Masks Off: Chinese Coronavirus Assistance in Europe
As the coronavirus crisis spread across Europe in March, several countries found themselves desperately short of masks, respirators, test kits, and even healthcare staff as they struggled to contain outbreaks. With the EU and the United States initially slow to respond, China stepped into the vacuum. This paper looks at prominent Chinese coronavirus-related donations to Europe between March 12 and April 20, 2020, as well as at the Chinese media coverage and narratives that accompanied them. The prominence of donations was assessed using open-source data on donations from the Chinese authorities or from Fortune 500 or similarly large Chinese companies to European national governments, sister cities, and individual clinics and institutions. Assistance came in many forms and included financial support for the procurement of personal protective equipment, the dispatch of Chinese doctors, free access to cloud-based coronavirus diagnostic tools, and donations of testing kits and ventilators.
Three points emerge from this analysis. First, Chinese assistance stretched well beyond the high-profile cases of hard-hit Italy and Spain to countries large and small. During the five-weeks period studied, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and large Chinese companies made 70 prominent donations to 27 countries across Europe. The numbers and distribution of prominent donations of coronavirus-related assistance paint a picture of Beijing’s widespread “mask diplomacy” in which countries’ needs alone were not strictly reflected in the help they received. Coronavirus infection rates alone do not fully explain the variance in Chinese assistance, suggesting that alleviating the health crisis may have been only one of many purposes behind the CCP’s decisions. Second, the donations by Chinese authorities and companies coincided with China’s national and economic interests. China’s state apparatus at the state, province, and city levels made donations, but the majority of prominent ones were from the Chinese private sector and foundations connected to it. However, with the CCP exercising an ever-growing level of control over the private sector, the distinction between public and private donations is not clear-cut and Beijing typically trumpeted both as evidence of its generosity. The perception-shaping potential of the donations is likely to have been one of the main drivers behind Chinese coronavirus assistance in Europe.
Finally, Chinese donations were accompanied by a sustained communications and diplomatic push aimed at a global audience. The vast majority of the coronavirus assistance to Europe was promoted via all available channels. On state media, embassy websites, and social-media platforms, the authorities used the Chinese donations to Europe to deliver the CCP’s story. The positive messaging was also a way to pivot discourse about the pandemic away from its own failures in the early months of the outbreak. In parallel to the “shared future for mankind” narratives promoted by embassies every time donated medical supplies arrived in Europe, the CCP also showed a harder edge during the pandemic, much to the irritation of many European countries. Furthermore, since the period covered by this paper, Beijing has been doubling down on its newly assertive public diplomacy in Europe and beyond.