Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 13, 2020
Covid-19: China’s donation diplomacy towards Africa turns into a public relations disaster

Nicknamed ‘Little Africa’, the Chinese city of Guangzhou which is home to Asia’s largest African migrant population – roughly around fifteen thousand - has been the subject of recent media attention. If Wuhan was the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak, then Guangzhou has now emerged as hub of sprawling anti-foreigner sentiment – especially against African nationals.

In the last few days, several social media videos, memes, reports have been doing the round showcasing a crackdown against Africans, amid rising coronavirus-fuelled xenophobia. Scores of Africans have been evicted from their lodging by landlords and are being forced to live on the streets over baseless and rubbish claims that foreigners and colored communities are importing the coronavirus to the city. In addition to being refused accommodations, food supplies and public transports, Africans are being targets of suspicions, mass and random coronavirus testing, and are being subjected to arbitrary and enforced quarantines, despite having no symptoms.

Chinese concerns of a Covid-19 rebound is turning out to be a public relations disaster. The plight of the African community currently living in Guangzhou is there for the world to see. The world has in the past turned a blind eye to Chinese maltreatment of Muslim Uighurs, but this recent spate of targeted vetting and attacks under the guise of a testing campaign for Covid-19 sheds light on Chinese discriminatory malpractices. Not to mention these developments have been taking place at a time when World Health Organization (WHO) chief and Taiwanese government are embroiled in a blame game over stoking racism. The WHO’s role in tackling the coronavirus pandemic has also come under scrutiny – and with good reasons – by various world leaders, analysts, and experts. President Donald Trump has accused the WHO of acting too slowly to sound the alarm about the coronavirus, labelled the organization as being too ‘China-centric’ and threatened to withdraw funding to the UN agency.

As the world, especially the United States and Europe, continues to grapple with and concentrate on its own massive viral outbreaks, China and its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has jumped in at the first opportunity to shape the entire narrative of the Coronavirus outbreak. China has swooped in, deployed its propaganda playbook, and tried every possible means to deflect attention from the viruses’ epicenter. It wants to do so by portraying its leaders as ones who are firmly in charge, leading an army of doctors and healthcare workers fighting in the frontline of a ‘people’s war’ against the disease. With the worse of the coronavirus situation behind it, China has embarked on this exact mission in the past few weeks.

Covid-19 and Africa

Although the number of cases and mortality rates are currently low in the African continent, as compared to other regions, public health officials are concerned. Africa’s situation remains just weeks behind reaching European levels. Apart from limited access to quality healthcare, severe shortage of specialized equipments like ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits compounds to Africa’s problem, one that is already under considerable strain due to underfunded and poorly equipped health care systems. Furthermore, Sub-Saharan African countries carry some of the world’s heaviest burden of serious underlying conditions of HIV, Tuberculosis, Malnutrition that compromises the health of millions of children in the region, and other co-morbidities. In these trying times, the need of the hour is to rally all possible resources to help African countries to meet its people’s immediate survival and health needs while also safeguarding livelihoods and jobs in the longer term. But achieving that will be an uphill challenge.

China signaled its intent on helping Africa cope with the coronavirus pandemic from the very beginning. Armed with pure economic heft and muscle, and a new breed of government officials and spokespersons towing the CCP’s line, China has embarked on propaganda onslaught and ‘donation diplomacy’.

Donation diplomacy

China was quick to embark on distribution of philanthropic donations of PPE, medical supplies and gears to African countries. Initial beneficiaries were Algeria, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Cameroon and others. Chinese billionaire and Alibaba Foundation co-founder Jack Ma donated a string of medical masks, testing kits, protective clothing, and protective face shields. Ethiopian Airlines played a crucial role in this endeavour as it was the principle airline that transported consignments of such medical donations.

Over the years, the Chinese government has been successful in leveraging the work of rich and important personalities like Jack Ma to give the Chinese establishment an image makeover and build goodwill overseas from time to time. The overtures to African countries in the wake of Covid-19 reflect the same philosophy. Billionaire philanthropy is all too real.

On the other hand, Chinese embassy and enterprises also embarked on a cash donation blitz in individual African countries in an effort to support them in their fight against the pandemic. All this is happening in the name of brotherhood, solidarity, and what the Chinese terms its relationship with Africa – ‘Win-Win’ partnership.

The backlash

As different videos, pictures, and posts filled the internet showcasing the discrimination maltreatment of African community in Guangzhou, African ministers and ambassadors were prompt in summoning their respective Chinese counterparts and demanding answers and assurances. The palpable fear of the virus returning back and emergence of new cases served to amplify and exacerbate existing tensions.

China has embarked on a dangerous game, trying to disassociate itself from the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. Not only did it try and spin a tale that the United States Army started the virus, and also point fingers at Italy, China is now trying to use the African and colored community as a scapegoat for the virus.

The Chinese establishment insists that those people that did not follow regulations on social distancing found themselves in trouble and that preventing “imported cases” was the Chinese government’s top priority. But such a line begs the question – how is evicting and discriminating against a certain community going to help with observing local anti-epidemic regulations on social distancing?

Within a space of a week, all the adulations and positive sentiment garnered by China through its donation campaign to African countries have now turned head over heels. Africans are no longer celebrating the arrival of China’s philanthropic donations in its fight against Covid-19. They are asking the real question now – Will China write off African debts? Will lives be put above resources and health over debt? The coming months will answer these questions.

As of now, one thing is certain: the Guangzhou incident has dented the China-Africa narrative in a big way. The irony is that local Chinese media are finding it extremely difficult to narrate a counter-story than those doing the rounds on social media. After all, the current scenario in which we find ourselves living in is a direct result of CCP’s high handed distortion and hiding of facts and its abrasive censorship and misinformation campaign.

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Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra is an Associate Fellow with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (MP-IDSA). His research focuses on India and China’s engagement ...

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