Coronavirus: can China use the epidemic to win friends and influence people?

Jane Cai

While the coronavirus epidemic appears to have reached a plateau in China, it is gaining momentum elsewhere in the world, and that could give Beijing an opportunity to show what it has to offer, analysts say.

As the world’s manufacturing hub, China is capable of tapping into its massive industrial capacity to supply face masks, hazmat suits and the raw materials used to make protective gear to nations in need.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), health workers around the world need 89 million face masks, 76 million pairs of surgical gloves and 1.6 million pairs of goggles every month.

After weeks fighting the deadly outbreak, China experienced a severe shortage of those items in late January and early February, but as people have returned to work after the Lunar New Year holiday, the massive manufacturing machine has sprang back into action.

As of February 29, China’s daily output of protective face masks had increased 12-fold from the start of the month to 116 million units, the National Development and Reform Commission said on Monday.

As a result, Beijing has been able to donate masks to countries like South Korea and Japan, which provided similar help to China soon after the scale of the epidemic became clear.

China’s Ministry of Commerce said that the export of masks was not banned and that their sale would be in line with market principles.

The ministry’s statement came after several nations and territories, including Taiwan, South Korea, Germany and Russia restricted exports of medical equipment over fears of domestic shortages. As of Friday, the coronavirus, which was first detected in the central China city of Wuhan, had spread to more than 70 countries and infected 98,400 people.

“Face masks have become the world’s most strategic commodity, coveted by most governments,” said Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington.

“The world urgently needs China to augment mask exports before the virus explodes in the US. Its experience in dealing with the outbreak, combined with its manufacturing capacity will give it a huge advantage on the international stage,” he said.

The WHO earlier described Beijing’s response to the outbreak as “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history”.

Coronavirus could cause global medicine shortages as China’s factory closures hit supply chains

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, took a more balanced view of Beijing’s handling of the outbreak.

“With the WHO focusing on technical matters and being as diplomatic as possible to China, the Chinese government will have much scope to perpetuate its propaganda line,” he said.

“[But] Many people, both in China and beyond will see through it and see that the Chinese government’s failures in its early stage was very problematic, and its draconian measures unacceptable,” he said, referring to government cover-up and the controversial lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province that forced millions of people into isolation and resulted in a high fatality rate in the epicentre.

“However, most will probably buy into the Chinese narrative, particularly as the spread of the virus declines in China while it continues rising elsewhere,” Tsang said.

Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, said Beijing’s handling of the outbreak could be a useful reference point for other countries.

“China’s experience highlights the importance of transparency and the need to take decisive action. It also shows the importance of treating severe cases in time and preventing hospital-acquired infections,” he said.

“That said, China’s success in stabilising the situation is unique and hardly replicable in other countries. Indeed, thus far we haven’t seen any country copy China.”

Nonetheless, China’s Communist Party is keen to promote its success in managing the crisis and validate its one-party, absolute rule political system.

To that end, the propaganda department of the party’s Central Committee has published a book – titled Da Guo Zhan “Yi”, or Big Country Fights an Epidemic, Xinhua reported last week, adding that versions in English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic are set to be released soon.

Wang Yiwei, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said that while the book might be well received within China that would not be the case everywhere.

“China did well in controlling the disease, but it paid the price in [people’s] lives,” he said. “And political systems vary. People are different. While Chinese are used to doing what the authorities say, people in other countries value personal rights and freedom.”

Sourabh Gupta, a policy specialist at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, said Beijing had to find the right balance in the way it presented itself to other nations.

“Beijing wants to be seen as a responsible stakeholder, contributing to the public health welfare of the international community and of developing and poor countries in particular,” he said.

“At the same time, it must be alert to the potential accusation that it is engaging in ‘disaster opportunism’, as in piggybacking on the misery of communities overseas to project an air of benevolence and munificence.”

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