The Chinese government has been fast-tracking shipments of medical aid to Europe, which has become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic that first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The largesse appears to be part of a public relations effort by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Communist Party to deflect criticism over their responsibility for the deadly outbreak.
Beijing's campaign as a global benefactor may deliver results in Europe, where pandering political leaders have long been notoriously fearful of antagonizing the European Union's second-largest trading partner. What remains unclear is if European publics, which are bearing the brunt of the suffering caused by the epidemic, will be as easily willing to overlook the malfeasance of Chinese officials.
In what can only be described as a geopolitical humiliation, Ursula Von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the administrative arm of the European Union, which touts itself as the "largest economy in the world," heaped praise on Communist China for donating an inconsequential amount of medical equipment to the bloc. On March 18, she tweeted:
"Spoke with Chinese PM Li Keqiang who announced that China will provide 2 mil surgical masks, 200,000 N95 masks & 50,000 testing kits. In January, the European Union helped China by donating 50 tons of equipment. Today, we're grateful for China's support. We need each other's support in times of need."
The European Union has been incapable of providing meaningful assistance to Italy, the bloc's third-largest member, which has been especially hard hit by the virus. After Germany, the EU's most powerful member, banned the export of medical protection gear to avoid its own supply shortages of masks, gloves and suits, China stepped in.
On March 12, China sent to Italy a team of nine Chinese medical staff along with some 30 tons of equipment on a flight organized by the Chinese Red Cross. The head of the Italian Red Cross, Francesco Rocca, said that the shipment "revealed the power of international solidarity." He added:
"In this moment of great stress, of great difficulty, we are relieved to have this arrival of supplies. It is true that it will help only temporarily, but it is still important. We have a desperate need for these masks right now. We need respirators that the Red Cross will donate to the government. This is for sure a really important donation for our country."
In recent days, China has also sent aid to:
Greece, March 21. An Air China plane carrying 8 tons of medical equipment — including 550,000 surgical masks and other items such as protective equipment, glasses, gloves and shoe covers — arrived at Athens International Airport. The Chinese Ambassador to Greece, Zhang Qiyue, referred to words by Aristotle: "What is a friend? A single soul living in two bodies." He said that "difficult times reveal true friends" and that China and Greece are "working closely together in the fight against the coronavirus." This, he said, "confirms once again the excellent relations and friendship between the two peoples."
Serbia, March 21. China flew six doctors, ventilators and medical masks to Serbia to help Belgrade halt spreading of the coronavirus infection. "A big thank you to President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people," said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. China's ambassador to Belgrade, Chen Bo, said the aid was a sign of the "iron friendship" between the two countries. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported: "President Xi attaches great importance to the development of China-Serbia relations, and believes that through the joint battle against the epidemic, the two countries' time-tested traditional friendship will gain more hearty support from their people, and their comprehensive strategic partnership will grow deeper and rise to a higher level.
Spain, March 21. The founder and president of the Chinese technology company Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, donated one million face masks. They were expected to arrive at Zaragoza Airport in northeastern Spain on March 23. The masks will be stored at a warehouse belonging to the Spanish apparel retailer Zara. From there, Zara will put its logistics network at the service of the Spanish government. This shipment could be the first of several, as dozens of Chinese suppliers that have worked with Zara for years are reportedly showing a willingness to send material. The United States has warned Spain about the security risk inherent in opening its fifth-generation communications networks to Chinese mobile technology providers, including Huawei.
Czech Republic, March 21. A Ukrainian cargo plane reportedly carrying 100 tons of medical supplies from China arrived at the airport in Pardubice, a city situated 100 kilometers east of Prague. On March 20, a Chinese plane carrying one million masks arrived in the Czech Republic, which reportedly ordered another 5 million respirators from China along with 30 million masks and 250,000 sets of protective clothing.
France, March 18. China sent to France, the second-most powerful country of the European Union, a batch of medical supplies, including protective masks, surgical masks, protective suits and medical gloves. The Chinese Embassy in France tweeted: "United we will win!" The following day, China sent a second batch of supplies. The Chinese Embassy tweeted: "The Chinese people are next to the French people. Solidarity and cooperation will allow us to overcome this pandemic."
The Netherlands, March 18. China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines, codeshare partners with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, donated 20,000 masks and 50,000 gloves. The shipment arrived at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on a Xiamen Airlines flight. "These are extremely difficult times for our country and our company, so we are very happy with this help for KLM and for the Netherlands," KLM CEO Pieter Elbers said. "Less than two months ago, KLM made a donation to China and now we are being helped so wonderfully and generously."
Poland, March 18. The Chinese government pledged to send Poland tens of thousands of protective items and 10,000 coronavirus test kits. On March 13, the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw sponsored a videoconference during which experts from China and Central Europe shared their knowledge on tackling the coronavirus. Police Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz thanked China for its support and stressed the need for continued cooperation with Beijing, including sharing experience in combating the pandemic.
Belgium, March 18. A Chinese cargo plane carrying 1.5 million masks landed at Liege Airport. The masks, which will be distributed to Belgium, France and Slovenia, were donated by Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, a Chinese ecommerce giant known as the "Amazon of China."
Czech Republic, March 18. A plane carrying 150,000 test kits for coronavirus landed in Prague. The Ministry of Health paid about CZK 14 million ($550,000) for 100,000 testing kits, while another 50,000 kits were paid for by the Ministry of the Interior. Transport was provided by the Ministry of Defense.
Spain, March 17. A Chinese plane carrying 500,000 masks arrived at Zaragoza Airport. "The sun always rises after the rain," Chinese President Xi Jinping told Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. He said that the friendship between China and Spain will be stronger and bilateral ties will have a brighter future after the joint fight against the virus. Xi said that after the pandemic, both countries should intensify exchanges and cooperation in a wide range of fields.
Belgium, March 16. Another shipment of medical supplies donated by the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation for epidemic prevention in Europe arrived at Liege Airport.
Fortune magazine explained the motivation behind China's propaganda push:
"For China, the outreach to Europe is part of an effort to claw back an international leadership role after early cover-ups helped the virus spread well beyond its borders. President Xi Jinping's government has sought to silence critics, including reporters and online commentators, and also spread conspiracy theories about where the virus originated.
"Geopolitically, China's move to brand itself as Europe's savior aims to improve its standing on a global stage as both spar with the Trump administration. China and the U.S. have continued a wider fight for global influence — Beijing kicked out more than a dozen American journalists this week — while also seeking to deflect blame for their handling of the disease."
In an interview with the UK-based newspaper Guardian, Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat, said:
"Now we see Chinese officials and state media claiming that China bought the world time to prepare for this pandemic. We know the propaganda machine within China is able to rewrite history but now we are seeing that replicated overseas. China's victory over Covid-19 has already been written and authorities are trying very hard for that message to be received overseas."
In an essay for the Spanish publication Libertad Digital, commentator Emilio Campmany astutely explained:
"The huge Chinese propaganda apparatus has been launched. In Italy they feel, with good reason, abandoned by the European Union and are grateful for the help that the Asian country is giving them. This has been suitably amplified by the Italian media.
"This is a propaganda operation that hides various truths. The first and most important is that the culprit for this pandemic is the Chinese regime. It does not take any conspiracy theory to point it out. It was widely recognized that Chinese live animal markets are a very serious epidemic hazard. The very severe communist regime of the people's republic, which controls everything for the welfare of the citizens, has been unable to shut them down. When the first cases emerged, it took forever for the highly efficient Communist Party to react and instead devoted its myriad resources just to hiding the truth. When it could no longer hide what was happening, it intervened brutally, and only in this way has it managed to stop the epidemic, not without first giving rise, due to its negligence, to the virus spreading throughout the world.
"The second is that communist bestiality is not necessary to effectively combat the virus. Infinitely better results can be achieved with capitalist intelligence, as has been shown by South Korea, which, having been much more capable than China, is not dedicated to paying for items in the West. For days now, this country has shown how valuable it can be to carry out massive tests. That is the best way for now, and the incredible thing is how long it took the Italians and the Spanish to realize this. However, this delay is not a consequence of not being blessed with two communist regimes, but rather of being governed by incompetents who, above all in our case, are that, socialists and communists.
"China wants to take advantage of this calamity to wrest global leadership from the United States. It will be the communist country that makes us the most energetic medicines to fight the virus. It will discover the vaccine before anyone else and distribute it worldwide in record time. It will buy our assets and invest in our countries to rescue our economies. Ultimately, it will claim to be our savior."