Can the unmasking of China’s Covid-19 ‘mask diplomacy’ stem Beijing’s global power grab?

A worker covers the podium after a Chinese Foreign Ministry media briefing in Beijing on March 18, 2020.
A worker covers the podium after a Chinese Foreign Ministry media briefing in Beijing on March 18, 2020. AFP - GREG BAKER

The Covid-19 outbreak found China uniquely positioned for a global soft power grab with its “mask diplomacy” supply of medical equipment. But then a drip of anti-Beijing headlines followed by an aggressive diplomatic onslaught unravelled the gains. The race for world power dominance is now up for grabs.


On April 14, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned China’s ambassador, Lu Shaye, over a coronavirus fake news article on the Chinese embassy website. And a few Asia experts in Canada could barely contain their glee.

Canadians had experienced the whiplash of Ambassador Lu’s diplomacy – or lack thereof – while he was Beijing’s envoy in Canada and gained national notoriety for accusing Ottawa of “white supremacy” for calling for the release of two Canadian nationals arrested in China during the Huawei scandal last year.

In his new post as China’s ambassador to France, Lu was at it again. In the controversial embassy “article”, an anonymous Chinese diplomat claimed French care workers had abandoned the elderly to die in nursing homes. It also accused French lawmakers of using a racist slur against Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO). Both the allegations were false.

So when Le Drian summoned Lu, Canadian experts on Twitter were keenly monitoring the developments in Paris.

“As Canadians, we both miss and don’t miss Lu Shaye, China’s rude and highly undiplomatic envoy to Ottawa before he was dispatched to Paris. For us, he epitomized everything that’s wrong with the CCP,” said J. Michale Cole from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

The French dressing down had been weeks in the making. “The embassy in Paris had been putting out these kind of communiqués, articles, quotes which were terrible, the classic propaganda of lies and insults required by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s diplomats in 'fighting spirit',” said Dorian Malovic, Asia editor of French daily, La Croix, and author of several books on China.

“These were, of course, on Twitter accounts,” he continued. “While Twitter is banned in China, what is forbidden inside China is used outside to counter criticism of Beijing’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak,” said Dorian Malovic, Asia editor of French daily, La Croix, and author of several books on China.

But the French foreign ministry summons did little to halt Beijing’s diplomatic offensive. A week later, the German interior ministry said Chinese diplomats had approached German officials to encourage them to make positive statements on Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

The policy of “encouraging” positive messages on state-controlled social media has worked inside China. But Beijing has been unable to control the international narrative amid mounting demands for an independent international investigation into the origins of the virus and questions over China’s handling of the outbreak.

The tide of opinion changed just as China’s “mask diplomacy” – sending planeloads of medical supplies to hard-hit countries like Italy and France – was taking off.

“China thought it was coming out on top from the crisis by sending planes with face masks and medical equipment. Beijing thought it could reap the benefits from being the only power with the capability for this. It’s a very weird thing that it has instead provoked a backlash,” said Pierre Haski, a veteran French journalist and longtime former Beijing correspondent and editor of the book, “The Diary of Ma Yan”.

The daily drip of bad press for China from across the world is turning into a flood. In the US, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are battling over who is “weaker on China”, with the Trump campaign running “Beijing Biden” ads as Joe Biden’s team responds with, “Trump rolled over for the Chinese” ripostes. Trump meanwhile has insisted he has seen evidence that Covid-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan, but he has offered no details and US intelligence agencies have not backed up his claim.

Outside the Beltway, headlines on substandard Chinese medical goods are pouring in from Japan, Finland, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Canada and India, to name a few.

China’s response to these complaints – particularly from East and South Asian countries – has been harsh, accusing India’s top medical body, for instance, of being “irresponsible” for advising against the use of “faulty” testing kits exported from China. When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an international investigation into the outbreak, Beijing’s excoriating ripostes included a Communist Party tabloid comparing Australia to “chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes”.

Perhaps the most surprising PR defeats have come from Africa, a continent Beijing has used as a petri dish to test its global soft-power grab. In a rare diplomatic dust-up, the governments of several African countries – including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda – summoned Chinese ambassadors last month to receive formal protests over the racist treatment of their nationals in China. Media reports have also focused on Beijing’s silence on any Africa debt relief, following the Covid-19 rescue measures announced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

As the pandemic shifts the tectonic plates of global power, China is at a pivotal point with its economic might – including market size and manufacturing base – squared off against the power of public opinion.

Cornered by international criticisms on several fronts, Beijing’s “offense is the best form of defence” response has taken aim at the democratic system of government by highlighting the inefficient responses of elected leaders scrambling to cope with the crisis.

Europe – with its internal divisions and precarious go-between position of trying to negotiate US might amid the competition for global markets – has been identified as the soft underbelly for this attack.  

Beijing’s diplomatic campaign has been particularly brazen in France and it has continued despite Le Drian’s summoning of the Chinese ambassador. Another article (in French) posted on the Chinese embassy website on April 26, for instance, offers explanations for “Why the Covid-19 outbreak is so politicised”. They include an ineffective European response to the crisis, which it claims has led “some Westerners ... to distrust liberal democracy. In the response to the epidemic, socialism with Chinese characteristics has demonstrated its ability to concentrate resources in the service of great achievements.”

In the US, where the stakes are high and the Trump administration’s erratic policies are a diplomatic minefield, China’s ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai, an old-school Beijing diplomat, has adopted a careful, measured line. The onus has therefore fallen on Europe’s leaders to respond to the Chinese PR and disinformation campaign. The question now is whether they are willing to rise up to the challenge and balance popular demands for transparency on the Covid-19 outbreak, on the one hand, and domestic business interests eyeing China’s resources during an economic recession.

‘Wolf warrior’ envoys answer President Xi’s call

Aware of these stakes in the post-coronavirus era, Beijing is relying on its new breed of ferocious diplomats, dubbed “wolf warriors” after a 3-D blockbuster starring a muscle-bound Chinese commando who saves his people by killing American baddies in Africa and Southeast Asia with his bare hands. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats emerged last year after President Xi issued a memo calling on envoys to show more “fighting spirit” in the war for global influence.

Video screen showing scenes from the movie " Wolf Warrior 2" in Beijing in August 2017.
Video screen showing scenes from the movie " Wolf Warrior 2" in Beijing in August 2017. AFP - GREG BAKER

The alpha male of the pack, Zhao Lijian, cut his teeth in Pakistan as deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Islamabad, when he engaged in a war of words with former US national security adviser Susan Rice over China’s mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims.

Upon his return to Beijing, Zhao was rewarded with a promotion to foreign ministry spokesman, in which post he has kept up the offensive, including a suggestion that the Covid-19 epidemic was a US army biological war strike against China.

The 55-year-old Chinese ambassador to France is another celebrated pack member. Lu’s aggressive track record during his Canadian posting was so well established that in June 2019, when his appointment as ambassador to France was announced, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders issued a statement warning the incoming envoy not to “try to intimidate the media of the country where he is posted”.

Businesses rethinking supply dependence

The anti-China backlash following the Covid-19 outbreak has renewed the pressure on China’s envoy in France – the EU’s only permanent member of the UN Security Council – to bare his diplomatic claws.

But the strategy, according to some experts, appears to be backfiring.

“This propaganda narrative is totally counterproductive for Western nations, especially now that the world knows China lied on the virus,” explained Malovic.

China’s myriad problems, from its crackdowns on free speech to the difficulties of doing business in the one-party state, are well known. But the fallout from the pandemic crisis is sparking a re-examination of the pros and cons of engaging with China on Beijing’s unyielding terms.

“People already knew about China’s quality problem. French businessmen in China privately complain all the time about how difficult it is to do business there. Now with the faulty, substandard tests, masks and ventilators, it’s going downhill for China and it’s a big challenge to get back credibility,” said Malovic.

The pandemic’s disruption of supply chains has also forced countries and companies to reexamine China’s competitive advantage as a manufacturing hub.

Japan, for instance, has earmarked $2.2 billion of its economic stimulus package to help its manufacturers shift production out of China. The decision is a major blow for Beijing as China is Japan’s biggest trading partner while Japan ranks third on the list of China’s top export destinations.

Trump’s trade war with Beijing had already led some international businesses to re-evaluate their dependence on China, with “companies actively rethinking their supply chain, either convincing their Chinese partners to relocate to southeast Asia to avoid tariffs, or by opting out of sourcing from China altogether”, noted a recent article in Forbes.

In Europe, the coronavirus crisis may give a boost to voices calling for less dependency on China for security reasons, noted Erik Brattberg, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Philippe Le Corre, of the Harvard Kennedy School. “The European Commission has already issued new guidelines for the implementation of a common EU investment screening framework specifically mentioning the protection of critical European medical assets. The EU is also wary of a repeat of the post 2008 financial crisis, which led to opportunistic Chinese investments in key European infrastructures,” noted Brattberg and Le Corre writing in The Diplomat.

Wuhan lab, a ‘Chinese tool

The pandemic has also cast a spotlight on Chinese breaches of bilateral agreements, which partnering countries have been reluctant to disclose fearing a backlash from Beijing against their investments and nationals in China.

Franco-Chinese cooperation on a maximum security biological laboratory in Wuhan has come under particular scrutiny following US media reports of Washington’s concerns, dating back to 2018, of inadequate security measures at the facility.

While there is no evidence the Covid-19 outbreak emerged from the Wuhan Class 4 pathogens (P4) laboratory, media reports have exposed China’s cooperation breaches on the project. In a recent investigative report, public radio station France Culture detailed how a team of 50 French scientists who were supposed to provide training and expertise at the P4 laboratory for a five-year period starting in 2017 never made it to Wuhan.

This happened two years after French billionaire businessman Alain Mérieux resigned as co-chairman of a joint commission supervising the project. In a 2015 interview with Radio France, Mérieux said he quit because the P4 project had turned into “a very Chinese tool – it belongs to them, even though it was developed with technical assistance from France”.

Beijing playing EU divisions

The breaches never stopped the project from proceeding, Malovic suggests, due to the lack of unity and competition among Western – particularly European – powers, for investment and partnership projects in China. “Every high-level businessman says yes, there are many problems, but if we don’t do it or sell it, the Germans will or the Americans will,” explained Malovic.

“China is very adept at playing the divisions within the EU,” he noted.

The bloc is nevertheless aware of the need for unity on China’s unfair trade practices. Last year, in a major departure from Brussels’ softly-softly position on Beijing, the European Commission called China “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” in an EU strategy briefing.

While Rome has traditionally been more open to Beijing, anger over China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak has been mounting in Italy. The latest crisis could provide an opportunity for Europe to re-calibrate its China policies. “The virus is a big blow to China – they won’t easily escape this whatever they do,” Malovic noted.

But few are willing to bet on a complete geopolitical overhaul just yet. “We’ll have the answer after the US presidential election,” said Haski. “If Trump wins, China is in for a tough ride. If it’s Biden, the issues won’t change, but you may have a more consensual attempt to restore bilateral discussions and that could diffuse the more nationalistic aspects of China’s rhetoric.”

The Covid-19 crisis nevertheless has sparked a “global change of attitude” to China, according to Haski, which will be marked by “more suspicion and vigilance to all issues that have been known for years”.

Avoiding anti-Asian racism

But European countries such as France will have to be careful about their messaging, noted Haski. “There is a big Chinese community in France and no one wants to have anti-Asian racism as in the US,” said Haski, referring to the rise of attacks against Asian Americans following Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus”.

France is home to Europe’s largest Chinese diaspora – estimated at between 600,000 to 700,000 – and witnessed a surge in anti-Asian racism in March, when the extent of the coronavirus crisis and allegations of a Chinese cover-up started to emerge.

A local newspaper, Le Courier Picard, for instance, faced an outcry for its inflammatory headline, "Alerte jaune" (Yellow alert), forcing the paper to quickly apologise. That sparked a campaign by French-Asians (including members of the significant Vietnamese and Cambodian diasporas) on social media sites using the hashtag “JeNeSuisPasVirus” (I’m not a virus).

“Everybody in government will be very careful about the atmosphere in France. Everybody wants to avoid a climate of stigmatisation,” said Haski.

The challenge for European governments in the months to come will be to calibrate a targeted, effective response to the “wolf warrior” attacks by Chinese officials while avoiding a backlash against Asian immigrant groups on their soils.

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