‘Mask diplomacy’ from Beijing to change narrative about COVID-19

Foreign Affairs

As China emerges from the COVID-19 epidemic, Beijing is pulling out the stops to burnish its international image.

SupChina illustration by Derek Zheng

As China emerges from the COVID-19 epidemic, Beijing is pulling out the stops to burnish its international image, and hide the initial cover-ups and mess-ups by the Chinese government that led to the international spread of the virus.

One of the most prominent aspects of the PR campaign is “mask diplomacy.” By our count, dozens of countries have received, or are expecting to receive, some type of aid from China to fight COVID-19. We are using the word “aid” broadly: Sometimes medical supplies have been donated, at other times supplied for purchase, and the dispatching of supplies and personnel has been coordinated by a variety of state and private actors in China.

At least 20 countries are reported to have directly received bilateral medical aid “from China.” These include:

  1. Spain: 500,000 surgical masks “donated by China,” per Prensa Latina.
  2. Italy: “China has agreed to supply desperately needed medical equipment, including contracts for 10,000 pulmonary ventilators, 2 million face masks and 20,000 protective suits,” Weforum.org reports. It is unclear if these are donations; an earlier round of supplies was not. Xiaomi has donated tens of thousands of masks to Italy, according to the China Daily.
  3. Serbia: An unspecified number of COVID-19 test kits were donated by the Mammoth Foundation and the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), per a government press release.
  4. Czech Republic: 1.1 million FFP-2-level respirators, reports Reuters.
  5. The Netherlands: 700,000 masks, per the Chinese ambassador to the country.
  6. Austria: Two planes full of unspecified medical supplies, per the Chinese ambassador to the country.
  7. Greece: 550,000 masks and other medical supplies were donated by China, according to the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  8. Ukraine: 10 million tests, masks, disinfectant fluid, and ventilators are expected to arrive from China in the next two days, Reuters reports.
  9. Pakistan: 12,000 test kits, 300,000 face masks, and $4 million to build hospitals, according to Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.
  10. Iraq: A team of medical specialists since early March, per the SCMP.
  11. Iran: An unspecified number of medical specialists and supplies, including diagnostic tests, arrived in Iran on February 29, according to the SCMP.
  12. Japan: 5,000 sets of protective clothing and 100,000 masks donated by China, per China Daily.
  13. South Korea: 1.1 million masks and 10,000 protective suits, per Xinhua.
  14. Philippines: 2,000 “high-tech fast test kits” arrived from China on March 16, and another 10,000 were expected on March 18, reported Rappler.
  15. Cambodia: “2,016 fast test kits,” per the People’s Daily on Twitter.
  16. Indonesia: 800,000 COVID-19 testing kits, in addition to gloves and other “epidemic prevention supplies,” according to China Daily.
  17. Malaysia: 5,000 masks, 10,000 “face shields,” 3,500 test kits, and other supplies, SCMP reports.  
  18. Sri Lanka: The country received a loan of $500 million from the China Development Bank to fight COVID-19, according to Newsfirst.
  19. Peru: 1,000 testing kits from the Mammoth Foundation and Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), per Adina.
  20. Namibia: Has received “1,000 quick-testing kits for COVID-19,” which were “donated by the Chinese Embassy and Best Novo high-tech company in China,” per the Chinese ambassador to the country.  

Additionally, the Jack Ma Foundation coordinated the dispatch of doctors and medical supplies to France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Iran, Iraq, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. The Jack Ma Foundation also said that it would donate 20,000 test kits, 100,000 masks, and 1,000 medical-use protective suits and face shields to each of the 54 countries in Africa, per the SCMP (which is owned by Jack Ma [马云 Mǎ Yún]). The foundation also said it would donate supplies to 24 Latin American countries.

The 27 countries of the EU are also set to receive “two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks and 50,000 testing kits” from China, according to the New York Times, and China has donated $20 million to the World Health Organization, reported the SCMP.