- China has been sending medical teams and protective equipment to countries battling the coronavirus, a strategy dubbed “mask diplomacy.”
- While sending medical help is inherently benign, China seems to have another motive: to win points on the world stage.
- Officials at home have been praising China’s “helping hand” abroad, and diplomats are reportedly asking foreign officials to praise China in public.
- Though China’s efforts have borne fruit in a few places, many are still skeptical of Beijing’s motives and don’t see it as a trustworthy leader in the outbreak.
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Over the past few weeks, China has been sending medics, masks, ventilators, and shipments of other precious protective equipment to countries in the midst of the global coronavirus outbreak.
While the care packages will surely help those who receive them — the US, Spain, Italy, France, and Britain have all reported more than 10,000 deaths — they are likely underpinned by hard-nosed calculation.
The shipments are part of a broad effort — dubbed “mask diplomacy” to win goodwill around the world, and help establish the in the role of global leadership it has long aspired to take on.
‘We will never stand aloof and shun our friends when they are in trouble’
China has sent teams of medical experts to at least ten countries so far, as well as exporting ventilators and protective equipment to many other countries and states battling the virus.
It’s sent medics to Italy, Iran, Serbia, and the Philippines, its foreign ministry said, as well as 1,140 ventilators to New York state in early April.
(Other countries, including Spain, the Netherlands, and Turkey, have purchased medical equipment from private Chinese companies, much of which turned out faulty. The embarrassment has since prompted China to crack down on medical exports.)
—UK in China 🇬🇧 (@ukinchina) April 10, 2020
China’s efforts are more than simple humanitarianism
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters last week: “China is making such efforts to reciprocate the goodwill we received earlier during the pandemic, to act on international humanitarianism and to implement the vision of a community with a shared future for mankind.”
“We will never stand aloof and shun our friends when they are in trouble, and we will never pick and choose nor attach any strings when extending a helping hand.”
But what the government is doing behind closed doors is another story.
One revealing example is at the state-government level in Wisconsin.
According to the Wisconsin Examiner, a diplomat at China’s nearby Chicago consulate emailed the president of the Wisconsin Senate in February and March, asking that he praise China’s “transparency” and “unprecedented and rigorous measures” in the epidemic.
The diplomat had even sent a draft resolution, published here by The New York Times, seemingly for Wisconsin to use.
It was not successful: Roger Roth, the Wisconsin Senate president, in his own resolution called out “propaganda and falsehoods” in the Chinese draft.
The Chinese diplomat, named Wu Ting, did not respond to The Times or Examiner’s requests for comment.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, told Business Insider: “Over the last decade … I’ve watched Chinese diplomats and government officials become more sophisticated in how they try to sell their message to the world.
“I can’t think of another circumstance in which they have tried to hand a democratic country’s state legislature a draft resolution and expect that it would receive the response they had in mind.”
Germany’s Welt am Sonntag also reported this month that Chinese government representatives had contacted German officials asking for public praise, citing a confidential German foreign ministry document.
Beijing had asked them to praise its shipment of medical supplies to Europe, and “portray the People’s Republic as a reliable partner and prudent crisis manager.”
Beijing denied the German report, telling Agence France-Presse (AFP) in a statement: “Our goal is to better protect the lives and health of our own people … rather than obtaining others’ appreciation.” The German foreign ministry responded neither to Welt am Sonntag nor to AFP.
Elizabeth Economy, director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times: “This is certainly not in the tradition of the best humanitarian relief efforts. It seems strange to expect signed declarations of thanks from other countries in the midst of the crisis.”
Observers say China is embarking on “mask diplomacy” because it prefers to be seen fighting the virus around to world to suffering criticism of its role as the country where the disease began.
“Chinese officials and their propaganda machinery are in high gear worldwide trying to paint the Chinese government as the solution to the problem, rather than one of the sources of it,” Richardson, of Human Rights Watch, said.
“It’s not a government that’s capable of tolerating or willing to tolerate accountability at home. And I’m sure the idea of international accountability is not a popular topic in Beijing,” she said, noting that China has for years refused to accept responsibility for human rights violations against the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
“What that machine knows how to do is make up a different story that says: ‘It’s not our fault.'”
“There a lot of things for which the Chinese government should be accountable, but it has really come to expect a certain kind of impunity,” Richardson continued.
“I think it’s partly why this moment is different … Under these grim circumstances, far more people worldwide can now see why, for example, the lack of free speech inside China can have consequences for people around the world.”
Has China’s propaganda drive worked?
China’s “mask diplomacy” appears to have been successful in some countries. Examples include:
- Serbia, where the president kissed the Chinese flag when medical equipment arrived, and where the government has introduced health policies advocated by China but used almost nowhere else in Europe. Billboards of President Xi Jinping’s face alongside the words “thanks, brother Xi” in Serbian and Chinese went up across Belgrade, the Serbian capital.
- Hungary, where officials have repeatedly thanked China for supplying masks and played down help from the European Union, according to the Associated Press.
- Cambodia, where officials are banning foreigners from entering the country, but allowing Chinese troops in for military exercises.
The three nations are longstanding Chinese allies and members of its massive Belt and Road Initiative.
But most other Western countries aren’t on board.
Experts and medical professionals remain wary of China’s coronavirus data, and nobody has forgotten its missteps in the early stages of the outbreak. They include suppressing early warnings, and hiding information from its citizens and the rest of the world.
This week alone, the Associated Press reported that top Chinese officials had for six days sat on the knowledge that the coronavirus is transmitted human-to-human, and would turn into a pandemic, without telling citizens or the World Health Organization. Those six days of silence had cost thousands of lives.
Since his death, thousands of people have left comments on his last post on Weibo, the microblogging site. The New York Times referred to it as China’s “digital Wailing Wall” — like Jerusalem’s Western Wall, where people leave slips of paper with their prayers.
“This would play very differently if, for example, authorities in Beijing had decided that there were going to focus exclusively on providing as much reliable PPE worldwide as they possibly could have,” Richardson said.
“I think if they had chosen just to do that, the response around the world might be quite different, but this incredibly aggressive insistence also on the Chinese government’s revisionist account of what happened really tips opinion in the other direction.”
“I think ramming [its own] narrative down has really produced the opposite of what Beijing intended,” she said.
“There’s that much more interest in China’s role, that many more questions about whether the Chinese government did the right thing at the right time.”
“Precisely the kind of attention they don’t want.”