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Foreign Policy

The World in Repair: China, and How It’s Playing Its Part

May 19, 2020


Click to read China-US Focus Digest

On January 30th, 2020, the World Health Organization recognized the COVID-19 emergency in Wuhan, China, and declared it a pandemic on March 11th. By the last week of April, almost three million cases have been reported in 185 countries. The current death toll lies at over 200,000. Along with mounting health concerns, the pandemic has disrupted the global economy, with the IMF calling it the “worst economic downturn since the great depression”. According to the BBC, more than 80,000 have been infected in China, and over 3,000 have died. 

The economic impact on China has been immense, with the economy contracting by 6.8%. As China is the world’s second biggest economy and a major producer and supplier of goods and services, economist Yue Su says this will “translate into permanent income losses, reflected in bankruptcies across small companies and job losses.” In an effort to stabilize the economy, the Chinese government has mentioned it is working on an economic stimulus plan to shore up domestic demand. The IMF released a forecast saying the Chinese economy may manage to avoid a recession, albeit with the very low growth rate of 1.2% for 2020 – a low number for China, but still a far cry from the expected 6%. 

Along with battling the virus on the home front, China has played an active role in extending support to other countries addressing the pandemic. According to WHO Director-General Dr. Ghebreyesus, “China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response.” Most prominently, billionaire entrepreneur Jack Ma has been spearheading a campaign to send medical supplies to over 150 countries, including face masks and ventilators. According to Candid, a US-based philanthropy watchdog, Alibaba is ranked 12th on a list of private COVID-19 donors. The Jack Ma Foundation and the Alibaba Foundations have been airlifting supplies to Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and more. Alizila reports that “2 million masks, 150,000 test kits, 20,000 sets of protective gear, and 20,000 face shields [were sent] to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, [and] the governments of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, [will receive] a total of 1.8 million masks, 210,000 test kits, and 36,000 pieces of protective clothing. Ventilators and thermometers will also go to the 10 countries.” 

The Chinese government itself has actively been sending teams of medical professionals as well as supplies to struggling nations, especially in Europe and Southeast Asia. Last week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry made an announcement that 82 countries, as well as the WHO and the African Union, have received aid. According to The News, Chinese medical experts have been videoconferencing with their counterparts around the world to impart critical medical advice in tackling the spread of the virus. Spokesperson Geng Shuang confirmed this, saying, “In terms of medical technology cooperation, we have shared China's diagnosis and treatment plans with countries around the world, held video conferences with health experts from many countries and international organizations, and dispatched medical expert groups to Iran, Iraq, and Italy.” 

The response to these efforts has been largely positive. Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, praised China’s delivery of badly-needed materials to African nations, which he said would need a minimum of $100bn in foreign support to survive the pandemic and its economic consequences. Marcello de Angelis, spokesperson for the Italian Red Cross, spoke with DW, saying, “China has had considerable success in fighting the epidemic, and we want to work with Chinese experts on an international level.” 

In the G20 Virtual Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on support from all major economic powers to collectively fight COVID-19 and improve chances of a global economic recovery, and highlighted China’s efforts to reciprocate the support it received when first fighting the pandemic within its own borders. His promises in the address mentioned China’s efforts to contribute to economic stability through extensive market reform, increased market access, and incentivizing foreign investment and imports. 

Speaking to US President Donald Trump, Xi Jinping advocated for a combined effort between the two countries, promoting collaboration despite the economic tensions between the nations in previous months and the Trump administration openly blaming China for the spread of the virus. These widespread efforts have many appreciating the Chinese government, but a healthy amount of skepticism continues to prevail. A Pew Research center survey showed that two-thirds of Americans are now wary of China. 

What is driving China’s need to proactively help others? Some analysts say that China is using this to maintain, if not strengthen, its soft power initiatives throughout the world, acknowledging that any government in this position would be likely to do so. Others acknowledge that reaching out to the US government could be the next step in quelling leftover antagonism due to the trade war both countries were locked in for the better part of 2019. In fact, The New York Times reported, “An ad hoc network of companies, wealthy individuals, academics, and former diplomats has emerged to help the United States get the Chinese-made goods it needs to save patients and protect front-line workers — and, perhaps, help polish China’s dented image along the way. They are trying to navigate snarled supply chains, connect wary buyers and sellers, and help overwhelmed local officials in desperate need of equipment.” 

These thoughts are not unfounded. Yichen Zhang, chairman of a Chinese investment firm, used the opportunity to have one of the businesses his firm invest in the manufacturing of protective gear for China during its own outbreak and donated to Yale University’s health clinic as well. His assistant, Henry Yin, is quoted as saying, “It’s a business opportunity and a social responsibility.” Thorsten Benner, a public policy expert based out of Berlin, acknowledges that because the worst of the epidemic in China is now over, the country is in a good position to offer help to others, and that many consider it a debt China has to pay. "There is now a lot of extra capacity there available for the rest of the world," said Benner, who is director of the Global Public Policy Institute. "A lot of the blame for the coronavirus spreading with such force can be laid at the feet of the Chinese government.” 

Whether or not these efforts work in strengthening China’s global image, one thing is for sure: the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting economic downturn is a crisis current generations have never seen before; how we will emerge from it is now a global question. The donations of equipment, expertise, and funds are both essential and saving lives. 

"You know, this is a major crisis for the world right now," Duncan Clark, Jack Ma’s biographer, said. "But obviously, it's also a crisis for China's relationship with the rest of the world. So they need anybody who can help dampen down some of these those pressures."

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