Serbian president kisses PRC flag: Updates on ‘mask diplomacy’

In what the South China Morning Post called an “unusually intense diplomatic gesture,” Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 called four European heads of state — in France, Germany, Spain, and Serbia — over the weekend to offer help in fighting COVID-19.

Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, seems to have taken especially well to the overtures. After elbow-bumping with a medical team arriving from China, he was seen kissing Serbia’s flag — and right after, the flag of the PRC.

A new state media buzzword has been born, as seen in the Xinhua readout of Xi’s call with French President Emmanuel Macron: a “community of common health for mankind.”

This is all part of the continued intensification of “mask diplomacy”, which we wrote about in the previous Access newsletter. Since then, we have identified 5 more countries — in addition to the 15 we previously reported — that are reported to be direct recipients of some type of bilateral medical aid from China:

Cambodia received additional medical support from China today, a Xinhua report says.

Chinese companies and businesspeople are becoming more involved: A China Daily report has information on donations to Italy from “companies and foundations, including tech giant Tencent, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the Lao Niu Foundation.” Fosun International donated supplies to Portugal earlier this month, according to Xinhua, and the company’s chairman, Guō Guǎngchāng 郭广昌, made a Twitter account and announced that he had sent masks to a hospital in Wolverhampton, U.K. Finally, Huawei is reportedly donating 800,000 masks to the Netherlands.

The Jack Ma foundation has said it will help 24 Latin American countries: “A total of two million masks, 400,000 test kits and 104 ventilators will be donated to 24 Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Dominican Republic and Peru,” per Xinhua.

Is the ‘mask diplomacy’ working?

We will keep asking this question as the pandemic plays out in the coming weeks and months, but the initial evidence is that, at least in some cases, it is “soft power gold.” The China Africa Project writes:

This weekend we saw the Chinese launch a master class in 21st-century propaganda. Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s donation of 6+ million masks and other medical supplies provided a dramatic, highly visual setting for China to showcase its emerging role as an emerging superpower.

Then came the Tweets…one by one, African leaders posted their thanks to Jack Ma with Rwandan President Paul Kagame calling the donation a “huge shot in the arm.”

What’s interesting here is that even though the U.S. and Europe play a much larger role in supporting African public health programs (ex COVID-19), they’re increasingly losing the optics battle with China.

The fact is that the Chinese have committed far more time and resources to build an effective communications strategy in Africa and the U.S. and Europe either don’t have one or whatever they’re doing simply isn’t up to the task.

See also: a tweet from the Prime Minister of Ethiopia that thanks “Jack Ma and the Alibaba Group” for medical aid.

—Lucas Niewenhuis, with help from Alex Smith and Jonathan Michel