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Thursday, April 18, 2024

China Flexes Its Soft Power With ‘Covid Diplomacy’

Sunday, as President Trump sought to deflect criticism for shortages of medical equipment by accusing hospital staff of stealing masks, several aircraft carrying much-needed supplies from China were arriving at airports in Europe and Africa. The Irish government posted a clip showing its ambassador to China thanking officials for helping organize a shipment of supplies worth $30 million.

China's government was criticized for its slow response to the coronavirus and early attempts to cover it up. Now, with the disease reportedly under control and factories reopening, China is exporting vital supplies to other nations, an effort to rebrand the pandemic from a disaster of its own making to a symbol of its leadership and strength.

“China is building its soft power,” says Nouriel Roubini, an economist at NYU who was an adviser to presidents Clinton and Obama. “They are going to use this crisis to say, ‘Our political system is better, our technological model is better, our economic model is better.’”

Having apparently weathered the outbreak and ramped up production of medical equipment, China is well positioned to export and donate supplies. The efforts, along with propaganda focused on the government’s response to the outbreak, appear to be part of a coordinated campaign to both do humanitarian good and promote China’s values.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

Roubini says China’s seemingly rapid rebound provides a powerful message that could extend the country’s influence. And he says the crisis may have profound implications for the global balance of power if the US doesn’t come up with a suitable counterplay. “The political, economic, and social model of China is going to be appealing to many semi-authoritarian countries,” Roubini says. “Traditional market-oriented democracy is under threat.”

It isn’t just the Chinese government that’s pushing the message. For several weeks, the Ma Foundation, a charity created by Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma, has sent medical supplies and Covid-19 tests to Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and even the US. The goodwill created by such donations will help strengthen the Alibaba brand outside China and score political points for Ma in Beijing by promoting China’s ability to recover and help others.

After initially struggling to contain Covid-19 and a public backlash over its response, China instituted nationwide lockdowns and mobilized resources to stem the spread. And as the Chinese economy begins to recover, the country is seizing the opportunity to earn goodwill and spread influence abroad.

Some contrast China’s response with that of the US. Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foriegn Relations, calls the US government’s response to the pandemic “shambolic.” Hospitals and health care workers complain of shortages of testing kits and equipment, and the president has repeatedly downplayed the danger. “I don’t think the US has exercised a lot of soft power, to be fair, in the Covid crisis,” he says. “In fact, it has diminished dramatically.”

Kurlantzick notes China may well experience its own setbacks, perhaps if the virus reemerges. But right now, he says China’s government appears to view the outbreak as “an entree to being perceived as more effective than the US on global public health leadership—and leadership, period.”

The Trump administration, by contrast, has fumbled the soft-power game so far. The president and other senior officials have repeatedly blamed China for the outbreak, referring to the coronavirus as the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.” The US sent supplies to China on February 7 while failing to anticipate shortages at its own hospitals. Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began shipping medical supplies to the US from Chinese factories.

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Gideon Rachman, the author of Easternization, which charts the rise of Asia in recent years, says China’s rebranding of the outbreak has been nothing short of remarkable, given how badly the government performed early on.

But he notes that some European countries have apparently pushed back against these efforts; governments in Spain, Turkey, and the Netherlands have criticized the quality of Chinese-made supplies. Rachman says it may be hard to convince many countries that China’s political system is superior: “They are slightly handicapped because their system is so controlled.”

Yet China’s ability to exert control may well have helped curb the spread of the coronavirus. Its tactics included strict lockdowns, isolating those with symptoms, even from family members, and widespread, rigorous testing. The US and many European countries imposed less rigorous controls.

Some question China’s claims to have controlled the virus. A classified intelligence report sent to the White House concludes that the government has covered up the number of cases and deaths.

Some Chinese officials have spread rumors that the virus may have come from the US. They are also selling the government’s ability to control its population as a key strength. Huiyao Wang, a senior adviser to China's government, told USA Today recently that the Chinese approach, though seemingly extreme, is the only policy that will curb the spread of the virus. "You need to isolate people on an enormous scale,” he says. “In stadiums, big exhibition halls, wherever you can. It seems extreme. It works.”

Roubini, the economist, says the US will fall behind China, on this and other issues including climate change, unless its leaders can formulate a clear and compelling counter-narrative. “We don't have a vision on how we engage and compete with China,” Roubini says. “In the long run, unless we have an economic model, a social model, and an ecological model that appeals to the rest of the world, China may be the winner of this great rivalry,” he says.

And some see the rivalry between the US and China as hurting global efforts to contain the virus. “They both seem to be trying to deflect criticism, internal and external, by spending a lot of energy blaming one another,” says Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the Stanford-New America DigiChina project. “Right now both the US and China are losing big, in human cost and economic disruption.”

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