COVID-19: After initial cover-up, Chinese government engages in PR blitz, medical diplomacy

The Chinese government is now positioning itself as a leader of the global response in giving medical aid.

As the number of COVID-19 infections spirals out of control, countries around the world have reported major shortages of ventilators, respirators, test kits, surgical masks, and other essential health equipment.  China, where the pandemic first started and where authorities initially tried to hide the fact, is reportedly having stabilized the situation.  The Chinese government is now positioning itself as a leader of the global response in giving medical aid.  By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

The COVID-19 outbreak and the destruction it is bringing to human lives and the global economy show no sign of abating.  COVID-19 shows no respect to national borders and many countries are struggling to contain the outbreak as the rate of infection and death tolls keep on rising.  

Amid this worsening situation, China has sent medical experts and badly needed supplies to places hit hard in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.  However, there are worries about China’s motives behind these efforts and the possible strings attached.  

This public relation blitz may alter global power relations in China’s favor, despite the Chinese authorities’ cover-up in Wuhan, the place of COVID-19’s origin, at the beginning of the crisis, which could have delayed the international response to what is now a global pandemic.

Dr Yangyang Cheng, a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University who writes the science and China column for SupChina, said the Chinese government has been trying to project Chinese state power beyond its borders and establish China as a global leader and that the distribution of medical aid is part of this mission.  China is rewriting the narrative of the outbreak.  From one of governmental cover-up and mismanagement to a story of victory, Chinese strength, generosity, and superiority of its governing system.

According to a report by the South China Morning Post, Marcin Przychodniak, an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said countries receiving supplies, although appreciative, were worried about the potential political and economic motives behind it.  

He said there are possibly strings attached, such as promoting the Chinese narrative of ‘wise leader and successful political system’ which helped to overcome the virus in China.

In the same report, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, sounded a similar warning.  He said Europe must be aware there is a geopolitical component to the crisis, including a struggle for influence through spinning and the politics of generosity.

Channel News Asia also reported that China is trying to paint itself as a Good Samaritan while deflecting criticism over its initial missteps in handling the coronavirus by offering millions of face masks, low interest loans and teams of medical experts.

“Now, with the US government under Trump failing to provide any meaningful international response and the EU occupied with national responses, it offers China’s government a unique opportunity to step into the empty spot,” said Marina Rudyak, an expert in Chinese foreign aid at the University of Heidelberg.  

She added that by doing so, China was also trying to rewrite the COVID-19 narrative, deflecting criticism of its initial attempts to cover up the outbreak and posing as the savior to countries who either delayed their response or were less prepared.

In an ominous sign, the PR blitz appears to be working in some European countries.  Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, said: “There are competing narratives evolving in Europe.  Most people see China being responsible for this global crisis.  But the generous humanitarian help from China will possibly swing the public opinion in Europe more in favor of China.”

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