Chinese diplomats have long had a reputation as well-trained, colorless and cautious professionals who pursue their missions doggedly without attracting much unfavorable attention. But a new crop of younger diplomats are ditching established diplomatic norms in favor of aggressively promoting China’s self-serving COVID-19 narrative. It is called “wolf warrior” diplomacy — and it is backfiring.

Shortly before the COVID-19 crisis erupted, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi instructed the country’s diplomatic corps to adopt a more assertive approach to defending China’s interests and reputation abroad. The pandemic — the scale of which may have been far smaller were it not for local Wuhan authorities’ early mistakes — presented a perfect opportunity to translate this directive into action.

And that is precisely what Chinese diplomats have been doing. For example, in mid-March, the foreign ministry’s newly appointed deputy spokesman, Zhao Lijian, promoted a conspiracy theory alleging that the U.S. military brought the novel coronavirus to Wuhan, the pandemic’s first epicenter.