China’s Mask Mercantilism

Masks on a production line manufacturing masks at a factory in Shanghai, China, January 31, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)
Hoarding urgently needed medical supplies and then selling them abroad is not charity, no matter what the China propagandists say.

As the novel coronavirus continues its deadly march from Wuhan across the globe, Chinese Communists are attempting to turn the pandemic, which was largely caused by their own complacency and incompetence, into a propaganda victory by highlighting stories of China delivering supplies and expertise to the countries it infected. The American chatterati is starting to worry about China seizing global leadership, but it should calm down. The United States and its democratic allies are still providing for other countries in a way that China will not.

China has learned a great deal in the past few years. After Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in 2013, countries around the world sprang into action, sending food, money, and supplies to help. China joined in, initially offering . . . $200,000, a little more than half the $350,000 donation from the rock band Journey. After facing torrents of richly deserved scorn for its stinginess, the second-largest economy in world upped its ante to about $2 million, nearly matching the $2.7 million donation from geopolitical powerhouse Ikea.

The main lesson the Chinese Communists seem to have drawn from the debacle is that the appearance of doing good is more important than actually doing it, and so far, media reactions are proving them right. In the past few weeks, the Chinese propaganda machine has gone into overdrive, praising China for buying time for the world to respond to the pandemic and for leading the global response to the coronavirus. Both claims are false, despite being widely bandied about in the media.

China did not delay the disease’s spread, New York Times op-eds to the contrary. Wuhan’s officials destroyed evidence and harassed medical professionals who warned about the new virus. After president Xi Jinping took charge of China’s response, he lied to World Health Organization officials and waited until after infected people reached Thailand, South Korea, and the United States before initiating lockdowns. For months, China obstructed not the disease, but rather the people trying to stop it.

Chinese propagandists also claim that China is leading the way in responding to the crisis internationally, which is patently false. China’s much-publicized gift of 1 million masks to Japan is a grand and magnificent gesture, albeit only one-third as grand as prior Japanese donations of nearly 3 million masks to China.

The most remarkable case, however, is in Italy, where China’s ostentatious delivery of supplies and doctors has caused much consternation among Americans who worry that the United States is losing its global leadership role. Media accounts often omitted that the supplies were bought and paid for by the Italians, when the most newsworthy element to the story is that China actually kept its commitment to deliver what it sold.

Overall, China has returned to Europe about as much medical equipment as it received, taking credit for in effect receiving supplies from northern and central Europe and delivering them later to southern Europe — but unlike the European donors, the Chinese aren’t doing it for free. Chinese Communists are boasting about their magnanimity and are letting Germany and the European Union take the blame for shortages across Europe that are largely due to Chinese hoarding. This is not philanthropy; this is mercantilism.

Despite headlines to the contrary, the United States is helping other countries even as it battles the infection at home. The administration’s response may have been clumsy at times, but the U.S. is doing a lot of good: Congress has already passed, and President Trump has already signed, $1.3 billion in foreign aid to help other countries fight COVID-19, and the Asian Development Bank, whose biggest stakeholder is the United States, is helping developing countries with another $6.5 billion. This is but a part of the over $90 billion that the United States has spent on global health since 2009.

Americans already lead the world in responding to global health crises because of some of their most foundational beliefs. Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how universally Americans believed in the “principle of interest rightly understood,” explaining how “an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other.” This principle makes Americans the most generous people in the world, giving $428 billion to charity in 2018, and it shapes how the American government responds to heath crises around the world, from the AIDS and Ebola epidemics to COVID-19 today.

And they are not alone. Most of their democratic allies favor humanitarian aid over defense spending — often to a fault — but this preference makes them uniquely able and willing to help other countries respond to pandemics.

The Chinese Communists will win some headlines during this crisis, but ultimately they will not overcome their power-hungry, mercantilist nature and advance their claim to global leadership. Americans give because of who they are, while Chinese Communists give to take more back later. The world will see — and remember.

Mike Watson is the associate director of the Center for the Future of Liberal Society at the Hudson Institute.


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