The Chinese Communist Party has flown gloves and protective clothing to Liberia, sent 100,000 test kits to the Philippines, and sent out a dozen flights carrying millions of masks and other supplies bound for the Czech Republic this week.
The government has given its assistance everywhere from western Europe to the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq and several African countries.
With this aid comes broad public statements of goodwill. In a recent message to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that “public health crises pose a common challenge for humanity, and solidarity and co-operation are the most powerful weapon to tackle them”.
“It is China’s traditional virtue to repay goodwill with greater kindness,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, citing an ancient Confucian saying: “You throw a peach to me, and I give you a white jade for friendship.”
But experts say this isn’t an altruistic gesture on China’s part. Rather, it’s part of an effort to reshape the political narrative, and move the country’s tarnished image to one that’s leading the battle to bring the pandemic under control.
Dr Malcolm Davis, Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told news.com.au Beijing is “very astutely exploiting the pandemic for its own benefit”.
“Nothing with China is pure altruism,” he said. “China is using the provision of public goods and soft power to its benefit in this crisis. The virus began in China in terms of spreading from animals to humans, and rapidly took off from there, but now that the Chinese government would appear to have it under control, it’s turning its attention to how it can exploit this situation to its benefit in terms of geopolitical and geo-strategic power.
“One of the ways it can do that is by playing the good international citizen and providing all this aid to other countries who are now entering really tough times with this virus, and Beijing will reap political rewards from that.”
The Chinese government has had an ongoing credibility problem with its own citizens since the outbreak unfolded.
Authorities have been forced to monitor Chinese social media sites to remove floods of angry comments criticising the government’s handling of the outbreak, which was initially deemed delayed and reckless.
Authorities actively suppressed information at the virus’ outset, and silenced those who attempted to speak out about it, prompting global condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party.
But that aside, this also ties into Mr Xi’s long-running vision of placing China at the centre of the world.
There are two important trends playing out right now: the United States is focusing inward, and Donald Trump – Dr Davis says – is “clearly clueless about how to handle this crisis”.
At the same time, he says Mr Xi wants to use the pandemic to present China as a benevolent global leader who is stepping into the leadership vacuum that the US left behind.
“But at the end of the day, China will expect their assistance will become with benefits, and will expect states to pay tribute to China in the form of acquiescing to China’s interests in other areas. There are big geopolitical strings attached to the other side no matter what.”
“If the US is severely weakened, in terms of long-term economic damage, the Chinese will be tempted to extend in that situation to their benefit.
“We could see China not only trying to use soft power and the perception of being a provider of economic goods to try to win global leadership, but also to resolve some issues with hard power.”
In particular, he suggests all eyes should be on Taiwan once the pandemic is behind us. “I think that if the Chinese felt that the US simply wasn’t able to respond, because their economy was shattered … the Chinese might be tempted to make a move against Taiwan. If the US couldn’t come to Taiwan’s assistance, then this would further erode US credibility in the eyes of the region.”
Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University in New York, said China also hopes to benefit from a realisation in the West of how difficult it is to bring the virus under control.
“The Chinese government’s failures … will be less harshly viewed in light of the failures of other governments to respond effectively as well,” he said.
At the same time, China is deepening ties with countries that have been receptive to its outreach as it assumes a larger international role. It is shipping supplies to Cambodia, whose Prime Minister Hun Sen has been an outspoken supporter of Mr Xi and even visited him in Beijing last month as the outbreak raged.
“It’s not an accident that the heat map of where Xi Jinping is sending condolences and China is sending N95 masks overlaps pretty closely with those countries that have demonstrated a willingness to accommodate China,” said Daniel Russel, a former senior US diplomat now with the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York.
Opinions vary on the effectiveness of China’s efforts.
“It’s an open question how far that’s going to get … but they’re clearly giving it the old-school try,” Mr Russel said. The Communist Party’s propaganda, he said, has been more successful at home than abroad.
Clive Hamilton, author of “Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia,” said that China has poured enormous resources into shaping the global discourse in recent years.
“It would be a mistake to underestimate how effective” this “major international campaign to rewrite the history of the coronavirus” might be, he said.
But Chu Yin, a professor of public administration at the University of International Relations in Beijing, said China lags the US and Europe in its understanding of public diplomacy and has always struggled to convert humanitarian aid into diplomatic returns.
“If people really expect a big boost of China’s influence through the aid, it will be difficult,” he said. “In my opinion, let’s just take the aid as doing a good deed, and it would help China’s economy if the epidemic situation in these countries is contained.”
– with Associated Press
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