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Of Chinese doctors and faulty gear: how China could lose the health diplomacy battle

China to the rescue

Much has been said and written about China coming to the rescue of the rest of the World, establishing medical airlifts to the most affected areas, in an effort somewhat reminiscent of the 1948-49 US airlift to relieve West Berlin from its soviet blockade at the height of the Cold War. Some even talked about a “Chinese Marshall Plan”…

Truth be told, the European Union has proved so far utterly useless. Unable to coordinate and provide help to its member states, at times even unwilling to offer relief from the fiscal orthodoxy that shackles governments in deploying freely public spending when it is most needed, the sad picture that Brussels offers to its member states could only reinforce an already strong anti-EU sentiment and the certainty that each country must fend this epidemic off on its own and that, if foreign aid is to be counted on, it can only be China’s, Russia’s or even Cuba’s (!).

Italian social media have seen a new trend appearing in the past few weeks: Italians filming themselves burning an EU flag while playing the “Fratelli d’Italia” national anthem and ending the video with the same phrase: “Ci salviamo da soli”. “We’ll save ourselves on our own”…

Even prospective member states are declaring that they are not expecting any support from Brussels and instead are looking East, way East… Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced on March 17 that his country was turning to Beijing for help in fighting the pandemic: “Serbia now turns its eyes to China”, adding that “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper”…

Can you blame them for thinking that way ? After French leaders mocked their Italian neighbours for mishandling the early stages of the crisis (with the usual “Italians are not serious”, “Italians are disorganized” clichés), Czech authorities highjacked face masks sent by China to Italy during a stopover in Prague, before Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland vetoed an EU “corona bond” initiative to help revive local economies.

Europe has quickly become entirely dependent on Chinese help and one cannot be hopeful as to the consequences in terms of economic independence once the pandemic subsides. How will EU and national institutions deal with Huawei’s involvement in the development of  5G ? How will they tackle the sensitive issue of defining and protecting strategic assets (the inability to quickly ramp up domestic production of face masks is a stark reminder of this) ?

But in spite of Europe’s obvious weakened state and the fact that it now stands to be an easy pray for further and deeper Chinese influence, a number of factors could still represent major hurdles for Beijing to come out of this crisis reinforced, if not a downright victor.

Unresolved issues at home

In spite of an apparent public support for China’s handling of the epidemic at home, if Douyin posts are to be believed, and with the staunchest nationalistic sentiment even pointing its ugly face at times (as exemplified by this banner “celebrating” the 100,000th case of coronavirus in the US), it is undeniable that China still has to win the battle of public opinion at home. Cooked numbers of infections and fatalities, whistleblowers disappearing from public view, and the conditions for exiting this crisis and putting an end to a long period of confinement are all causing dissent and anger within the general population.

The number of infections and fatalities announced by Chinese authorities are close to impossible to verify, if only for the fact that infection case definitions have kept changing over time, including removing the requirement for epidemiological links and allowing for cases with milder symptoms.

Nevertheless, the numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, based on official statistics, do not seem to make much sense in absolute or relative terms. 82,431 cases of infections throughout China, with “only” 3,199 fatalities in the Hubei province. This compares to 110,574 infections in Italy, with 13,155 fatalities, and 216,768 infections in the US, with 1,374 fatalities in New York City alone (numbers as of April 1, 2020). Epidemiologist Ben Cowling of Hong Kong University estimates the number of infections in China closer to 232,000 by February 20…

In addition to this apparent cover-up of the real extent of the crisis, domestic whistleblowers have been silenced and/or made to disappear from public view:

  • Wuhan ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was silenced and reprimanded for “publishing falsehoods” as he had warned on WeChat social media that an epidemic was starting in Wuhan back in early January. Li died from the coronavirus in early February and his family only received a posthumous apology from the local government. Topics such as “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech” quickly began to trend on Weibo chatrooms.
  • Former Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun has disappeared from public life after publishing on February 4 “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear”, a popular essay staunchly critical of President Xi Jinping’s management of the epidemic and ensuing information manipulation.
  • Influential property tycoon and CCP member Ren Zhiqiang is nowhere to be found since March 12, weeks after calling President Xi a “clown stripped naked” for his handling of the crisis, which he labelled a “crisis of governance”, in an online article published in reaction to President Xi’s February 23 speech.

In addition, in what can only be seen as a sign that parts of the State apparatus knew precisely the extent of the epidemic early on, it now appears that the People’s Liberation Army Naval University of Engineering in Wuhan issued a lockdown order on January 2, 2020, 18 days before local authorities officially admitted the country was facing a full-blown epidemic and 21 days before the City of Wuhan was put in total confinement. Were military institutions informed in advance of the gravity of the situation ?

Now that the lockdown in Wuhan is loosening and people are selectively allowed to move around the city (but not through provincial borders), pictures are emerging on social media of signs of strong discontent within the local population from the endless back-and-forth confinement orders and still-in-force province-to-province lockdown, where people can be seen rioting against police. At this stage, it remains hard to tell whether we are looking at a wider trend or just anecdotal stories. Could be nothing, could be something…

It is certain however that, combined with a certain level of distrust, the re-opening of Chinese factories after 2 months of confinement at a time when Western economies are locking down one after the other poses a serious challenge to China coming out this crisis stronger than it entered it. As Dr. Stephen Nagy of Tokyo’s International Christian University summarizes: “The draconian quarantining of Hubei Province, as well as nationwide measures to stem the spread of the elusive virus, have been costly. China’s exports plunged 17.2% in the January-February period compared with last year. On March 6, the China Enterprise Confederation released the results of another survey assessing the Q1 performance of 299 large manufacturers, and more than 95% of companies saw revenues drop, while more than 80% saw operational costs go up”.

In addition to these serious domestic challenges, a number of international “mishaps” could seriously damage China’s chances of gaining a decisive advantage through its health diplomacy in the post-coronavirus World.

How China’s aggressive health diplomacy could come crashing down

The ambitious and aggressive “mask airlift” put in place between China and several European countries, which constitutes the core of China’s health diplomacy at the height of the covid19 crisis, has made the headlines, as seen previously. But this has come at a price that is not making the headlines so easily, for some reason. Indeed, defective, unreliable medical equipment has been shipped throughout Europe, and it remains to be seen if similar cases are not going to appear in other regions: damaged/expired/moldy masks and unreliable coronavirus test kits had to be returned to their Chinese manufacturers by Spain, the Netherlands or Norway.

Also coming to light, and even more worrisome, is the fact that certain Chinese entities literally stockpiled foreign medical supplies prior to the epidemic spreading to Western countries, and these countries are now in dire need of these supplies and hoping to get them from… China. Australia had the dubious honor of being one of the main stages of such “snatch and grab” tactics:

  • Sydney-based Huaren Group’s (and former People’s Liberation Army officer) Kuang Yuanping offered to send from Wuhan to Australia tons of medical supplies, after organizing two massive airlifts of those same supplies the other way a few months earlier. Mr Kuang happens to be heading China Communist Party’s United Front Work-linked associations in Sydney and Melbourne (among which the community “Hubei Association”), and is linked in this Australia-China-Australia medical airlifts to organized crime, casino operator and UFW man Tom “Mr Chinatown” Zhou…
  • In an even more disturbing development, China’s Luye Medical Group bought Healthe Care, Australia’s third largest for-profit hospital operator, in 2015 from Archer Capital, only to now close its 34, 8,000-bed facilities until Canberra provides financial assistance. Removing 8,000 hospital beds in these times of crisis, which amounts to refusing to join (and even to intentionally weaken) the “war effort”, will be difficult to justify to the Australian public.

Beyond these moves, which could always be seen as the result of clumsy, panic-driven decision-making in times of crisis, comes the Maxivision show of China’s influence over the World Health Organization in setting case definitions and imposing the timing of announcements, as well as in keeping Taiwan out of WHO’s realm of assistance. The disturbing interview of Dr Bruce Aylward, WHO’s Senior Advisor to the Director-General, by Hong Kong’s RTHK summarizes how health diplomacy remains first and foremost a political and geostrategic game: Dr Aylward’s using of China’s own vocabulary when discussing how Taiwan fared in the battle against coronavirus infection as well as the “accidental” break in Skype connection and abrupt termination of the interview when pressed to answer the question of a Taiwan membership to the WHO unfortunately speaks volumes about what is at stake for China and what can be expected in the post-pandemic World arena…

The coronavirus pandemic could reshape global order… or not

This is not to say that each instance, when taken individually, carries the risk of seeing China’s entire “health diplomacy” strategy collapse. Each one can indeed be opposed with the simple argument of “human error”, “operational mistake” or the good old “can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”… But taken together (and many commentators are relaying these events globally through media, social or otherwise), this paints at best a picture of clumsy, in-a-rush implementation of a strategy which, by definition, takes time, and at worst, of an attempt at benefitting from a situation of weakness.

The first option will leave the clear impression that China is not ready to behave on the international scene in the responsible way that its status imposes. The second option will leave the nasty aftertaste that it is no more than an impatient, power-hungry nation bent on predation. Precisely what the World does not need right now, as China brought hope to some that it represented a chance to free themselves from the other such power…

As to whether this pandemic will change the global world order, it might be useful to look back in time at one of the best examples we have: the Black Plague of the 14th century. Wiping out approximately a third of Europe’s population, it didn’t fundamentally change Europe’s balance of power. It didn’t weaken Europeans’ faith in Christ and the teachings of the Church. It didn’t even change countries’ borders. Protestant Reform arose later from scandals within the Church, and benefitted from the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. And the Lumières philosophy was born into the Great Earthquake of Lisbon of 1755. History seems to tell us that pandemics either wipe out civilizations altogether (the Plague of Justinian in 6th century Rome or the smallpox epidemic in 16th century Mexico) or fail to have a decisive effect: it seems to be literally all or nothing.

So don’t bet on a New World Order just yet…

Picture credits: Wall Street Journal, Pr. Ben Cowling/Hong Kong University

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