The power and limits of China’s ‘mask diplomacy’

Author: Dylan MH Loh, NTU Despite initial missteps surrounding COVID-19, particularly in releasing timely information and providing accurate updates, China has largely contained their coronavirus outbreak. As a result, Beijing has turned its attention to helping other countries through the provision of medical supplies, test kits and technical expertise. China hopes to build goodwill in […]

The power and limits of China’s ‘mask diplomacy’

Author: Dylan MH Loh, NTU

Despite initial missteps surrounding COVID-19, particularly in releasing timely information and providing accurate updates, China has largely contained their coronavirus outbreak. As a result, Beijing has turned its attention to helping other countries through the provision of medical supplies, test kits and technical expertise. China hopes to build goodwill in recipient countries and garner positive international media attention.

For instance, China has provided test kits to Cambodia, sent ventilators to New York City, deployed medics to Iran and increased its funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) by US$30 million (following Washington’s suspension of WHO funding on 14 April). While the humanitarian impetus is undoubtedly a major motivator, it is difficult to ignore the political calculus involved in China’s outreach efforts.

Beijing is endeavouring to soften criticism of its initial management and to burnish its global leadership credentials. This shifts the narrative from China being the ‘originator’ of the disease to one where China is stepping up to help the world battle the virus. These moves send a message: China has passed its own COVID-19 test and is now able to turn its efforts to helping others.

China has also used private philanthropic efforts to push this narrative. Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s contributions of masks and medical supplies to places such as the Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal and French Polynesia, among others, were widely lauded in Chinese media. While there is no evidence to show any coordination between Ma and the Chinese government, it is noteworthy that these recipient countries do not have formal ties to Taiwan. It is not surprising that countries receiving the most help are countries that already enjoy close ties to China or are important gateways in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ is not only carried out on a bilateral basis through public and private actors — Beijing is also directly engaging with Chinese citizens living overseas. The Chinese embassy in Singapore, for instance, has been active in engaging and helping its overseas Chinese citizens. The embassy procured and gave 60,000 masks to Chinese workers in Singapore, with the words ‘wishing our Chinese compatriots well, the Motherland longs for you’ emblazoned on boxes filled with masks.

China’s capacity to mobilise Chinese businesses and communities overseas for diplomatic and humanitarian ends is clear. The China Enterprise Association (Singapore) has also been working with the Chinese embassy in Singapore to distribute masks. Earlier, the Chinese Ambassador to Singapore conducted visits to universities and schools to extend ‘concern from [the] homeland government to Chinese students studying abroad’. Singapore is not unique in this regard — the Chinese embassy in Malaysia has also engaged with local hospitals, NGOs and political groups to assist in the fight against COVID-19.

But Chinese efforts to soothe public discourse surrounding its role in the pandemic are not without problems. It has been reported, for example, that Spain has stopped using a Chinese-made rapid test kit because it had an accuracy rate of less than 30 per cent. India, among other countries, has also stopped using Chinese rapid test kits owing to similar accuracy concerns. China insists that these are small issues and that worries over quality were ‘overblown’.

China has found it hard to convince Western media and governments to shed their cynicism. The United States has been relentless in its criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus. The Attorney General of the US state of Missouri recently initiated a lawsuit against China. Mississippi has since filed a similar lawsuit. This has found some found some traction within the White House, with Trump saying that he exploring ways to make China pay. Australia and New Zealand have also echoed Washington’s calls for an independent investigation into the original outbreak in Wuhan, thus showing the limits of China’s public relations push.

A newly released EU report will be of great concern to China’s diplomats and its public relations push. The document notes that there is ‘significant evidence of covert Chinese operations on social media’, as it seeks to drown out ‘accusations that it made the crisis worse by trying to cover up its own outbreak’. What’s more, Beijing’s outreach efforts could also be viewed with suspicion by host governments. While there is no suggestion of anything nefarious with regard to Chinese COVID-19 outreach practices, concerns over foreign interference and political mobilisation are an ever-present fear.

The narrative that China is pushing has had limited success. Tellingly, it has achieved favourable results in Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Serbia, which are critical nodes in China’s Belt and Road project. Perhaps, what matters most for Beijing is how its own citizens view its crisis management efforts and entrenching the dependencies of countries already close to China.

Dylan MH Loh is Assistant Professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Division, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He is also the founding editor of

This article is part of an  on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

Source : East Asia Forum More   

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China’s Harsh New Security Law Likely to Spark HK Protest

Beijing puts definitive end to ‘one country, two systems’

China’s Harsh New Security Law Likely to Spark HK Protest

The Chinese government’s plan to implement a national security law in Hong Kong is likely to revive the large protests which rocked the city last year, which ironically is what this law seeks to prevent.

“If the national security law is implemented, there will be massive demonstrations in pushback as in last June,” a risk consultant told Asia Sentinel.

Demonstrations of varying magnitude have persisted in the Asian financial hub since the middle of last year. On June 16, 2019, nearly two million people marched in protest against an extradition bill proposed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, according to the protest’s organizers although police estimated a lower number, in the hundreds of thousands. In 2003, the Hong Kong government tried to introduce a security bill but withdrew it after an estimated half a million people protested on July 1 that year.

The national security law, which was discussed at the “Two Sessions” in Beijing on May 21 and 22, is expected to be more wide-ranging than the shelved extradition bill. The “Two Sessions” are meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). At the Two Sessions on May 22, Wang Chen, the NPC Standing Committee vice-chairman, said the law would proscribe secessionism, subversive activity, foreign interference, and terrorism in Hong Kong.

The NPC, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, plans to promulgate the national security law without going through Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. This is due to the Chinese government’s fear that the Legislative Council will not have enough pro-Beijing members to pass this law after the council elections in September, said the risk consultant who declined to be named.

Pro-democracy politicians are likely to win many seats in September’s elections, enough to block legislation, the risk consultant predicted. One reason for this is the widespread support for democracy that has increased since the protests last year, the risk consultant explained. Another reason is localists advocating Hong Kong’s independence, pan-democrats which are the mainstream pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong, and independents will unite to minimize competition among themselves in order to win as many seats as possible, he added.

A pro-Beijing Hong Kong coalition, which includes Citizens Alliance of Hong Kong, presented a letter to Lam on May 21, calling for the enactment of the law before the current term of the Legislative Council ends in September, reported the Global Times, a nationalistic Chinese newspaper.

On May 21, Joshua Wong, the 23-year old founder of the Hong Kong student activist group Scholarism, tweeted: “Beijing is now scrapping its promise of 1 country 2 systems by circumventing Hong Kong’s legislature and directly imposing the most controversial national security law upon Hong Kong.”

Wong, who was arrested during the Occupy Central protest in Hong Kong in 2014, further tweeted, “This disputable legislation is promulgated without any legislative scrutiny.”

In a glaring omission, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang made no mention of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, during his speech at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s Parliament, in Beijing on May 22. This is the first time that Li did not mention the Basic Law in his annual work report since becoming Prime Minister in 2013. Li said the Chinese government will “establish sound legal systems and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security” in the two semi-autonomous territories of Hong Kong and Macau.

"This is the end of Hong Kong, this is the end of One Country, Two Systems, make no mistake about it," Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok told reporters.

“Of course, it’s very concerning,” said Peter Shadbolt, an Australian resident. “Hong Kong is my home. As with much of the Basic Law, it’s open to all sorts of statutory interpretations. You don’t know what Beijing means until they do it, by which time it’s too late to argue.”

What’s behind the Hong Kong protests?

The national security law is necessary and cannot be delayed, said a column in Chinese state news agency Xinhua on May 22. The Hong Kong unrest, the column argued, has eroded the rule of law and poses a great risk to national security.

“Behind the Hong Kong unrest are internal and external forces colluding together. Hong Kong has become the main playing card of external forces in obstructing the renaissance of the Chinese people, the bridgehead for subversive destructive activities and a window for color revolution in mainland China,” alleged Xinhua.

Several international NGOs, some funded by the US government, are supporting the protest movement, said the risk consultant, who is not a Chinese citizen. “The US government has a vested interest in the Hong Kong protest damaging China’s rise. Hong Kong has become a test bed for tactical learning with the US-sponsored revolution industry.”

Of the more than HK$250 million (US$32.2 million) raised for the protests, 10 to 15 percent may have come from US-backed NGOs, while the vast majority of funding originated within Hong Kong through means like crowdfunding, said the risk consultant, who has researched the protest movement.

Although the aborted extradition bill sparked demonstrations last year, the protest movement was engineered before that from 2014 to 2019, the risk consultant said. Previously, the Hong Kong independence movement was viewed as an irrational fringe group, but since 2016 localism has risen sharply, he added. “The Hong Kong government failed to see the rising importance and power of the localist movement.”

Another Xinhua commentary, dated May 21, said the “malignant tumor” of “Hong Kong independence” must be eradicated.

International repercussions

“This is a comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms,” said Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong.

On May 21, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, tweeted: “Beijing’s announcement of yet another attempt to bring an end to the “one country, two systems” framework in Hong Kong is deeply alarming. Attempting to circumvent the HK legislature shows a complete disrespect for the rule of law.”

“By proposing national security laws for Hong Kong, the Chinese government and Communist Party will push Hong Kong’s autonomy to the breaking point,” US Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement.

“Congress provided the US government with powerful tools when it passed my bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and the administration should use this law to hold Beijing accountable for its interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs and violations of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Rubio said.

In the same statement, US Senator Ben Cardin said, “As one of the lead authors of the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, I have been proud to voice our solidarity with the people of Hong Kong. The Trump administration must use the authorities granted to them through this legislation.”

Two other US senators, Chris Van Hollen and Pat Toomey, said on May 21 they will propose legislation to sanction Chinese officials, in response to China’s plans to introduce the national security law.

On May 20, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told the press, “In Hong Kong, our decision on whether or not to certify Hong Kong as having “a high degree of autonomy” from China is still pending.  We’re closely watching what’s going on there.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a press conference in Beijing on May 21, “On Taiwan and Hong Kong issues, Pompeo …. should stop poking his nose into China’s internal affairs, otherwise he will definitely bump into a wall.”

Source : Asia Sentinel More   

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