Europe was a hotly contested space long before the pandemic broke out, at least since the start of the U.S.-China trade war. Tactical alliances with lesser enemies against their main rivals are a mainstay of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front approach. To outflank the U.S., Beijing has sought closer relations with the EU, yet another variation on the classic triangular balancing of power. Within the EU itself, China has employed a similar tactic, setting Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) against Western Europe through the 16 (now 17) + 1 arrangement.
The coronavirus crisis has only made the situation more acute. Beijing can ill afford an embarrassment that would dampen its ambition to lead the World towards the “community of shared destiny for humankind”. Its claim to global leadership rests on demonstrating that the Leninist one-party system solves the world’s problems more efficiently than the decentralized chaos of democracies. Its initial flop, censoring information rather than controlling the disease, was not a good start. But the sometimes draconian quarantine measures employed afterwards might help restore Beijing’s desired image.
Face-mask diplomacy, moreover, offers an opening to change the narrative. Europe, like most other regions, found itself in desperate want of protective gear when the pandemic reached its soil. In part, this was due to Europe’s having sent exactly this kind of gear to China when the outbreak was at its peak there, and while the outside world seemed relatively untouched.
According to official statistics from the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) customs administration, from January 24 through February 29, China imported 2.02 billion face masks. It’s not clear whether this figure also includes donations that came as official aid and bulk-purchases by overseas Chinese communities.
In March, the situation reversed, and face mask deliveries started to go the other way around, from China to Europe and elsewhere, as the P.R.C. ramped up its own production capacity. It is perfectly normal that goods would travel back and forth, driven by the laws of supply and demand. What is less normal is the barrage of propaganda that accompanied the supply when the direction of the flow reversed in March.
While the sourcing of face masks from outside China in February went barely noticed, Beijing made sure that the reverse flow would not be missed. Especially in Central and Eastern Europe, the commercial supplies were presented as “aid,” and almost acts of mercy. In Prague, one of the first planes was met at the tarmac by top Czech government officials, lined up in a bizarre Cargo Cult-like ceremony for a speech by the Chinese ambassador—who, only a few weeks earlier, almost got PNG’d for sending a threatening letter to Czech politicians.
For the time being, face mask diplomacy reinforces the pro-Beijing lobby throughout Europe. But it has also alienated top EU officials, like the EU diplomacy chief Josep Borell. All in all, it seems to have further divided public opinion towards the P.R.C. Only time will tell whether Beijing has once again overplayed its hand, or whether some of the—rather forced—gratitude sticks beyond the crisis.