EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

China, where COVID-19, the virus that is currently paralysing almost all states in the world, first appeared, is now recovering. The virus‘ first appearance was reported on December 31 2019 by Chinese officials in Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei region. According to the Chinese government, the state succeeded in taking control over the virus‘ spread by enforcing strict regulations such as social distancing, city-wide lockdowns and extensive public monitoring of citizens. However this information cannot be taken for granted, considering the government is probably providing inaccurate data regarding the number of deaths caused by COVID-19.[1] Meanwhile the epicenter of the pandemic moved to northern Italy and the virus reached most of the world. The gravity of the situation caught the majority of states off-guard, leaving them without crucial medical equipment and lacking overall capacity to deal with the increasing numbers of patients infected with COVID-19. China seized this chance without hesitation and started supplying the countries with essential equipment in a grandiose PR move designed to boost Chinese leadership and geopolitical clout, which proved largely successful through the aid of national leaders such as President Zeman, despite much of the equipment being faulty.
The Chinese regime is now trying to establish the narrative of the pandemic presenting itself as a global saviour through the aforementioned PR campaign. According to the data of The Wall Street Journal, over a two-week period in March, Chinese government agencies, companies and charities donated more than 26 million face masks, 2.3 million testing kits and other supplies to 89 countries and sold even more products to others, attracting a lot of media coverage.[2] Articles about Chinese success in combating the virus and offering assistance boost China’s international credibility and improve its global image. China has furthermore launched a social media campaign over the past two months, buying political adverts on Facebook and increasing the number of posts on Twitter, trying to shape global public’s opinion on the coronavirus crisis.[3]
In tandem with China’s economic ascendancy in the past decades, it has also enhanced its soft power capabilities through Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in vulnerable states susceptible to China’s financial injections, often compromising essential infrastructure, media, and more, by allowing Chinese takeovers in return for financial stimulus. In 2013, The Belt and Road Initiative was adopted – a developmental strategy that involves infrastructure development and investments in foreign countries and international organizations all over the world, and which is a cornerstone of China’s aspirations towards geopolitical ascendancy. It is sometimes referred to as a 21st century silkroad, attempting to connect Africa, Asia and Europe to China by overland corridors and shippping lanes. In order to complete a project, China lends a certain sum of money to corresponding state, which is very often unable to make repayments. Hence in return, China creates a different solution – for Sri Lanka it was 99 years of port lease, for Tajikistan 1,158 sq km of disputed territory in exchange for writing-off the state’s debt. With this initiative, China gains leverage and influence in countries, which are often in a very difficult socio-economic position, and which often commit egregious human rights violations comparable to China itself.[4]
Any assistance is of course welcome during a crisis, but it would be naive to see China’s offer of assistance as altruism and unconditional. It is part of a coordinated propaganda campaign, often aided and abetted by national leaders, such as President Zeman, with deep vested interests in China, or Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luigi di Maio, who posted a video of himself watching live footage of a plane with medical supplies from China remarking that China was the first to send aid. Another proof of rapproachement of Italy and China is a phone-call with Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, in which Chinese president Xi expressed his wish to establish a health silk road as a part of Belt and Road Initiave.[5] Chinese so-called „assistance“ is governed by geopolitical ambitions, and naturally the old adage that a crisis should never go to waste is applicable here.
Political propaganda aside, some countries are rejecting Chinese equipment because of one other reason – faulty products. The Netherlands returned 600 000 respirators after finding out their filters did not work as intended. The Spanish government bought thousands of tests and found out that nearly 60 000 were not able to determine if a person was infected or not. The Chinese Embassy in Spain quickly distanced itself from the company that manufactured them, explaining it was not part of the help provided by the Chinese government and the Alibaba group, even though the Communist party owns those manufacturers. However, Spain was not alone, Turkey also reported that some testing kits provided by Chinese companies did not show accurate results. In Denmark, a shipment of 450.000 masks bought by the Odense University Hospital mysteriously disappeared, with no refund provided.[6]
With media focusing on current situation of the pandemic and with many articles praising the help China sends to Europe, the USA and Africa, it should not be forgetten that in spite of their current approach, the Chinese regime tried to cover up the whole pandemic in the first place, going so far as to silence, imprison or in some cases make dissenting voices ‚disappear.‘[7] Furthermore, it is understandably causing the EU frustration that the EU provided China with medical assistance when the outbreak began in Wuhan, and respected the Chinese desire for the help to be discrete, only to find that China is now actively instigating a PR campaign at the EU’s expense.
Another point adding to the crisis is China’s politics towards Taiwan, making it impossible for the state to join international organizations, such as the WHO, due to lack of recognition by China. This is also aided and abetted by other states, mostly Western, who try to appease China because of its importance to global manufacturing chains. As a result, Taiwan is unable to contribute with its expertise and knowledge on effective ways of hadling the pandemic, which would have been beneficial.[8]
The results of the pandemic and the shape of the world after it are yet to be determined with China remaining one of the key variables in the equation. Their influence gain is inevitable considering their success in reshaping the narratives around the crisis. However, what stands for certain is that this crisis will make EU and the U.S. reassess their dependence on Chinese market, particularly in the production of medical equipment and pharmaceutical goods. It might also raise the question of the politics of the Western states towards Taiwan and their attitude towards the Chinese regime, especially considering their attempt to supress the information about the virus‘ spread and the subsequent political propaganda. All this can alter China’s influence and position in the future world.

 

Kristýna Kšírová

 

[1] Wuhan, endless queues for ashes of coronavirus dead cast doubts on numbers; available at: http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Wuhan,-endless-queues-for-ashes-of-coronavirus-dead-cast-doubts-on-numbers-49673.html

[2]China Asserts Claim to Global Leadership, Mask by Mask; available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-asserts-claim-to-global-leadership-mask-by-mask-11585752077

 

[3]China Pushes Viral Messages to Shape Coronavirus Narrative; available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-pushes-viral-messages-to-shape-coronavirus-narrative-11586516402

 

[4] What is China’s Belt and Road Initiative?; available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/ng-interactive/2018/jul/30/what-china-belt-road-initiative-silk-road-explainer

 

[5] China sends doctors and masks overseas as domestic coronavirus infections drop; available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/china-positions-itself-as-a-leader-in-tackling-the-coronavirus

 

[6]Coronavirus: Countries reject Chinese-made equipment; available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52092395

 

[7] ‘Hero who told the truth’: Chinese rage over coronavirus death of whistleblower doctor; available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/feb/07/coronavirus-chinese-rage-death-whistleblower-doctor-li-wenliang

 

[8] Taiwan Has Been Shut Out of Global Health Discussions. Its Participation Could Have Saved Lives; available at: https://time.com/5805629/coronavirus-taiwan/

 

 

 

 

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