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China’s Philanthropic and ‘Mask’ Diplomacy

China’s Philanthropic and ‘Mask’ Diplomacy

Dylan MH Loh
  • A look at China's 'mask diplomacy' at the state and individual level.

As Covid-19 rages on in many parts of the world, China has increasingly adopted the role of the ‘Global Philanthropist’. Private and public efforts to help other countries, have intensified as China manages (somewhat) to contains the virus at home.

One such actor taking the spotlight is Jack Ma — the high profile billionaire behind Alibaba. BBC reports that Jack Ma is on a one-man-mission to “repair” China’s image:

“The billionaire entrepreneur is the driving force behind a widespread operation to ship medical supplies to more than 150 countries so far, sending face masks and ventilators to many places that have been elbowed out of the global brawl over life-saving equipment.”

Source: BBC

Is this purely a private effort by an altruistic individual without state coordination?

The BBC report suggests not, as most of the recipient countries do not have ties to Taiwan, even as it also observes that Mr Ma’s large donations of medical supplies to African countries have seen him inadvertently compared with President Xi.

Ma’s philanthropic endeavours comes hot on the heels of wide-spread criticism of China’s handling of the Coronavirus with the state of Missouri filing a lawsuit against China with its Attorney-General Eric Schmitt — seeking unspecified damages — alleging that Beijing “misled the world”. It is easy to dismiss such manoeuvres as nothing more than political posturing but one cannot dismiss the anger (irrational or not) against China by some politicians and Americans. The lawsuit was broadly rejected by lawyers as having little to no legal basis as US laws accord sovereign immunity to states. In any event, this has not prevent a couple of Republicans from introducing legislation in Congress to strip China of immunity.

China for its part, dismissed the lawsuit, with the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang insisting that “This so-called lawsuit is very absurd and has no factual and legal basis at all”. Further adding that

“Such lawsuit is nothing short of frivolous litigation which defies the basic theory of the law. Based on the principle of sovereign equality prescribed by international law, US courts have no jurisdiction over the sovereign actions taken by Chinese governments of all levels in response to the epidemic. Such frivolous litigation will not help the US with its epidemic response, nor will it contribute to the global cooperation in this regard. The right course of action for the US side is to dismiss this abusive lawsuit.”

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Source: 22nd April 2020, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s Comments

It is easy to forget that China has, indeed, been helping and doling out resources and expertise to other countries. It has, for instance, donated medical supplies to Albania, ASEAN, Uzbekistan, test kits to Syria, 1000 ventilators to New York City, bumped up its contribution to the WHO to the tune of US $30 million.

(Questions were raised over the quality of some of their supplies — particularly those sent to Europe with Spain, Netherlands and Turkey complaining of poor fit of PPE equipment and inaccurate test-kits results. China asserts that such complaints were ‘overblown)

Nevertheless, views that China mishandled its initial response (even as China says it did not), stuck in the consciousness of many Western countries. The effectiveness of such highly publicised, individual and state efforts to highlight Chinese largesse and improve its image remains a question mark and a work-in-progress.

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