.
Some analysts speculated that the sudden demotion may signal a desire by Beijing to back away from its aggressive diplomacy of recent years and soften its image in the face of economic headwinds and growing friction with important trading partners.
That theory holds little merit for Bob Fu, a Chinese human rights activist who heads the Texas-based non-profit China Aid.
“So long as [Chinese President] Xi Jinping remains in power and stays his course, the ‘wolf’ content of China’s diplomacy will remain unchanged,” Fu said in a telephone interview with VOA.
He pointed to former President Hu Jintao’s extraordinary, televised removal from the podium at the Communist Party congress in October, as well as Xi’s lecturing of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, also on camera, as more reliable examples of China’s official conduct.
He also noted that Qin Gang, who recently rose to the job of foreign minister from his post as ambassador to Washington, has never shied away from the wolf warrior branding.
“Given the de facto demotion, one can assume that Zhao more likely was found to have been politically incorrect in one way or another,” Fu said.
One possible explanation lay in Zhao’s response to a question at a November 29 briefing, just as Beijing was preparing to pivot from its long-held zero-COVID policy in the face of widespread protests across the country.
Asked by a Reuters reporter whether such a shift was under consideration, Zhao paused for about 30 seconds, silently shuffling papers before asking the reporter to repeat the question. After another long pause, he finally said, “The situation you described is inconsistent with facts.”
Asked about the incident at the time, Fu suggested the pause could have been deliberate. “Maybe that was him raising a piece of blank paper,” Fu said. Others suggested Zhao was at an uncharacteristic loss for words to defend the existing policy.
There has also been speculation on Chinese social media that Zhao’s downfall may have to do with his wife, Tang Tianru, a surprisingly candid writer who has described the couple on her Weibo account as “big smarty pants and silly country girl.”
While Chinese were still facing strict lockdowns and obsessive testing last year, Tang posted pictures from a trip to Germany commenting, with a hint of appreciation, that what she saw there was “normal life.”
More recently she has complained on social media about how hard it is to find fever-reducing medicines since Beijing abandoned its zero-COVID measures and caseloads surged.
VOA Mandarin Service contributed to this report.