China works to generate goodwill internationally and among its own citizens with much-needed donations as medical gear becomes a new olive branch in the age of ‘mask diplomacy.’
It’s usually hyperbolic to say “the whole world” or “everyone on the planet,” but not these days. The pandemic is showing us how interconnected we are as individuals and nations. This has led to actions and moments that are unifying, dividing, or both in the case of China’s medical equipment donations. While the benefits of China’s aid are evident, some receive the Chinese government’s messaging and actions with caution and even criticism.
Wealthy individuals from China’s elite have led relief efforts. The New York Times highlighted Jack Ma and Joseph Tsai, co-founders of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Yichen Zhang, the chairman of a major Chinese investment firm, Citic Capital, as some of the main contributors. Mr. Ma delivered more than one million masks and testing kits to New York while Mr. Tsai and his wife, along with Mr. Ma, “arranged for the delivery of 2,000 ventilators and millions of masks and goggles” to New York. The Tsais also “organized another shipment of half a million masks and goggles to the University of California, San Diego.” Mr. Zhang donated 10,000 masks to Yale’s health clinic. Associate News Editor for Business Insider, Alexandra Ma, also reported, “China has been sending medics, masks, ventilators, and shipments of other precious protective equipment to countries” including Italy, Iran, Serbia, and the Philippines.
While the equipment, resources, and knowledge are much needed, some question China’s intentions behind these ostensibly benevolent actions. According to Rhodes Scholar Brian Wong in their article for The Diplomat, the central features of the newly coined “mask diplomacy” include “emphasis on the distribution and supply of contextually important resources…as a means of securing mass and elite buy-in,” especially in countries with strained relations with China, and highlighting itself as a credible, reliable global leader during this time of crisis. This could secure support making areas of Europe which have previously been closed off to Chinese companies more amenable to investment and expansion of projects. Providing aid to countries “at critical junctures” allows China “unrivaled and significant access to the critical infrastructure” of these nations and potentially create feelings of gratitude and reciprocity. Mr. Zhang’s own assistant stated, “‘It’s a business opportunity and a social responsibility,’” signaling how key players view China’s position.
However, there is a long history of nations using precarious times to improve their standing and generate positive public relations. Returning to Brian Wong’s article, they point to the United States’ $15 billion investment in Europe through the post World War II Marshall Plan, the EU’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and Singapore’s outreach efforts during the SARS outbreak in 2003 as predecessors to the current mask diplomacy because in each instance the benefactor sought to influence the situations and further a specific goal.
Additionally, it is important to distinguish between the actions of the Chinese government and Chinese citizens. Criticism of China’s mask diplomacy is directed towards the government rather than individuals like Mr. Ma and the Tsais. The policies are seen not only as an attempt to repair relationships globally but also with its citizens. Alexandra Ma lists “suppressing early warnings, and hiding information from its citizens” as critical errors on the government’s part when the outbreak first began. One of the most notable instances of this was the censoring of ophthalmologist Li Wenliang’s COVID warnings. He died from the virus shortly after and was later declared a martyr by the government following heavy public criticism of Wenliang’s treatment by Wuhan officials. Other nations share the Chinese government’s desire to make amends for mishandlings during the early days of the pandemic.
Countries like the United States and Sweden, which have also been criticized for their responses, or lack thereof, are eager to repair their image internationally and regain the trust of their people. An article by the University of North Carolina associate professor Zeynep Tufekci in The Atlantic places responsibility for the U.S.’ delayed response on multiple shoulders at the local, state, and federal levels. Tufekci argues that the primary downfall was an inability to “consider risk in its full context.” From January to February, officials and the media told Americans not to worry about the coronavirus and compared it to the flu. This resulted in lost preparation time which only made the situation more difficult when the true effects and impact of the virus started to take shape. Policies varied state-to-state from total lockdowns in New York and California to late implementation of mandated mask-wearing in others. These uncoordinated efforts placed much of the responsibility on individuals leaving them without a strong, centralized guide. Attempts have been made more recently to standardize regulations across the country.
Sweden’s controversial ‘light-touch’ approach also faced heavy criticism and the government has since made concessions about the effectiveness of their tactics. Unlike many other nations that issued strict guidelines or went into lockdown, Sweden only provided warnings and kept primary schools, restaurants, and bars open. A CNN article characterized Sweden as a country that “typically doesn’t mix public health and politics and it doesn’t typically use the law to influence behavior to protect people’s health.” Their approach relied on individual responsibility and herd-immunity theory in the hopes that if enough people were immune to the virus, it would slow and eventually stop the spread thus protecting the population at large. Swedish officials argue their plan is more nuanced but have also admitted the strategy did not effectively consider vulnerable populations, like those in care facilities. They have recognized they may need to recommend measures, like mask-wearing, that they did not originally utilize.
It is easy to criticize early responses now. While ignorance about the severity of COVID was and is not an excuse for suppressing information or denying events, many health and government officials in multiple nations underestimated the effects the coronavirus would have. We all want to protect ourselves, to return to normal, and to feel safe again. We’re critical because we’re anxious. We want to know the “right” answer, the “right” plan of action, but much of this is determined only when looking back. It’s also natural to want to correct our mistakes and be seen as doing the “right” thing. So, while it’s important to examine actions and motivations to improve in the future, helping each other is one of the only “right” things we know right now.
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