China’s Mask-Diplomacy as a Global PR Strategy

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed China on the world stage as one of the key global players, not only because the spread of the disease began on its territory, or because of the way China handled the outbreak, but also because of the attempt to turn the coronavirus in its own favour. And as it turned out, there was no better country that could “help” China than Italy


Author: Jugoslava Dukovska


The sudden outbreak of the virus in the country, the initial panic reaction of some EU members, including Germany and France announcing an embargo on the export of medical equipment and the delayed activation of the Union’s solidarity assistance mechanism, despite the urgent needs of the Italian healthcare system facing collapse due to thousands of corona patients, has created the ideal setting for China’s major world debut as a humanist.



A day or two after Italy demanded the activation of the EU-Civil Protection Mechanism for the delivery of medical aid and no EU member state responded, China reacted fast and offered panicked Italians a trade deal in which it sold them 1,000 respiratory machines, 2 million masks and 50,000 corona-virus tests. A team of nine top Chinese epidemiologists, along with 30 tons of equipment packed in boxes with Italian and Chinese flags, with the message: “We support you, go Italy!” was already flying to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. “China was the only country to respond bilaterally. This is certainly not a good indicator of European solidarity,” Italian Ambassador to the EU Maurizio Massari wrote on 10 March.

China seems to have done a great job in playing the role of the so-called savior, a role which was unwittingly helped by the slow response of the EU to calls for help from Italian authorities in the first half of March. Thus, the most populous country in the world blamed “number one” for the pandemic of the corona-virus, hurried to try and play the role of a world humanist.

To add to the irony, the European Union, just a year after deciding to build a strategy to tackle the growing influence of its major rival in Europe, China, has found itself in a position to open its doors to aid from Chinese authorities to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. And exactly in Italy, the only member state of the Union that, thanks to the Euroscepticism of the Italian government, signed a bilateral agreement with China in March 2019 worth 2.5 billion Euros for infrastructure projects, in a package popularly called “The Second Silk Road”, and even almost on the anniversary of the signing of the agreement.

But from the perspective of the thousands of infected people and people who have died from the corona-virus in Europe, it looks like March 2019 happened many years ago. Recently, the aid provided by China to the European Union, in return for the Union’s aid to the Chinese in January, which brought in two million surgical masks, 200,000 nano-95 masks and 50,000 corona-virus tests, was diverted to Italy by Brussels.

Russia also saw a chance to play on the European stage in Italy, sending as many as nine Ilyshin planes, full of disinfection equipment along with 100 military medical experts, but “From Russia with Love” was greeted with sharp criticism that most of the aid sent was “unusable” and that it was, in fact, a propaganda gesture by Russia. However, the robust Russian engagement on EU soil, which has been perceived by some as a potential security problem due to the presence of Russian military personnel on the territory of a large NATO member, has been reduced within Italy.



According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, China has sent humanitarian aid to a total of 82 countries affected by the corona epidemic, but critics say this number is disproportionate to the material potential of an economic force like China today and several shipments of several hundred thousand face masks or means of protection, in fact, are a small gesture for the largest global manufacturer of medical equipment (China owns 50% of the market for surgical masks in the world).

Other European countries have also relied on trade ties and China’s willingness to meet the growing demand for medical equipment. But not everyone was happy with the quality of Chinese medical supplies. Spain had to return 640,000 packages of tests for determining the presence of the corona-virus from China and South Korea after they showed 30 per cent accuracy in the measurements. The Czech Republic has denounced Chinese aid, and the Netherlands has returned about 600,000 Chinese FFP2 masks, which did not meet EU hygiene standards. Australian authorities have confiscated 800,000 defective masks from China, whose officials have dismissed such allegations as incorrect.

What Chinese propaganda deliberately does not emphasize with the carefully shaped PR performance in the global corona-environment, is that most of the medical aid that China has sent to Italy, Spain, and several other countries affected by the corona epidemic is not actually donated but these countries have paid for the aid. The prestigious Foreign Policy magazine also reminds that Italy actually bought most of the medical aid deliveries from China and that only one part was received via the Chinese Red Cross.

Chinese Customs Administration Official Yin Hai said this weekend that China had exported a total of nearly four billion pieces of protective masks, 16,000 respiratory machines, 37.5 million pieces of protective clothing and nearly 3 million coronavirus tests in March alone in over 50 countries in the world. China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that China had sent aid to 82 countries by the end of March.



In mid-March, faced with the outbreak of corona-virus in Europe, but also by criticism from Italy, the EU aimed to increase coordination of crisis management steps and announced an increase of 25 billion Euros in aid funds.

“To jump-start the European economy, we will have to use all levers available, at national and European level. The EU budget will have to be adapted to this crisis. It is time to think outside of the box. Any option compatible with the EU Treaty should be considered.”, was said in a joint statement given by Charles Mitchell, Ursula Von der Leyen, Christine Lagarde and Mario Centeno on 31 March.

Italy was not the only country that felt forgotten by the EU in the first days of the outbreak. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučic, who has long sought to establish himself as China’s geostrategic partner in Southeast Europe, told his countrymen at a news conference that “EU solidarity is a paper fairy tale and that China is the only one that can help.” However, shortly afterwards, the EU sent 7.5 million Euros in emergency aid to Serbia, and EU Ambassador to Serbia Sam Fabrici announced a 93 million Euros financial package for the country, of which 15 million for emergency procurement and 78 million for economic recovery.



EU representatives in Montenegro, Albania and our country have also announced urgent financial assistance from the Union. 4 million Euros in emergency financial aid and 50 million Euros for the socio-economic recovery of North Macedonia were announced. Similar financial injections have been announced for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. As for China’s aid to Macedonia, the media reported last week that China has paid “almost two million denars in cash to the Ministry of Health’s account, and is donating protection funds to the Ministry of Interior and media workers.” Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani has announced 4 million Euros Chinese financial aid for ambulances and medical equipment. After Venko Filipče, the Minister of Health, announced 200 respiratory machines as a donation from China in early March, these days the Macedonian Government has decided to immediately procure the same number of respiratory machines, while the announced donation was not mentioned.




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This article was created within the framework of the Project to increase the accountability of the politicians and political parties Truthmeter implemented by Metamorphosis. The article is made possible by the generous support of the US non-profit foundation National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The content is the responsibility of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Metamorphosis, the National Endowment for Democracy or their partners.

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