Beijing’s ‘Mask Diplomacy’ Draws Growing Backlash

Beijing’s ‘Mask Diplomacy’ Draws Growing Backlash
Workers produce masks at a factory in Handan, China, on Feb. 28, 2020. (AFP via Getty Images)
Cathy He

Beijing’s efforts to promote itself as a global leader in combating the COVID-19 pandemic have recently encountered blowback.

Eager to burnish its image amid the crisis, the Chinese regime has sent medical experts and much-needed supplies, such as masks and respirators, to countries ranging from Italy to Peru.

While many recipient countries initially welcomed the assistance, there are signs of a growing backlash after the Netherlands, Spain, and Turkey last week reported faulty equipment from China.

“After an initial burst of positive publicity, the narrative about Chinese aid to Europe has soured,” Peter Rough, an expert on U.S. foreign policy and senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank the Hudson Institute, told The Epoch Times in an email.

The Netherlands on March 28 announced it had recalled around 600,000 masks that had arrived in a shipment of 1.3 million purchased from a Chinese manufacturer a week earlier. Some of the masks had already been distributed to frontline health workers.

Dutch health officials said the masks didn’t fit properly or had defective filters.

“A second test also revealed that the masks did not meet the quality norms. Now it has been decided not to use any of this shipment,” the health ministry said in a statement to AFP.

Spain had similar problems with rapid test kits ordered from a Chinese company.

Spain’s health ministry on March 26 said it had withdrawn around 58,000 Chinese-made test kits after discovering they had a detection accuracy of just 30 percent. The normal accuracy rate is more than 80 percent, local media reported.

The Chinese embassy in Spain responded on Twitter that the company selling the kits, Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology, hadn’t been licensed to sell the tests.

Meanwhile, Turkish health officials raised similar issues on March 27, saying that rapid testing kit samples purchased from a Chinese company didn’t meet local effectiveness standards. Another Chinese firm has since been chosen to supply the kits.

These developments, Rough said, have “burst China’s carefully cultivated aura of competency.”

Deflecting Blame

The regime’s “mask diplomacy” forms part of a broader campaign to change the global narrative—with the ultimate aim of deflecting blame away from Beijing’s initial mishandling of the outbreak that eventually metastasized into a global pandemic.

“China’s humanitarian gestures are meant to cover up its own complicity in the spread of the virus, peel away European countries desperate for an economic and medical lifeline, and win over gullible Westerners inclined to proclaim a Chinese century,” Rough said.

Alongside its humanitarian endeavors, the regime has deployed a sweeping disinformation campaign peddling claims that the CCP virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, didn’t originate in China, and may have been brought into Wuhan by U.S. Army personnel.

“That is how authoritarian regimes deal with crises,” Helle Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy at Washington-based think tank The Heritage Foundation, told The Epoch Times. “They tend to deflect anger and criticism outward.”

Dale said the regime has stepped in to fill a vacuum in the international space, while traditional leaders such as the United States are busy handling the outbreak domestically.

Such assistance, however, is accompanied by a “massive propaganda drive for the recipients to show their gratitude to the PRC [People’s Republic of China] as the savior,” Katerina Prochazkova, an analyst at the Czech-based, China-focused think tank Sinopsis told The Epoch Times.

She also noted that unlike much of the aid Beijing received from other countries during the early stages of China’s outbreak, much of the goods supplied by the regime have been sales through export agreements.

Countries in Europe and elsewhere have begun pushing back against the propaganda campaign.

The European Union’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, recently warned of a “global battle of narratives.”

“China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the U.S., it is a responsible and reliable partner,” Borrell said in a March 23 statement.
“There is a geopolitical component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity,’” he said. “Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors.”

Capitalizing on Global Shortage 

Prochazkova noted that the global shortage of masks and protective equipment is partly due to the regime having imported stockpiles of supplies during the height of the outbreak in China.

“This very shortage from which China is ‘saving’ us was caused by much of the medical material being sent to China in the first place,” she said.

As China heavily ramped up domestic production of masks and protective gear for internal use in late January, it also launched a campaign to source medical supplies from abroad—through its vast network of state-run and state-affiliated enterprises, and overseas Chinese associations.

China’s customs agency announced on March 7 that from Jan. 24 to Feb. 29, it had inspected around 2 billion masks and 25 million protective suits imported into the country.

Chinese state media also touted the efforts of several state-run companies in mobilizing international resources to ship millions of medical supplies to China.

Greenland Group, a global property giant whose largest shareholder is the Shanghai government, is one of those state-backed firms involved in the worldwide drive. State-run media Xinhua reported on Jan. 31 that the company had shipped to China 3 million masks, 700,000 medical protective suits, and 500,000 pairs of medical gloves.

A whistleblower employee from Greenland Group’s Sydney office in Australia told local media that workers were instructed to put normal work on hold to source bulk medical supplies for shipping back to China.

“Basically all employees, the majority of whom are Chinese, were asked to source whatever medical supplies they could,” the employee recently told The Sydney Morning Herald, adding that the work went on for weeks, from January to February. The Australian government banned exports of medical supplies on March 29.

Overseas Chinese associations were also enlisted.

For instance, the largest overseas Chinese association in the Czech Republic, the Czech Qingtian Hometown Association, collected 780,000 masks and more than 30,000 single-use surgical coats and N95 respirators for shipping to China, according to a Feb. 17 report by Chinese state-run news website China Internet Information Center. The head of the association is Czech-Chinese businessman Zhou Lingjian.

The country’s counter-intelligence agency warned the Czech government in early March about the Chinese embassy coordinating an operation to make bulk purchases of medical material for shipment to China, according to local media. The health ministry then banned the export of masks and respirators on March 4.

On March 16, Czech police raided a warehouse of a private company in the northwestern town of Lovosice, where they confiscated 680,000 masks and 28,000 ventilators. About 100,000 masks were labeled as Chinese Red Cross aid to Italy. The seizure was part of an anti-trafficking operation.

In a turn of events, Zhou recently made headlines when an investigative report by found that he was the importer of the goods seized by police.

The outlet reported that Zhou sold some of the masks found in the warehouse to a local reseller, who then attempted to sell the supplies to the Czech government at twice the normal cost.

Zhou’s associate, however, denied any wrongdoing, claiming the matter was a “misunderstanding.”

Meanwhile, the Italian embassy said that Czech authorities confirmed the humanitarian aid slated for Italy found in the warehouse was stolen, local media reported.

Filip Jirouš, another researcher at Sinopsis, suggested that the supplies from Zhou’s collection efforts earlier this year may have been part of the goods seized at the warehouse.

“This created suspicion that the material [seized at the warehouse] is actually from the local Chinese collection,” Jirouš said in a March 26 tweet.

Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Epoch Times that to counter the regime’s attempts to elevate its international standing amid the crisis, media should highlight that Beijing is trying to profit from the global shortage.

Outlets should “explain that China ramped up its supply of masks and other medical supplies as the epidemic raged in China, and now China has a lot of surplus that it wants to make money on,” Glaser said in an email.

“Global demand for other products is likely to remain suppressed, so the best way to earn money through exports is to sell medical supplies.”

Milan Kajinek contributed to this report.
Cathy He is the politics editor at the Washington D.C. bureau. She was previously an editor for U.S.-China and a reporter covering U.S.-China relations.
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