When the first shipment of face masks and medical equipment from China arrived in Belgrade, the president of Serbia was kissing the Chinese flag at the airport. Meanwhile, Hungarian and Czech officials have been critical of EU aid in the fight against Covid-19 and have chosen to praise China.
The image of China was damaged by its initially sluggish reaction to the spread of the new coronavirus, along with its attempts to keep silent about an epidemic being on the rise. Beijing, which is now stressing that it has given much effort to protect the rest of the world, cannot fight the criticism any longer. In reality, China – then and now – does not care about the “rest of the world”, and the safety measures implemented in Wuhan came much too late, giving the disease time to spread in the entire province and then be brought abroad by Chinese residents.
This is a scenario we can now see in Russia, where hospitals in Moscow and other large cities have been overcrowded by people suffering from “pneumonia”.
This is an approach shared by authoritarian regimes – to not say anything until the problem reaches critical mass and it is impossible to “shove” it under the carpet.
Now, China is polishing its image in other countries by employing “face mask diplomacy” which is a combination of political agenda and aid deliveries aimed at presenting China as a generous and capable ally. The problem lies in the fact that not all of this “humanitarian” aid is of good quality or, in fact, safe. When the crisis was at its peak and Beijing finally grasped the true scale of the pandemic, it began nationalizing its stocks of facial masks in local factories, despite most of them being already sold or ordered by partner companies all over the globe. Now, when the spread of the virus has been contained the government has begun engaging in charity events.
We should note that for years China has strengthened its political and economic influence in numerous countries in southern Eastern Europe via its global investment projects. After the Covid-19 pandemic began, these Chinese PR stunts have found listening ears in such countries as Serbia and Hungary, where populistic leaders try to maintain good relations with both China and Russia. The deliveries of Chinese face masks and medical equipment were also praised by Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Slovakia. But it was later revealed that a part of the equipment sent by China turned out to be defective. In addition, all deliveries coming from China are classified as aid, but they are in fact regular commercial packages that are being paid for by European nations.
China has notably increased its activity on the political, economic and social playing fields, which can be observed not only in Europe, but also elsewhere around the world. That which was achieved by Beijing with its soft power instruments over the course of 20 years collapsed in a couple of months, and for this reason Chinese communists have launched large-scale campaigns to polish their image – engaging not only diplomatic channels, but also people from Chinese-sponsored institutions.
Face masks will not save the world from Covid-19, but a timely reaction from the Chinese government regarding the spread of the virus would have. Instead, China continues to lie and hide the true damage done by the coronavirus. The numerous lives lost to the virus in the US and Europe are forcing us to be highly skeptical of the data coming out of Beijing concerning the infection and death rates in the country.
*Konstantin Zigar is a Polish journalist and graduated from the Lomonosov Moscow State University as an historian.
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