Now that China says the worst of its coronavirus crisis is over, it’s sending billions of masks, ventilators, testing kits, and other medical supplies around the world.
Experts say these shipments are part of China’s strategy to change the narrative around coronavirus, which has included promoting the false claim that the virus was brought to China by a member of the U.S. military and censoring information as the epidemic in Wuhan unfolded.
“There have been several shipments from China to Belt and Road recipient countries that seem to be driven more by a public relations campaign than an emergency health response,” said Jonathan Hillman, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Reconnecting Asia Project, the largest open-source database tracking the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Belt and Road is China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure investment in over 60 countries. Over the years, China expanded its vision for the Belt and Road to include improving global healthcare. Hillman says China is now using it to further the narrative that it is a global public goods provider.
In March, China sent 110,000 masks and nearly 800 protective suits to Spain on the world’s longest railroad — a product of the Belt and Road — as Spain was reaching the height of its crisis.
“Sending masks by train for 17 days is clearly not the appropriate way to respond,” Hillman said. “They should be sent by plane.”
Despite its efforts, China’s narrative hasn’t been as positive as it had hoped. Some Belt and Road countries rejected Chinese supplies after getting defective equipment. The pushback was large enough to cause China to begin inspecting every shipment of medical supplies on April 10, causing global delays.
“I don't think that a shipment of masks is going to confuse anyone about the origin of this crisis,” Hillman said. “I think when the dust settles, a lot of countries will be reevaluating the extent to which they want to forge deeper connections with China.”
Cover: Chinese-made KN95 respirator masks. (Photo: VICE News Tonight)