After letting the novel coronavirus loose on the world, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now making its case for global leadership. The Chinese Embassy in Rome claims to have donated 2 million masks, along with ventilators and protective suits, to Italy. China reportedly provided Spain with medical aid and advisors. A CCP-friendly Chinese-Malaysian outlet proclaimed that China was donating 10 million masks to Malaysia.
Chinese state media has emphasized the purported strength of the CCP’s response, using this new “Health Silk Road” to portray China as a trustworthy torchbearer amid a crisis that is engulfing the West. And while this narrative has found purchase in mainstream Western media, many claims of Chinese charity are easily debunked. China is not donating but selling ventilators, face masks, COVID-19 tests, and other medical supplies to Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Qatar, Serbia, and Austria, among other countries. Meanwhile, many of these supplies are defective.
China, however, is not the only country to show some altruism: Leaders in Washington, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Hanoi have all donated supplies to countries in need. And while the United States’s domestic response has been poor, this impacts only Americans; it is not U.S. lies that allowed the virus to spread, nor are American medical materials failing abroad. It’s apparent, despite prominent Western claims to the opposite effect, that China’s coronavirus-era diplomacy evinces no epochal shift to Chinese global leadership. On the contrary, the coronavirus crisis may wake the world up to the CCP’s defects, fatally undermining Beijing’s campaign for international authority.
As the virus began to spread in Wuhan, the CCP repressed medical professionals who raised the alarm. State media for months ignored the virus’s spread. China, rather than buy the world time, as a recent New York Times opinion piece proclaimed, allowed the virus’s spread, preventing the world from hoping to eliminate or even contain the pandemic.
Still, the CCP is now trying to take a public victory lap—all while wielding the West’s economic decline to seek more foreign direct investment, seize market share in critical industries, and stop the West from confronting its bad behavior. Publicly, however, Beijing is presenting a politics of generosity, donating or selling necessary goods to a world reeling from the CCP’s failures.
China, despite hoarding medical supplies in February, controls the means of medical production: The country produced half of the world’s masks before the coronavirus’s emergence, and it has expanded production nearly 12-fold since then. China accounts for 40 percent of the world’s imports of face shields, protective garments and equipment, gloves, and goggles. And while China’s exports of protective equipment fell in early 2020, this drop was not as precipitous as feared. The country is now ramping up production of medical supplies and pharmaceutical ingredients, according to Horizon Advisory, a consultancy that tracks Chinese government and economic activity.
“It is possible to turn the crisis into an opportunity,” Han Jian of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and director of the Ministry of Civil Affairs’s China Industrial Economics Association wrote on March 4, according to Horizon. “To increase the trust and the dependence of all countries around the world of ‘Made in China.’”
This effort is not exactly opaque.
In late March, the Chinese government made the first move in Helsinki, approaching their Finnish counterparts and offering to sell protective face masks. State-friendly media Xinhua on March 28 extolled the Chinese government for doing the same in Croatia, “offer[ing] convenience for it to purchase medical supplies from China”; on March 30, 12.5 tons of Chinese medical equipment arrived in Zagreb.
China has already sold $467 million in medical supplies to Spain, a million face masks and 100 testing kits to Slovakia, three million face masks, protective gear, and 86 ventilators to Hungary, 17 tons of medical supplies to Indonesia, and 150,000 testing kits to the Czech Republic.
And while Chinese businessman Jack Ma appears to actually be donating medical goods across the Global South, the CCP is trying to take credit for this generosity by labeling him “China’s Jack Ma.” The CCP’s efforts to claim Ma seem to stem from the failures of official state sales and donations.
To export certain types of masks to the United States, both the masks and the Chinese company must meet National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health requirements. International law firm Harris Bricken says that about 90 percent of the certifications they have seen so far were fake.
Issues of this sort are evident across the globe.
Some 80 percent of the masks the Czech Republic purchased from China for around $600,000 are defective. Chinese rapid-testing kits sold to Spain had only 30 percent sensitivity, as opposed to the 80 percent level expected. (The Chinese government sought to separate itself from the company in question, claiming the tests were not approved for exports.) The Netherlands has since recalled 600,000 defective masks it purchased from China. Turkey recently rejected an unknown number of Chinese testing kits after they yielded inaccurate results. Georgia suspended its agreement with a Chinese company after receiving 1,000 substandard rapid-testing kits.
Similar failures are evident even in Beijing’s gifts. China donated 100,000 test kits to the Philippines, which soon after discarded those that were only 40 percent accurate. Given that many of the recipients of China’s benefactions—such as those in Phnom Penh, Tehran, Caracas, and beyond—are either autocratic or politically unstable, it’s evident that China’s deficiencies could remain under wraps. It’s unclear, for instance, what or how many supplies China gave Iran, but the Islamic Republic will not dare to publicly admit their likely inadequacy. The world is unlikely to ever know the breadth of China’s exported negligence, but contemporary reports seem to be only the tip of the iceberg.
This is a standard struggle for China and one that constantly undermines its global efforts. Members of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s Marshall Plan-like state-backed global investment and marketing campaign, are constantly frustrated by the poor quality goods and derelict firms that China sends their way. The CCP, however, is sticking to its playbook as the pandemic rages, seeking to enhance China’s global clout by exporting or donating goods of which it has a domestic overcapacity.
But China is not the only country offering assistance. France sent 1 million masks and 200,000 protective suits to Italy; an aide to French President Emmanuel Macron later chastised China-praising Italian leaders for “EU-bashing.” (Italian opposition politician Matteo Salvini, on the other hand, described China’s response to the outbreak as a “crime against humanity.”) Germany donated medical supplies to Italy, also taking patients from that country and France. In relative silence, France and Germany have given more masks to Italy than China sold to that country.
The United States, meanwhile, promised up to $100 million of aid to China and other countries affected by the pandemic. The State Department in February donated nearly 18 tons of medical supplies to China, including masks, gowns, gauze, and respirators. Around the same time, Canada sent some 50,000 face shields and other materials—from the country’s own reserves—to China. Japan donated 3 million masks to China, while Japanese companies and cities also sent supplies.
South Korea and Taiwan have donated or pledged to donate masks to the United States, as well as tests to the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates. Singapore sent 3,000 test kits and other supplies to the Philippines. The European Union days ago announced a €93 million package to help Serbia fight coronavirus—even after Belgrade jubilantly received Chinese experts. Austria is sending 1.6 million masks to Italy. Vietnam offered $200,000 in medical aid to Cambodia and Laos. Vladimir Putin’s Russia donated 1,500 test kits to North Korea, while Communist Cuba sent doctors to Italy.
Complaints about these donations, like those that dog China, have yet to surface.
The CCP’s so-called “mask diplomacy” is evidently having at best only moderate success. What’s more, in Africa and the Middle East, the virus’s Chinese origins are fueling a “counter-narrative to the official version of China as a development model and emerging public goods provider.”
The world may welcome China’s masks and tests, but reports of their failure will certainly not prevent leaders of already China-skeptical countries from seeking accountability for the CCP’s exacerbation of this catastrophe. This crisis could even prompt some to reconsider their Chinese alliances.
Indeed, the CCP cannot even tamp down domestic fury; its diplomatic efforts will certainly not instill global acceptance of a “Made in China” world now.
“China started this crisis. But now, they are selling medical equipment, testing kits, masks and emerging as some sort of heroes that will save us all. China is selling. Let me underline the sale part here,” Lídia Pereira, a Portuguese member of the European Parliament, recently tweeted. “China is not saving us by selling bad quality equipment.”