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Life in China is slowly getting back to normal, with only a handful of ‘homegrown’ coronavirus infections, and almost all new cases coming from people returning to China from abroad.

The Coronavirus in China is currently under control, which has been achieved faster than the government expected. The Chinese medical devices industry had been geared up for longer and larger demand, with the result that China now has a very large surplus supply of coronavirus-related medical equipment for combating the virus.

With an apparent failure from governments in the West to prepare for the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government sees a leadership ‘vacuum’ and an opportunity to take a global lead.

This involves using substantial donations of medical equipment as part of a communications/propaganda campaign to improve perceptions of China both internationally and domestically. The government sees this as an opportunity to ‘reframe’ negative perceptions of their management of the coronavirus crisis: addressing dissatisfaction both within China and around the world at the government’s initial handling of the outbreak: both in not addressing the outbreak more quickly, but also in allowing it to occur in the first place.

This concern is now being shifted by a coordinated message that China is helping save the world via a fast and successful effort to control the disease, generous global medical donations, and global leadership on this issue.

This is illustrated (but not limited to) the following:

  • President Xi Jinping and President Emmanuel Macron of France jointly calling for a G20 summit to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
  • In a call with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed her gratitude for China’s support in its fight against the coronavirus (including over 2 million masks and 50,000 coronavirus testing kits) and highlighted the EU’s urgent demand for anti-epidemic supplies. Von der Leyen ‘stressed that the two sides’ joining forces to fight COVID-19 and get over these hard times demonstrates their good friendship and cooperation’.
  • Major Chinese support for Italy which includes sending 300 intensive care doctors, 20,000 protective suits and 1 million medical masks out of a total of an initial 8 million order, as well as ventilators.
  • Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio reportedly posted a video of himself watching live footage of a plane of supplies and medics from China, noting that China was the first to send aid.
  • On Saturday, 21 March, President Xi sent messages of solidarity to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, King Felipe VI of Spain and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

In his comments to Chancellor Merkel, Xi noted that “If Germany is in need, China is willing to provide help within our capabilities”, noting that “Public health crises are the common challenges facing humankind, and unity and cooperation are its most powerful weapons”.

Xi’s greetings to the Serbian President aim at building new relations. This follows a negative reaction in Serbia to medical export controls announced by the EU last week, with President Vucic declaring in response that “European solidarity does not exist…the only country that can help us is China.”, appealing for help from his “friend and brother Xi Jinping”.

Domestically, China’s media has been critical of different approaches to combating the virus than China’s. This included sharp criticism in Chinese social media of the UK government when it initially appeared to pursue a ‘herd immunity’ strategy.

There are many reports sceptical of China’s intentions concerning coronavirus aid in the international press – and presumably among some governments –, but many of these same governments have a huge demand for medical supplies. They are unlikely to contradict China publicly, not only because of the Chinese government’s sensitivities but also because China produces a large proportion of world medical devices, especially products such as medical facemasks.

Furthermore, the apparent lack of leadership on this issue so far from the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) the EU is giving China a larger ‘share’ of global influence. This is likely to continue if the Chinese economy rebounds quickly and Western governments are unable to control the virus soon.

In the coming days, the impact on Western public perceptions from China’s aid and communications campaign could go one of two ways.

In principle, it is likely to become more effective as aid is received by grateful people still in lock-down, while media reports on how life in China is returning to normal.

Additionally, large Chinese companies have also started to turn their own domestic coronavirus support policies internationally. Many of these generous offers will help improve their reputations abroad. A few examples include: generous donations from Huawei in Ireland and South Africa; Alibaba’s Jack Ma in the U.S., Italy, Spain, Iran, several European countries and all 54 African states; and Fosun to Wolverhampton in the UK, where they own the local football club.

However, there is also a risk of a backlash. The China-sceptical elements western press are actively looking for stories of the Chinese government’s failings over the crisis. This is are likely to generate more attention in coming days as publics try to dissect the origins of the crisis. In turn, this will generate more attention to Chinese companies’ medical donations.

One such example that could raise eyebrows is the donation of 800,000 facemasks by Huawei in the Netherlands. In theory, this should be seen very positively, but the government of the Netherlands is due to make a decision on Huawei’s involvement in 5G infrastructure rollout imminently. Even with the best of intentions, this could appear overly commercially-minded.

However this plays out, it is indicative of how Chinese diplomacy is shifting to a higher global profile and the country’s leadership is paying greater attention towards its international image. Expect more to come.

by Mark Pinner, Managing Partner, Interel China