'Mask diplomacy': China is using medical equipment as a tool of soft power

China appears to be using medical equipment and expertise as a tool of soft power. Although it is now known that in the early months of January China was actively covering up the virus while using their diaspora abroad to buy up large quantities of medical equipment -- the country now appears to be trying to change this narrative, and appear as the saviour of the crisis. This assistance may come with several security concerns, as Chinese aid is often attached to geopolitical power advances.

State of Chaos  

The Covid-19 virus has left everyone from individual to state governments feeling underprepared, and uncertain about the future.  While this has led to some great examples of cooperation, as people come together to help, it has also shown how some can exploit the confusion for personal gain. 

Viktor Orban in Hungary is a good example of this, as he has used the state of emergency to increase his own power to essentially rule by decree, while silencing the parliament and his critics.  

China seems to be following a similar strategy at the international scale.  State representatives have been increasing confusion by spreading fake stories about the virus being made by American laboratories. At the same time Xi Jinping appears to be expanding China’s position on the global stage. 

China has been working for years to increase its position as a regional and global superpower.  Using means of soft power such as economic investment and cultural programs to form closer direct relationships.  

This can be seen in many smaller nations especially in Europe where aid and investment are used to gain influence over the country. Nations need to remain uncritical of China in order to continue receiving China’s cooperation. This has the potential to erode democratic norms, as well as allow China to become increasingly influential while escaping public criticism. 

This tactic is what has many experts now worried about what has been called China’s “mask diplomacy”. 


New World Leader? 

The coronavirus is hitting the United States particularly hard. Which will have a long lasting impact on the country’s ability to project its power abroad.  Many analysts see this as the motivation behind China’s current behaviour. China is attempting to use the situation to establish the country as a new world leader.  

In the last weeks many countries have turned to China, as the only source of much needed mask, testing kits and protection equipment. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic controversially stated this week that European solidarity was dead, and that China was the only hope for Serbia. 


“The need for Chinese assistance with medical equipment has also demanded a change of public tone towards the country.”


China has been more than willing to meet the demand for medical equipment.  Both the CCP and private enterprises have been benefiting off of the urgent need for assistance. This on it’s own should not be considered as a security concern, however several problems have already arisen from buying Chinese medical equipment. 

First, there have been reports of problems with the quality of the material delivered, even when bought at premium prices.  Spain was the first to report problems with the tests, but the Netherlands has also had problems with the masks that the country bought from China. 

Second, Chinese aid has long been associated with strings attached. In the Czech Republic which has been vocally critical of Chinese interference, the need for Chinese assistance with medical equipment has also demanded a change of public tone towards the country.  This trend of assistance only if you are not critical of the regime should not be accepted, even in times of crisis. 


“Donating the equipment allows China to reframe their involvement with the virus, to be a saviours even if the donations are relatively small.”


Finally, although most of the equipment that is coming from China is being bought at great expense, China is also donating protective gear and medical equipment. Donating the equipment allows China to reframe their involvement with the virus, to be a saviours even if the donations are relatively small. 

However, China is partly behind the shortages of equipment, as many countries have found large operations to buy medical equipment by the Chinese diaspora. In Canada an estimated 1.3 million euros worth of masks were bought and sent to China with a citizens group associated with the CCCP.  Similar reports have come from the US and the Czech Republic. 

In the Czech Republic when the virus created demand for medical equipment, Chinese assistance caused international tension with Italy.  Masks intended for Italy ended up in a Chinese businessman’s warehouse in the Czech Republic.  


Future after Coronavirus

The lockdowns and states of emergency that have been necessary to address the virus are also going to have long lasting economic consequences. Many countries are already feeling the impact of border lockdowns and the freezing of industries. 

China may try to capitalize on this, using investment and promises of economic cooperation as a way to shape the post coronavirus world order. As Joseph Borell the EU’s foreign policy chief stated “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner.”

This narrative should be heavily criticized. Destroying lab samples, imprisoning journalists, and lying to one’s own citizens are not the actions of a reliable partner. It should not be forgotten that China had the chance to stop the biggest impact of the virus, but instead of acting during that crucial time, the Communist Party covered it up.  

There is a real danger of course that this discourse may be hijacked by those who have been actively using the virus to increase racism and prejudice and against China and Chinese people living around the world. This behaviour should also never be tolerated. 

This crisis more than anything will show the new battle ground of information, and how important controlling the narrative really is. Hopefully it will also expose the obvious falsehoods in China’s narratives, and they will no longer be tolerated.

About author: Simone Neads


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