Transcript: Rethinking China's Humanitarian Diplomacy before and during Covid-19

Opener (00:00:02)


This is the Nordic Asia podcast.


Satoko Naito (00:00:09)


Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Satoko Naito. I'm a docent at the Center for East Asian studies at the University of Turku in Finland. Today it is my great pleasure to you welcome back to the podcast to colleagues: Dr. Lauri Paltemaa, professor and director of the Center for East Asian Studies, and Dr. Hermann Aubié, senior researcher at the Center. They are here to share with us findings from their study on China's so-called Mask Diplomacy. Thank you both very much for being here.


Lauri Paltemaa (00:00:45)


Thank you Satoko.


Hermann Aubié (00:00:47)


Thank you Satoko.


Satoko Naito (00:00:48)


Thank you. So, until recently China has not, at least in my opinion, exuded the image of being a provider of disaster relief or humanitarian aid, domestically or internationally. I do remember after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, there was some coverage of humanitarian aid from Beijing, although to be fair, they were hardly the only ones providing such relief. Lauri, could you start us off in this discussion by giving us a bit of context; Some historical background of China's role in international relief and aid?


Lauri Paltemaa (00:01:25)


L: Yes certainly yeah. I've actually been studying this topic already before, the Covid pandemic and, from the context of the disaster management in China. I've written a book about that and number of articles, and then I became interested in the international aspects of Chinese disaster management and this is of course directly related to disaster relief and disaster aid and humanitarian aid. And in general you are right. China hasn't really being very, let's say visible, in this field before the Covid, but it hasn't been totally passive. The People's Republic, when it was established in 1949, started to provide disaster aid to selected countries already in the 50s as part of its friendly foreign policy towards the decolonialized, newly independent nations especially in it's neighbourhood. India for example received aid several times. But then under Mao Zedong, this kind of international disaster aid became part of the Maoist foreign policy and it became quite ideologically based. So China, when it provided any aid, usually provided it only to its ideological friends and in the end it didn't have very many of them in the 60s.


So, China was largely passive in this field. But then of course came the reform period with Deng Xiaoping, starting late 70s, and Deng also activated Chinese foreign policy in this respect. China started to provide aid not only on ideological basis, but also under other political calculations, so there were more recipients, and China became more active, but compared to the Western Nations, China was still a really really small player in the field. And this date you mentioned there, 2004, the tsunami, is actually an... here we can actually locate an important milestone in the development of Chinese disaster relief aid because in this time, or in this case, the disaster also Chinese actually became victims of it, and this was really the first time China made this kind of larger effort for Relief Aid, and it also learned by watching what the others were doing that disaster aid is also a very effective tool of what nowadays is being usually called soft power, form of diplomacy where you can try to influence public opinions in foreign countries, and it was realized that disaster aid can be a very efficient tool and form of diplomacy.


And China started to build up its humanitarian aid system, and we'll come come back to this topic I'm quite sure, the way it governed it used to be very fragmented, and it still is, but at least it started to coordinate it and started to put more resources to helping other countries. And then came 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, which was also a milestone because it was the first time foreign relief agencies came to China, for example to rescue and recover people from the ruins et cetera, et cetera, and there was a very substantial International involvement in disaster aid after the Wenchuan earthquake. And China once again learned about the power of help basically.


We remember in 2008, situations were rather tense, there were large riots in Tibet, there were protests against Chinese torch relay for 2008 Beijing Olympics, relations with foreign countries were rather tense, and then suddenly there was this disaster, and the atmosphere changed. Everybody wanted to help China and China opened its doors and once again Chinese policymakers learned how powerful this can be: to help others in times of need. After that they started to put much more resources compared to what they had done before to disaster aid.


And you can say that Chinese disaster has really have taken off in 2010s, when there was more resources and more policy priority to it. Actually, as part of what we are researching with Herman, we had this kind of historical data on the Chinese disaster aid from 2013 to 2018, which is best we can do because the sources are really scarce, but from this period we are able to collect the public announcements of Chinese disaster aid and we have been analysing this as the historical context of the mask diplomacy, and there are number of things that stand out there. It's clear that China has directed its aid to developing countries. Well, that's not really surprising because it's the developing countries that usually ask for help after they've been struck by a disaster, a natural disaster or an epidemic like the Ebola epidemic epidemic in West Africa in the 2010s.  Then China does provide quite a lot of help to its neighbours. It's clearly a dimension of its neighbourhood policy, to provide disaster help. For example the Philippines, with whom the Chinese government hasn't had that good relations recently, nevertheless China has provided a lot of disaster relief aid for them, especially during the typhoons and earthquakes.


But not only the Philippines. Nepal for example received very massive Chinese aid after its earthquake in... was it 2005? So, there is this kind of a neighbourhood policy there and friendly policy towards the Global South, because this is where China wants to be seen as an active leading developing country as it frames itself, and disaster aid is, I think one of the key policy aspects where we can see China playing out its role in the region. But also what we see there is that the Chinese disaster aid was based by and large on bilateral relations. China doesn't really... it is nominally involved in multilateral organizations and aid projects, though UN mostly, but by and large it favours bilateral relations, so government-to-government relations. So that there is this direct official diplomatic dimension to this aid always involved. And then China also favours, or disfavours certain countries, like those that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan and during this period that we were looking, China hardly ever... well, it provided very few times, any kind of aid to an OECD country. Partly this is of course explained by the fact that these countries don't usually ask for help, but then when we compare it to the mask diplomacy, then we find that there is a difference there too. Like, we would argue that it has become an integral part of the Chinese South to South policies in 2010s, and this is basically the background where... on which the Mask Diplomacy then builds on.


Also there are number of features that we can also find later. Chinese disaster aid is not only government to government but there are number of other actors that the Chinese use. There are especially the Chinese big companies abroad, and then the Chinese diaspora, the overseas Chinese communities are used here, so in a number of cases like in Burma for example or the Myanmar, much of the aid is actually distributed through companies and local Chinese communities and not officially through the embassy. So China has these networks and resources it places and when needed it can actually mobilize them and use them, and that was already in existence before the pandemic.


Satoko Naito (00:09:51)


Right. so China has for some time practices a sort of donation diplomacy. But, with the current pandemic one unique aspect that I can immediately think of is its global scale, so it's not quite obvious who would or who should receive aid. So who and where were the recipients of aid from China?


Hermann Aubié (00:10:15)


Yes, thank you Satoko. I think what's interesting here about looking at Covid-19 disaster relief and humanitarian aid from China in contrast to what Lauri just talked about, is that there has been this very Large scope in terms of China's reach and also the scale of its distribution of not just masks and medical equipment, but also as we are still seeing today, the vaccine donations. And also what is interesting is that historically speaking China had been mainly focusing aid on the Global South or Majority World countries, but now with this pandemic because indeed we were all caught unprepared and because of its sheer scale as well, we were basically overwhelmed and we got shortages of different kinds of crucial, vital medical goods.


China was actually in a unique position to provide this kind of help. First of all because it was the world's largest manufacturer of medical equipment, especially masks, but also other types of medical devices, and also because it was able to contain the pandemic within a short time frame after the outbreak and so that's enabled the country to redirect this capacity to produce those good to different parts of the world.


But then one issue of course that arises when we look closer at the available data, which is very patchy by the way, because China does not officially report most of its aid, and that's been one challenge in our research here, is to collect the data in jigsaw, all the different bits of information that are present online in different scattered parts of the web like for example embassy websites, Twitter accounts of Chinese embassies, different official Chinese websites that probably sometimes are only in Chinese, sometimes it translated in English or languages like French for West Africa. And this is how gradually we are able to kind of piece together a clearer and more comprehensive picture of Chinese aid. But overall we are still in the process, more than year after the pandemic, in trying to piece together the actual picture of Chinese aid, and this is what makes us actually realize that Chinese aid has been rather limited in scale partly because the size of donations was actually pretty small if you compare that with, for example with what different UN agencies have been providing thanks to funding from the largest donors of the OECD for example in Europe, America, and East Asia, like Japan or Korea, where we see a much bigger scale of intervention through the UN and where China is actually a rather small player when we look at its reported funding contributions through the UN.


So it appears from our data that actually China has been in a way indeed focused mainly on bilateral help, but also trying to compensate for its small role in multilateral humanitarian relief by actually trying to amplify the visibility of its aid, which actually also got enhanced by its sheer diversity of actors. This is something Lauri mentioned, and that's even more visible with the Covid-19 pandemic, because we observed that the campaign initiative by Chinese authorities to help most countries around the world during the pandemic involved very wide array of actors, first at the official top-level like elite centric, bilateral help, but then also kind of middle level with provincial and city governments in China helping sister cities or sister provinces that have partnerships or agreements through trade originally and that evolved and extended overtime, especially in the context of the Belt Road initiative over the last 10 years or so. We have seen an expansion of all kinds of ties at commercial and people to people exchange level as they call it in Chinese and also at the level of community.


For example in Italy we have seen the Chinese overseas diaspora being very active in trying to mitigate the several risks that emerged through the pandemic for example. Interestingly there has been also this grassroot dynamic with Chinese living in Italy, where we didn't see much evidence of the Chinese government trying to control things through its embassies or its commercial networks, but somehow it has been conflated in the media coverage as an overall kind of a Chinese campaign, and this is where it gets a bit more complicated when we take in to the account the diversity of actors involved, and this is most likely the case that it was a very fragmented campaign, partly because the number of Chinese actors involved also within China were quite diverse. We often assume that Beijing's leadership has this ability to kind of remote control different actors, but actually if we look specifically at the most critical time of the pandemic last year when there was a dire need for PPE, there was actually clearly very little time available for all these Chinese actors like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through its embassies or the Ministry of Commerce for example, or the new Development Agency called CIDCA in Beijing…. These actors had too little time most likely to coordinate effectively such a campaign, because the need for this medical equipment arose within a few weeks, and then a whole array of Chinese actors available was able to step in and then later on, interestingly,  like just sometimes a few days or a few weeks after the Chinese propaganda machinery also was set into motion and it tried to kind of create this semblance of a well-coordinated campaign. And interestingly, this mask diplomacy has pretty much ended in most of the world now except in Africa where there are still a number of countries that need those masks and can't manufacture them enough themselves, and Covid-19 in that sense is indeed, as the Chinese authorities like to repeat nowadays, the largest ever humanitarian aid campaign China has done since the founding of the PRC.


But it needs to be seen in a proper context of the fact that there is a huge funding deficit as the UN and the WHO have pointed out, when it comes to addressing the huge humanitarian needs around the world related to the pandemic. So in that sense it is welcome to see China contributing more, be it in the name of co-operation or competition. Regardless of the motives, it is a fact that, you know, it's happening in the context of growing Sino-US rivalry. Many OECD countries are seeing China with more and more suspicion because of its lack of transparency, which feed those suspicions even more and that makes it difficult for cooperation and coordination in the field of humanitarian aid.


Satoko Naito (00:18:10)


You’ve raised a number of issues, and just one, although it's really crucial, is the lack of transparency, about how much aid exactly the Chinese government has provided. So if I may ask then, how confident are you about the data that you've been able to gather?


Hermann Aubié (00:18:26)


We have definitely overlooked some aspects of what happened because it's fragmented, and is no like Central Authority in China in charge of compiling the data in a unified manner, and there have been couple of theories trying to make sense of why China is so reluctant to report its aid according to the standards and measures for example that are used by OECD donors in the Development Aid Committee, which has its shared methodology which allows for comparison of donations from country to country.


And maybe one reason is that Beijing is actually worried that if they were to disclose the actual total amount of aid that they provide to every country that could increase the probability of Global South countries trying to compete with each other to get an equal or proportional amount of aid from China. And China wouldn't be in a good position back home to justify this, because they still have massive welfare issues like poverty. I mean they claimed last year that they've eradicated extreme poverty, but actually scholars of Chinese welfare have questioned that based on empirical data showing that good half of Chinese people at least, are living under very modest conditions. So there is this concern domestically also that might be driving the kind of opacity of Beijing regarding its humanitarian aid information disclosure.


We can assume however that based on the data we've collected so far, that it is quire representative overall of the directions and, you know, the patterns of Chinese aid.


Lauri Paltemaa (00:20:14)


Yeah, and if I may add there, it's like, this data, it's public and there is a sort of an irony here that while China doesn't want to really disclose the exact amounts that it has given, it is at the same time because of this propaganda campaign that is this really instrumental part of this whole campaign, it wants to tell the world that it is helping, and I would argue that it's very reliable data in the sense that who is giving and to whom. Like, China would not hide the fact that it is providing aid to do some African country or the European countries. But at the same time, many times these public reports, which are many times just newspaper reports, but these newspapers are Xinhua and are official agencies, so it is sort of official data there.


They tend to be quite vague on how much exactly is given. They tell that this and this country was provided masks and protective goggles and other equipment, but it doesn't tell how much.


And then we can also corroborate these same news from the receivers' side, to see what their news are saying about this, so we are not only relying on China provided data, and there are also even pictures, newspaper pictures for example, or videos on these things where Chinese airplanes arrive to airport and there are reception ceremonies and we can see that crates of these kind of protective goods are being unloaded from these aeroplanes, so obviously some kind of a donation takes place.


But I think one reason why China is often, not always, some cases these pieces of news do provide quite accurate or at least precise numbers of what is given, but I think less it gives more vague it becomes. Then it just says that “We provided masks to Malawi.” or something like that, which they did.


So there are really these two things that are being balanced out. Sort of Chinese willingness and urge to drum their own drum, and at the same time, sometimes there is not that much to tell there actually, so yeah there is this irony of this campaign that's... a large part of it is really theatre. It's about not really what is given, but the way that it is being given, and the way that it is presented in publicity. They want to have all the PR that is possible to gain through these kind of ceremonies of donations. So this publicity side is I think much more important than the actual impact of the aid that is being given, because when we think about the scale of this pandemic and the need for protective gears et cetera, and compare to donations that are being given by the Chinese, a few thousand masks here and there. Many times they haven't done any much difference as such, but they've been symbolically important and the symbolic side, the theatrics of these acts is something that we have also been quite interested in our analysis, because it's exactly there where China gets something back from these donations: the goodwill of the recipients, the good press and et cetera, et cetera.


Satoko Naito (00:23:18)


Speaking of the symbolic aspect of the donations... So it seems clear that China was attempting, or is attempting to paint itself as a global leader, one who is in a position, in a good position to provide aid to those in need. So has this image taken hold?


Hermann Aubié (00:23:36)


When it comes to the effects of China's Covid-19 aid and diplomacy on the image of China or the perceptions of China, I think it's a bit too early to say, or it's a difficult at least to gauge, because the amount of public opinion polling on this has not been great, at least from a global perspective.


There have been a couple of surveys like this, Pew from the US, which allows for some comparison with previous polls, and there has also been one European poll that was conducted by a team in the Czech Republic and that was confirming indeed that images of China among most of the European countries was going from bad to worse, like it got more negative basically overall. But that's only for a couple of OECD countries and I think... I remember seeing some more limited survey in scope saying that in Africa overall it is being perceived rather positively, whereas in Latin America there has not been much of a change, and in Southeast Asia interestingly, this is based on a survey that mostly polled opinions of Southeast Asian elites, it was actually getting worse for a number of more long-term factors, such as the South China Sea and other disputes that are mainly perceived through the security prism.


And that's where it gets interesting, because the effects of humanitarian aid are bound to be short term in way because even though there is speculation in the media that Chinese humanitarian aid can score points and buy goodwill, its effect or influence is bound to be elusive when you want to actually like draw a correlation between the two, because it quickly recedes and fades away from the news cycle and gets replaced by more long-lasting issues that exist between China and its bilateral partners. So I would say that the effects are a bit tricky to capture overall.


Lauri Paltemaa (00:25:50)


If I can sort of continue on the topic but then taking this to a more general level on what China has been doing and basically, how China has used its aid as part of its propaganda, then it's pretty easy to say that China has not been in any ways shy on propagating it as the Saviour of the World. I mean you cannot say that in any other ways. It has used the pandemic as an occasion to basically criticize especially America but the West in general for their failures in protecting their own citizens and their failures in helping others, and at the same time emphasizing its own claimed superiority, not only in terms of being able to provide this aid but also the systemic superiority of Chinese model, so this has been really a prime opportunity for China to propagate itself, especially to the Global South as an alternative to the West and it has also seen this as a possibility to somehow credibly show that what China is claiming, has some grounding in reality. That while the Americans and while the Europeans are vaccinating themselves or helping themselves first, China, and this is what they claim, is helping others best to its ability.


And this is also of course part of our research theme and topic that we want to really dissect, this China's claim that it actually has done a great service, an unselfish service to the world through its campaign of humanitarian aid, and as we argue then... well, it was less than meets the eye in many ways. Yes, China did provide help to almost everybody in the world, but we seriously doubt based on our numbers and our research that actually made much difference in many parts of the world.


Satoko Naito (00:27:44)


Right. As part of China's self-promotion as, how you put it, the global Saviour, you mentioned their claims of systemic superiority so for example their super centralized government, that's what you mean?


Lauri Paltemaa (00:27:59)


Yeah, the question is about really that they talk about their model, that somehow the Chinese meritocratic approach to development and this kind of a relation that having the same background as a former victim of Western colonialism and being a developing country which China still regards itself as, makes China basically to be the leading member of Global South, and therefore in opposition to the North and it's selfish ways and also in regard to the West's... West to promote democracy and human rights and their model of governance. And then comes this pandemic which shows, according to the Chinese, how weak the Western governments are and how weak their governance models are in the face of crisis, while seemingly the Chinese model is superior. It can suppress the virus back home and then at the same time China can provide help to those in need, to its friends globally. So this is basically the narrative that China is offering: that the pandemic basically somehow proves its superiority vis-à-vis the Western models.


Satoko Naito (00:27:44)


Thank you. We could go on so much longer, in part because this is an evolving situation. You mentioned already vaccine diplomacy which is ongoing and you're both welcome in the future to please share with us your findings on that particular aspect, but for now, thank you so much for sharing your insights and your expertise. You have given us a lot to think about.


Hermann Aubié (00:29:41)


Thank you so much Satoko.


Lauri Paltemaa (00:29:43)


Yeah thank you Satoko for allowing us to join your podcasts.


Satoko Naito (00:27:44)


Thank you. Again, that was Dr. Lauri Paltemaa, professor and director of the Centre for East Asian Studies at the University of Turku, and Dr. Herman Aubié, senior researcher at the Centre. And to our listeners thank you for joining the Nordic Asia Podcast, showcasing Nordic collaboration and studying Asia. Thanks again.


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