The power and limits of China’s ‘mask diplomacy’

Asia Health World

Author: Dylan MH Loh, NTU

Despite initial missteps surrounding COVID-19, particularly in releasing timely information and providing accurate updates, China has largely contained their coronavirus outbreak. As a result, Beijing has turned its attention to helping other countries through the provision of medical supplies, test kits and technical expertise. China hopes to build goodwill in recipient countries and garner positive international media attention.The Consulate General of the People's Republic of China, Lin Jing (right) delivered food and medical supplies to Vice President of Parliament Solomon Lechesa Tsenoli (center) in Cape Town, South Africa 13 May 2020 (Courtney Africa/ ANA/Latin America News Agency via Reuters).

The Consulate General of the People's Republic of China, Lin Jing (right) delivered food and medical supplies to Vice President of Parliament Solomon Lechesa Tsenoli (center) in Cape Town, South Africa 13 May 2020 (Courtney Africa/ ANA/Latin America News Agency via Reuters).

For instance, China has provided test kits to Cambodia, sent ventilators to New York City, deployed medics to Iran and increased its funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) by US$30 million (following Washington’s suspension of WHO funding on 14 April). While the humanitarian impetus is undoubtedly a major motivator, it is difficult to ignore the political calculus involved in China’s outreach efforts.

Beijing is endeavouring to soften criticism of its initial management and to burnish its global leadership credentials. This shifts the narrative from China being the ‘originator’ of the disease to one where China is stepping up to help the world battle the virus. These moves send a message: China has passed its own COVID-19 test and is now able to turn its efforts to helping others.

China has also used private philanthropic efforts to push this narrative. Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s contributions of masks and medical supplies to places such as the Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal and French Polynesia, among others, were widely lauded in Chinese media. While there is no evidence to show any coordination between Ma and the Chinese government, it is noteworthy that these recipient countries do not have formal ties to Taiwan. It is not surprising that countries receiving the most help are countries that already enjoy close ties to China or are important gateways in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ is not only carried out on a bilateral basis through public and private actors — Beijing is also directly engaging with Chinese citizens living overseas. The Chinese embassy in Singapore, for instance, has been active in engaging and helping its overseas Chinese citizens. The embassy procured and gave 60,000 masks to Chinese workers in Singapore, with the words ‘wishing our Chinese compatriots well, the Motherland longs for you’ emblazoned on boxes filled with masks.

China’s capacity to mobilise Chinese businesses and communities overseas for diplomatic and humanitarian ends is clear. The China Enterprise Association (Singapore) has also been working with the Chinese embassy in Singapore to distribute masks. Earlier, the Chinese Ambassador to Singapore conducted visits to universities and schools to extend ‘concern from [the] homeland government to Chinese students studying abroad’. Singapore is not unique in this regard — the Chinese embassy in Malaysia has also engaged with local hospitals, NGOs and political groups to assist in the fight against COVID-19.

But Chinese efforts to soothe public discourse surrounding its role in the pandemic are not without problems. It has been reported, for example, that Spain has stopped using a Chinese-made rapid test kit because it had an accuracy rate of less than 30 per cent. India, among other countries, has also stopped using Chinese rapid test kits owing to similar accuracy concerns. China insists that these are small issues and that worries over quality were ‘overblown’.

China has found it hard to convince Western media and governments to shed their cynicism. The United States has been relentless in its criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus. The Attorney General of the US state of Missouri recently initiated a lawsuit against China. Mississippi has since filed a similar lawsuit. This has found some traction within the White House, with Trump saying that he is exploring ways to make China pay. Australia and New Zealand have also echoed Washington’s calls for an independent investigation into the original outbreak in Wuhan, thus showing the limits of China’s public relations push.

A newly released EU report will be of great concern to China’s diplomats and its public relations push. The document notes that there is ‘significant evidence of covert Chinese operations on social media’, as it seeks to drown out ‘accusations that it made the crisis worse by trying to cover up its own outbreak’. What’s more, Beijing’s outreach efforts could also be viewed with suspicion by host governments. While there is no suggestion of anything nefarious with regard to Chinese COVID-19 outreach practices, concerns over foreign interference and political mobilisation are an ever-present fear.

The narrative that China is pushing has had limited success. Tellingly, it has achieved favourable results in Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Serbia, which are critical nodes in China’s Belt and Road project. Perhaps, what matters most for Beijing is how its own citizens view its crisis management efforts and entrenching the dependencies of countries already close to China.

Dylan MH Loh is Assistant Professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Division, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He is also the founding editor of ThePolitburo.org.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

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