Geopolitics

Dissecting China's Failed Experiment At Face Mask Diplomacy

After weeks of denial and manipulation, China wanted to play the role of a caring superpower. But something about its soft-power push went awry.

"The answer lies, perhaps, in Xi Jinping himself."
Alain Frachon

-OpEd-

PARIS — China's attempt at "face mask diplomacy" was never going to succeed. It didn't improve the country's image, and the rest of the world is more critical than ever about Beijing's responsibility in the crisis.

After weeks of denial and manipulation of information, China went on the offensive in late February with one ambition: to play the role of a caring superpower. The country had defeated the coronavirus at home and would now help rescue the world, congratulating itself in the process. China was exporting masks while smuggling here, there and everywhere the virtues of its governmental system.

It was supposed to work the way U.S. pop culture does, as a vector of U.S. power. Only instead of jeans, rock & roll and Hollywood, China had masks, tests and respirators. But instead of boosting the reputation of the regime in Beijing, the effort was a flop — at least in the eyes of the western world. Why? The answer lies, perhaps, in Xi Jinping himself, in his worldview and the way he rules the country.

China was counting on its unique capacity to supply some of the tools to fight coronavirus and thus present itself as a "benevolent giant." And it benefited, in this regard, from the void created by Donald Trump. The U.S. president, lost and incompetent in the COVID-19 turmoil, refused more than ever to take any responsibility as an international leader.

Fair or unfair, the results of the mask campaign are not outstanding.

But the CPC, the Communist Party of China, overplayed its advantage. Despite its expertise in "agitprop," a local specialty, it tried to do too much. The result? After four months of disruption caused by the pandemic, China simply hasn't received good press. There have been some expressions of "gratitude," but also recurring talk about "defiance," "suspicion" and "distrust."

China didn't do itself any favors by sending materials that, in some cases, proved faulty. But that's only part of what undermined its facemask diplomacy push. There were also the condescending comments on the state of western democracies. Receiving countries may very well need Chinese materials, but they could do without the proverbial propaganda leaflets that came with them.

Complicating matters is the persisting mystery over the origins of the ailment, in Wuhan, and the half-truths and changing figures that China issued in response. Meanwhile, the regime was driving a part of the U.S. press out of Beijing and imprisoning Chinese who criticized the CPC's policies in this matter. All of this was proceeding against the backdrop of nationalism heated to incandescence.

Chinese masks arriving in Liège, Belgium on March 18 — Photo: Zheng Huansong/Xinhua/ZUMA

Fair or unfair, the results of the mask campaign are not outstanding. The EU is going to control Chinese investments in Europe as closely as possible. European pharmaceutical companies are going to move factories out of China. Japan is helping its companies relocate. And in Washington, supporters of the decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies are gaining traction.

Perhaps even worse for the Chinese government is the loss of credibility, which is the exact opposite of what China was hoping to achieve. So again, why did the effort fail?

The country has competent diplomats. Its industry has been immensely reactive in producing masks, tests and respirators. China showed real solidarity, furthermore, when it came to helping New York and some African countries. And at home, it its own fight against the virus, the country showed real courage.

Fair or unfair, the results of the mask campaign are not outstanding.

At the same time, China's management of the COVID-19 outbreak has also — from end to end — borne the mark of its leader, Xi Jinping. And that, I'd venture to say, is the real heart of the problem.

The president has repositioned the CPC, the single driving force of political power, at the center of Chinese society, with an increased presence everywhere, from schools and universities to administrations and the economy (where the public sector was favored), etc. The idea of a government, an administration, a specialized agency functioning relatively independently from the CPC — an idea that was outlined by his predecessors — is contrary to the current leader's school of thought.

Politics have to take precedence over expertise (including medical expertise, just like what happened in Wuhan). Militants prevail over professionals. The political line supersedes reality. That is what Richard McGregor, one of the top experts on the CPC, explains in his latest book, Xi Jinping: The Backlash.

Xi Jinping's focus is on promoting the merits of the Chinese system, and pointing out the decline, in contrast, of liberal democracies. It's about challenging "hostile western ideas' while touting the superiority of the "Chinese experience." And not just at home. This message is a key element of Chinese diplomacy as well. Indeed, antagonism towards the West is part of the Chinese agenda.

Xi Jinping is subjecting China to a cure of re-ideologization, writes sinologist Alice Ekman in Bright Red, Chinese Communist Ideal, a book that was based in large part on the president's own writings.

Ekman's thesis is that for Xi Jinping, this moment of rhetoric radicalization isn't just a means to reassert power in a difficult economic period. It's also a reflection of his deep-held beliefs. Xi Jinping is a convinced Marxist, she argues. He's an ideologue, in other words, and that, in a nutshell, explains why China has handled the COVID-19 crisis the way it has, as counter-productive as it may seem from outside.



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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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