After a diplomatic incident that began on social media, France's foreign ministry summoned China's envoy to Paris on Monday over a flurry of "unacceptable" insults the embassy levied against a French academic on Twitter. China specialist Antoine Bondaz, who had not been sparing in his criticism of Beijing online, landed in the Chinese embassy's social media cross-hairs after tweeting about Taiwan. Bondaz was called a "small-time thug", an "ideological troll" and a "crazed hyena". FRANCE 24 spoke with the researcher about the unprecedented incident.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian used measured language on Monday after requesting that Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye be summoned for a word, but the gist was clear. "There is no place in Franco-Chinese relations for insults and attempts at intimidation against elected officials and researchers. We defend those who embody freedom of speech and democracy. Always and everywhere," Le Drian tweeted. "The remarks by the Chinese Embassy in France and their actions against elected officials, researchers and EU diplomats are not acceptable. I have asked that the Ambassador be summoned to be firmly reminded of this."
The spat comes as Beijing has lashed out at fresh Western sanctions over human rights violations and the crackdown on the Muslim Uighur minority in China. The country has responded with entry bans on 10 Europeans, including French European Parliament lawmaker Raphaël Glucksmann – sanctions France's foreign ministry deems "unacceptable".
Bondaz, a researcher at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) who focuses on China and Asia more broadly, does not feature on the list of individuals China has sanctioned. Ambassador Lu's volley of invective against him began Friday on Twitter. After pointing out in a post mentioning the Chinese Embassy that the Quai d'Orsay, France's foreign ministry, had stood by French parliamentarians' free decision to visit Taiwan, the Chinese Embassy tweeted a succinct two-word response: "petite frappe" – variously translated as small-time thug, little creep or little rascal. The subject of self-ruled Taiwan is a particularly sensitive one for Beijing, which considers the island an integral part of China, accordingly seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, and abhors any initiative tending to legitimate Taiwanese autonomy.
Bondaz's tweet had concluded with "big, big kisses to you as well as to your trolls", in reference to the many pro-Beijing Twitter accounts that primarily work to amplify the messages of Chinese authorities. The jocular tone evidently did not please the ambassador.
Global Times gets involved
After that first exchange, Bondaz, a recognised expert on China and the Korean peninsula who is featured regularly on FRANCE 24, received a number of expressions of support from prominent individuals in France denouncing the embassy's undiplomatic approach. Nathalie Loiseau, for instance, a former state secretary for European Affairs under French President Emmanuel Macron, commented, "Rarely have we seen diplomats do so much harm to the image of their country. Brutal, vulgar, that's the China you are displaying."
Unimpressed by the growing support for Bondaz, China's diplomats in France upped the ante. In a long communiqué released on Sunday, the embassy said it had been subject to constant "harassment" by the French researcher and suggested it was merely replying to the "provocations" of a "crazed hyena". The embassy also accused Bondaz of being an "ideological troll" lacking in impartiality who "bows down" before Taiwanese authorities.
On Monday, Chinese daily The Global Times ran with the subject in its English edition. The newspaper's op-ed suggested the French researcher was a "radical" espousing anti-China propaganda in line with hawks in the United States.
"The level and the baseness of the attacks are surprising because this attack isn't developed with arguments and only aims to impress and intimidate me," Bondaz told FRANCE 24 on Monday. "But so things are clear, I am neither impressed nor intimidated and above all it was predictable that working on topics that are sensitive for Chinese political authorities, like Taiwan, exposes me to these attacks one day or another." The researcher has headed the "Taiwan, on security and diplomacy" programme at the Foundation for Strategic Research since January.
An undiplomatic ambassador?
Chinese Ambassador to France Lu appears to be one of the most fervent proponents of so-called wolf warrior diplomacy. The term is used to designate the menacing and aggressive attitude adopted by part of the young guard of China's diplomats under President Xi Jinping.
The envoy, who has served in that capacity in France since 2019, was already notorious for his outspoken style as China's Ambassador to Canada. While posted to Ottawa, Lu managed the crisis unleashed by the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on Canadian soil in 2018. There, too, his language was unvarnished. In an op-ed in Canada's The Hill Times, Lu slammed the country and its allies for demanding the release of Canadians detained in China in the wake of Meng's arrest. "The reason why some people are used to arrogantly adopting double standards is due to Western egotism and white supremacy," Lu wrote. "They have not been showing respect for the rule of law, but mocking and trampling on the rule of law."
After Lu's arrival in France, the envoy was also summoned to the foreign ministry in April 2020 over comments he made about French nursing home staff, whom he said had "abandoned their posts" amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In his defence, the diplomat said his remarks were not aimed at France.
The Chinese Embassy in Paris has stood by its aggressive tone in the spat with Bondaz, making a thinly veiled reference to the "wolf warrior" reference he made in one of his tweets. "There are people who wish to see Chinese diplomacy become the diplomacy of 'lambs', who weather attacks without batting an eye. That era is well and truly over!" the embassy tweeted on Monday.
But the online attack on Bondaz differed from the traditional volleys levied by Xi Jinping's wolf warriors.
"These attacks aren't representative of what some qualify as 'wolf warrior' diplomacy because they go a lot further than the mere assertion of Chinese interests. No other Chinese embassy in Europe goes as far or as low," Bondaz said. "These attacks aim in reality to stifle public debate in France in allowing the Chinese embassy to impose the subjects that can or cannot be discussed."
After Lu responded to the summons on Tuesday morning, AFP reported, a French diplomatic official said the envoy had been received by the ministry's Asia director, who informed him that "the embassy's methods, and the tone of its public comments, were completely unacceptable and exceeded all the limits commonly accepted by any embassy in the world".
This article has been translated and updated from the original in French.