China and the World

A command performance

Beijing ramps up its relief effort overseas as the pandemic spreads


Rescue effort: a Chinese medical team arrives in Milan

The Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating, the World Health Organisation warned this week. And so are deliveries from China of much-needed supplies to countries fighting the outbreak, with a blizzard of announcements in the press. Chinese diplomats have coordinated deliveries to more than 80 countries, although it’s not always clear whether these are donations or goods being sold on commercial terms.

One of the largest donors is the Jack Ma Foundation, which has arranged for the dispatch of doctors and medical kit to countries including France, Spain, Italy, Iran, Japan, South Korea and the United States. The foundation has also committed to donating 20,000 test kits, 100,000 masks, and 1,000 protective suits and face shields to each of the 54 countries in Africa, as well as a similar stream of supplies to 24 countries in Latin America, the South China Morning Post reports.

In another major effort Ma has been promoting a digital handbook that outlines how medical workers on the frontline in China have been diagnosing and treating patients. “I need your help to share this handbook quickly to hospitals, doctors, nurses and anyone who needs to know around the world,” the billionaire founder of Alibaba tweeted. “We are in this together!”

The background to all of this activity is that so much of what the world needs to fight the coronavirus – test kits, masks, ventilators and medicines – are made in China. Factories there have ramped up production to fight the pandemic at home and these resources are now in desperate demand elsewhere. “There’s literally no country in the world that doesn’t want to buy a ventilator from China right now,” the director of a ventilator firm in the Chinese capital told Bloomberg on Monday. “We have tens of thousands of orders waiting. The issue is how fast we can make them.”

For instance, the US Strategic National Stockpile, a reserve of critical medical goods, is thought to have just 1% of the masks and respirators and 10% of the ventilators needed for the pandemic response. The shortfall will have to be made up from a surge in domestic manufacturing or imports from China, calculate Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi in an article in Foreign Affairs.

Back in China there is recognition that it received support from other countries earlier this year, with the media drawing up lists of nations that came to China’s aid when the crisis in Wuhan was at its worst.

“It is China’s traditional virtue to repay goodwill with greater kindness. You throw a peach to me and I give you a white jade for friendship,” a spokesman from the foreign ministry explained, tacking on a Chinese proverb for emphasis.

Others have been eyeing the Chinese relief effort more suspiciously, seeing it as more of a propaganda push from a government that initially came under withering criticism for reacting too slowly to the coronavirus onset and even trying to cover up the early news of its spread in Wuhan.

It is generally accepted that the epidemic wasn’t fully disclosed by the Chinese authorities for at least five weeks after it was first detected last November, which meant a crucial delay in measures to protect the public. Yet it is governments from other parts of the world that are now looking poorly prepared for the pandemic. The role reversal for the Chinese has been startling: from originators of the outbreak to the people best placed to bring it under control – all in less than a month.

That’s been made easier by the floundering response to the crisis from the Trump administration and its refusal to take on the kind of leadership role that the Americans assumed during the Ebola outbreak six years ago.

A coordinated response has been lacking in Europe as well, where the Chinese have been airlifting medical supplies to national governments. Another two million surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks and 50,000 testing kits were also dispatched to the European Union, which thanked Beijing for its help but made a point of mentioning how the EU had donated 50 tonnes of medical equipment to the Chinese in January.

Nonetheless there’s clear recognition from some European governments that deliveries of Chinese aid are going to be crucial to the prospects of countering the pandemic in the weeks ahead – China is “the only country capable of supplying Europe with such amounts,” was the verdict from Czech interior minister Jan Hamacek.

In some of the worst affected countries the limits of European solidarity have become brutally apparent as countries close their borders and restrict the exports of medical goods. The Italians are particularly incensed that none of the other EU members responded to requests for help at the beginning of March. Instead it’s the Chinese who have offered the most support: “We are not alone. There are people in the world who want to help Italy,” Luigi Di Maio, the foreign minister, noted pointedly when the first of 300 doctors from China arrived 10 days ago.

Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian president, was similarly grateful when another team of Chinese doctors flew into Belgrade to help the fight against Covid-19 last weekend, even kissing the Chinese flag to show his relief.

“Everything on this plane is free-of-charge assistance, a donation from the People’s Republic of China. We should thank them with all our hearts, they have proven to be great friends of Serbia and Serbs,” he added.

Vucic had earlier scoffed that any sense of solidarity in Europe was “a fairy tale”.

“Today, I sent a special letter to the only ones that can help, and that is China,” he said. Located on the eastern fringes of the EU (but applying for full membership of the bloc), Serbia has borrowed billions of dollars from the Chinese to build railways, roads and power plants. Firms from China have taken control of its sole copper mine and one of its main steel mills.

Italy is the only country in the G7 to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese on participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (see WiC445) and Xi Jinping talked up a new ‘Health Silk Road’ during a call to the Italian prime minister this month, promising that the Chinese would pass on their experience in the fight against the virus.

“It’s not an accident that the heat map of where Xi Jinping is sending condolences and China is sending N95 masks overlaps pretty closely with those countries that have demonstrated a willingness to accommodate China,” added Daniel Russel, a former US diplomat now with the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, in comments to the Associated Press.

Chinese efforts to reach out to European governments this month have also deepened the sense of unease among the EU’s diplomats. “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner,” warned Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief. “In the battle of narratives we have also seen attempts to discredit the EU as such and some instances where Europeans have been stigmatised as if all were carriers of the virus.”

Meanwhile back in China the lockdown on travelling out of Hubei province was lifted at midnight on Tuesday – another key signal that the government is declaring a victory of sorts over the outbreak (Wuhan – the worst affected city in Hubei – will stay in lockdown until April 8).

And in another apparent victory for Beijing this week Donald Trump dropped his use of the phrase “Chinese virus” which had irked some as racist (see WiC487). It seems he was reacting to concerns that the labelling was making life difficult for Asian-Americans. “I’m not gonna let it happen so I just wanted to make that point, because they’re blaming China, people are blaming China, and they are making statements to great American citizens that happen to be of Asian heritage, and I’m not going to let that happen,” the US president explained.

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