One of China’s most prominent “wolf warrior” diplomats has been moved to an obscure department, in an unusual transfer for an official who had seemed to be one of the foreign ministry’s highest flyers.

Zhao Lijian was no longer listed on the ministry’s website on Monday as one of its official spokespersons and instead appeared as one of three deputy directors for boundary and ocean affairs.

Foreign ministry spokespersons often move rapidly up China’s diplomatic hierarchy. It was announced last week that Qin Gang, a former spokesperson who went on to become president Xi Jinping’s ambassador to Washington, will succeed Wang Yi as foreign minister.

Other former spokespersons have also risen to prominent posts. Lu Kang became a director at the ministry’s North America department and is now China’s ambassador to Indonesia, while Geng Shuang was promoted to become China’s deputy permanent representative at the UN.

“Boundary affairs is not one of the [foreign ministry’s] more popular departments,” said Yun Sun, an expert on Chinese diplomacy at the Stimson Center in Washington, of Zhao’s new role. “It could be because he had caught too much attention in the past three years and needs some time and space to cool off.”

Zhao established his aggressive reputation largely via Twitter while working at China’s embassy in Islamabad and was rewarded with a transfer to the ministry’s information department in 2019. His rise came when Xi frequently encouraged Chinese officials to be aggressive and unapologetic in engaging with the country’s critics.

Such officials were dubbed wolf warriors after a series of films depicting Chinese special forces soldiers.

According to Zhao’s Twitter account, he has 1.9mn followers, more than double the 860,000 he had attracted by December 2020. He also appears to be a voracious reader of tweets, as he follows more than 171,000 users of the platform.

On Monday night Zhao’s Twitter account still listed him as a spokesperson with the ministry’s information department and did not mention his new position. Zhao could not be reached for comment.

Twitter remains blocked in China and can only be accessed via virtual private network software, which is illegal if not registered with the government.

Zhao set off a diplomatic furore two years ago, when he posted on Twitter a computer-generated image of an Australian soldier threatening an Afghan child. He was also an enthusiastic purveyor of conspiracy theories about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, saying it emanated from the US military rather than central China.

In 2019 Susan Rice, who served as former US president Barack Obama’s national security adviser, labelled Zhao a “racist disgrace” after he sent a provocative tweet about race relations in Washington DC.

Such controversies delighted Chinese nationalists who hailed him as an “internet celebrity diplomat”.

But wolf warriors such as Zhao were also criticised for needlessly antagonising important diplomatic partners such as the EU, whose member countries reacted badly to their rhetoric.

Beijing’s relations with Brussels have further deteriorated this year because of Xi’s support for Russia in its war on Ukraine, with his administration insisting that Nato expansion was the real trigger for the conflict.

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