Is China winning the coronavirus response narrative in the EU?

As European countries struggle to contain the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Beijing has emerged as an eager partner to provide needed aid. As of March 25, European countries has some of the largest number of coronavirus cases in the world, including over 69,000 cases in Italy, 47,000 in Spain, and 35,000 in Germany. Europe is also witnessing some of the highest fatality rates, as more than 7,500 people in Italy and 3,400 people in Spain have died from the disease.

Although the Chinese government has been heavily criticized for its failure to slow the spread of the virus in December and January, and even to go as far as to cover up its existence for weeks, Beijing has looked to increase its aid campaign to overwhelmed European governments. In the last two weeks, China has sent masks, gloves, ventilators, and medical experts to help Italy, Spain, France, Greece, the Czech Republic, and other countries to help them deal with the outbreak.

As supplies were unloaded from a Chinese plane in Italy, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio noted that the aid demonstrated that “we are not alone, there are people in the world who want the help Italy.”

Experts from across Europe and the United States react to China’s growing coronavirus outreach in Europe and the implications for Chinese-EU relations:

Dimitar Bechev, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; research fellow, Center of Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“Never let a good crisis go to waste. There is no better illustration than the medical supplies and crews of doctors China has been supplying to Italy and other European countries battling COVID-19. Beijing does carry a large share of the blame for the global pandemic over how authorities mishandled the situation in Wuhan at the outset of the contagion. But now it seeks to shape the narrative of the crisis unfolding before our eyes. In short, China has managed to suppress the coronavirus and it’s all thanks to its governance system allowing it to tackle public policy challenges more efficiently than Western democracies. And now it is extending a helping hand to world, the EU included. This is a reversal of roles given Europe’s long and cherished history of projecting its model to the globe, from the colonial empires of old to Brussels’ regulatory imprint on free-trade agreements and multilateral cooperation schemes.  One person who has taken note is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Jumping on the China bandwagon, the Kremlin dispatched aid to Italy too. 

“It is too early to write off the EU however. First of all, anyone who has dabbled with European integration knows that healthcare falls within the purview of individual member states, not the Union. Some have done better than others in responding to the crisis: imposing lockdowns early enough, proactive testing, ramping up capacity in hospitals. Figures are still tentative but the death rate in Germany is much lower than in Italy for instance. Second, cross-border cooperation is taking off. Hospitals in the German state of Baden-Wurtemberg are taking patients from neighboring French regions. On the economic front, the European Central Bank will be buying government and corporate bonds to cushion the impact of the upcoming recession. A coordinated fiscal response is likely too.  Though COVID-19 will wreak havoc, Europe will be muddling through as during the eurozone crisis.  

“China has fired the opening salvo in the battle of narratives. It has an advantage. An authoritarian regime can massage COVID-19 statistics in ways Europe or the United States cannot. But this is no answer to the question of who stole whose crown. As Zhou Enlai once famously quipped about the French revolution: it is too soon to know.”

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Sophia Besch, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative; senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform

“In the competition over narratives, after a strong early showing from China, the EU is catching up.

“The EU and its member states fell short in their initial response to the outbreak. When the Italian government first activated the EU’s solidarity mechanism, not one country came to its aid. Instead some, including Germany and France, initiated export bans on medical equipment.

“This left room for China to swoop in. The regime, usually not exactly known for its soft power, is attempting to make up for its initial mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak at home with aid packages to European countries—too small to fix the gaps in European health care system capacity, but expertly publicized to portray China in the best possible light. This strategy has already proven successful—the Italian government has stated that it would not forget who its friends were in crisis times. In Germany, in the early stages of the crisis, a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) community leader wrote an open letter to Beijing asking for help.

“The EU, however, has come around and is now initiating exceptional efforts to help in the crisis, persuading countries to remove restrictions on the export of medical equipment, launching joint procurement projects for ventilators, masks, and testing kits, and making available funds to develop a vaccine and support member-states’ health sectors. 

“A second outbreak in China could damage the regime’s image abroad, though it can be expected that China will have more control over what the world knows about a possible second wave in the country, particularly now that it has expelled US journalists.

“With European countries still in the midst of the crisis or anxiously waiting to be hit, it is too soon to tell which narrative will win out in Europe—that of a generous China, whose systems managed to combat the virus, or that of an authoritarian regime, whose initial efforts to cover up the extent of the crisis cost the world valuable preparation time.

“Perhaps the most useful framing is that used by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel—pointing to the massive amount of aid and equipment donated by European countries to China in the early stages of the crisis, she has called Chinese aid a matter of “reciprocity.”

“Meanwhile, there are worse manifestations of geopolitical competition than aid packages.”

Ian Brzezinski, resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security:

“China’s global coronavirus rescue campaign is well underway. A key focus is Europe. Last week, Beijing sent millions of surgical masks (including 200,000 advanced masks) and 50,000 testing kits to Europe. Chinese medical experts have been sent to Italy. Alibaba and the Jack Ma Foundation airlifted shipments of medical gear to Belgium, Ukraine, and Spain. And the list goes on.

“There is clear good in such actions, but one cannot ignore China’s other geopolitical objectives in play.

“Beijing is clearly trying to rewrite history concerning its mismanagement of coronavirus that enabled a local outbreak in Wuhan to erupt into a global pandemic. That is a story about the perils that come with secretive and authoritarian regimes, a story that Chinese President Xi Jinping prefers not be told. Beijing’s assistance could help fog memories of how the pandemic first started.

“This aid blitz is also intended to position China as the great power that came to the assistance of Europe and thereby reverse the EU’s growing concern about Beijing’s authoritarianism and its emergence as a global economic and military power.

“It can also further animate Europe’s growing disillusion with the United States: Why else would top level Chinese officials publicly disseminate false allegations that the United States secretly developed the virus and unleashed it in Wuhan?

“Europe, with its long history as both a driver and target of geopolitics, is far from naïve when it comes to China, a nation the EU declared last year to be a “systemic rival.” Most in Europe understand the multiple objectives in play behind China’s assistance. Their unease with China’s rising global influence will not be erased in the immediate future, but Beijing’s geopolitical agenda amidst this pandemic is more likely to be fulfilled if the United States is seen as inwardly focused and disinterested in the welfare of its closest allies and partners.”

Giovanna De Maio, visiting fellow at Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution

“Sneaking into the cracks of the initial hesitation of EU and United States, China has been extremely proactive in presenting itself as Italy’s savior vis-à-vis the supply of face masks and lung ventilators.

“The Chinese propaganda machine widely publicized the arrival of medical personnel and equipment (presented as donations, while instead most of the material has been regularly purchased) to Italian airports through engaging with Italian media. Italy’s minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio openly recognized the help received from European countries such as France and Germany, but reserved special gratitude China by saying that “investing in this friendship through the BRI [referencing the Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and China on the Belt and Road] has paid back as it allowed us to save lives in the first stages of the emergency.” If this is the view that prevails in the Five Star Movement (that over these two years in power has promoted Italy’s cozying up with China), its government ally, the Democratic Party and the opposition parties of the Center Right (the League, Brothers of Italy) expressed growing skepticism about the Chinese help. While European countries, the United States (also private companies), and other non-European countries provided assistance too, these actions did not receive as much coverage as the Chinese.

“China has a comparative advantage in the export of medical equipment, both because it is capable to producing it domestically and of the fact that COVID-19 pandemic in China is its declining phase. As the EU-China summit in Leipzig approaches in September, Italy will certainly not forget China came to help and will likely have an even more accommodating approach towards Beijing in future trade negotiations, should the current government stay in power. ”

Michel Duclos, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Counciol’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; special advisor, geopolitics, Institut Montaigne:

“Well, there is no doubt that China has scored important points in terms of burnishing its image in Europe. Beijing proves to be surprisingly agile in exploiting mistakes made by the EU and by capitals such as Paris and Berlin. This is especially true for the impression given of a total lack of European solidarity with Italy. In addition to that, Europeans governments are hesitating to counter the Chinese narrative, simply because they need Chinese cooperation to face the dramatic current situation. However, things have started to change, as Brussels and Frankfurt (the European Central Bank) have now sent the right signals on budgets, money, and to a lesser degree cooperation against the virus. 

“My sense is that there will be a second round and probably many others. The day after the pandemics will be about support to the economy and financial help. This phase has already begun. Public opinion in Europe will realize that day-to-day life depends upon cooperation between their governments and sound decisions from the EU—not upon the Chinese Communist Party. Europe such as it exists now is relatively well equipped for fulfilling this task. The real question is about its capacity to rise to the geopolitical challenge. And this is related to very concrete issues. For instance: how is European leadership going to resist [Chinese telecom giant] Huawei when their people are so sensitive to the charm offensive of China? There is an urgent need for Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and other capitals to improve their communication and invent a powerful narrative. Is French President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of a “sovereign Europe” undermined by the paradoxical breakthrough of China in the minds of the European public? It should not be the case but here also a substantive effort to reaching out the average European citizen will be more than necessary.”

Philippe Le Corre, affiliate, Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship, Harvard Kennedy School

“With over 60,000 COVID-19 cases and 5,500 deaths, Italy is the most affected country. Northern Italy became the epicenter of the virus in late February following a soccer match between Atalanta Bergame and Valencia. The event on February 19 gathered more than 43,000 fans at Milan’s Giuseppe-Meazza stadium, leading to an explosion of cases in the Bergame region which has faced the most serious situation across the country.

“Meanwhile, China has stepped in to “give back” to the Italians, following donations to Beijing by the governments of the Vatican (700,000 masks) and Italy (two tons of materials), in early February.  Recently, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has sent masks, ventilators, and test kits, praising Sino-Italian friendship on the Embassy’s website. Several Chinese medical teams have also been on the ground, fuelling the narrative that China’s situation is now sorted.

“True, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on China’s signature-project “Belt and Road Initiative” just about a year ago (which in fact brought very few real contracts for Italy). My guess is that proud Italians are not buying the propaganda and will need a long time to forgive the Chinese Communist Party for the deadly virus. According to the last Pew Research survey (December 2019), Italians hold some of the most unfavorable views about China (57 percent negative) across the European continent.”

Rachel Rizzo, fellow, Robert Bosch Stiftung; adjunct fellow, Center for a New American Security

“Over the past month, governments around the world have struggled to respond to the endless spread of COVID-19. Here in Europe, reactions have varied, yet as the death counts and numbers of infections rise, government-imposed restrictions are becoming harsher by the day. Simultaneously, US-European relations have taken an even deeper nosedive as the Trump administration decided to halt travel from Europe without first consulting with European partners. China views these divisions as an opportunity. Amidst the chaos and confusion, it is attempting to make inroads and spread goodwill in the form of COVID-19 aid (surgical masks, ventilators, and testing kits) to some of the hardest hit countries in Europe, such as Italy and Spain.

“This moment is a prime opportunity for China to project soft power on a continent seemingly fraying from within, and more estranged than ever before from its partner across the Atlantic. However, any goodwill China buys through aid to Europe will be temporary. Eventually, when life and geopolitics return to normalcy, China-Europe relations could look fundamentally different. European leaders won’t soon forget the Chinese Communist Party’s overall handling of COVID-19—the attempts to hide the virus’s existence in late 2019, and the subsequent spreading of misinformation about where it originated. This could have major implications for how different nations within Europe view China as a major geopolitical player. So, while China may be providing much-needed aid today, Europe-China relations may have a bumpy road ahead.”

Katerina Sokou, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative; Washington, DC correspondent, SKAI TV and Kathimerini

“A banner in front of the Air China aircraft that brought a million masks and other medical supplies to Athens on March 21 carried a quote by Aristotle, in Greek and Chinese: “Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” It accompanied eighteen tons of aid packages, all donated by the Chinese government or Chinese enterprises and organizations, following an urgent request by Greece. 

“At the handover event, the Chinese Ambassador Zhang Qiyue said that “difficult times reveal true friends” and that this aid confirms “the excellent relations and friendship between the two peoples.” 

Faced with important shortages in its health system, the Greek government is grateful. Managing the spread of the virus is a one-way street for Greece to deal with the epidemic following a decade-long financial crisis that finds the country’s health system weakened, with not enough hospital beds and intensive care units to deal with a spike in patients. With many doctors having immigrated abroad, the need to protect health care workers is vital. While the EU is scrambling to set up a central system of providing medical equipment to its members, China’s gift is readily available. 

“Pragmatism has long driven Greece’s approach to China. An absence of interested Western suitors has forced successive governments to sell Greek assets to Chinese companies, as foreign direct investment is key to revamping the economy. (To be sure, part of the aid donated is by Chinese public electricity company State Grid, which holds a 25 percent stake in the Greek power transmission operator). In the United States, such investments have raised concerns about China’s undue influence in the country. When asked about how he is managing such risks during an Atlantic Council townhall last January, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis noted that Greece has set its own benchmarks about protecting critical infrastructure.

“Still, China’s friendship gesture has captured the public’s attention. A timely show of solidarity coupled with a symbolic appreciation for Greece’s ancient culture is bound to win some hearts over. At a time when European solidarity remains a promise and the United States is turning inwards, such gestures can go a long way to winning friends.”

Anna Wieslander, director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council

“If anyone wants to get a sense of the battle of narratives between the EU and its competitors, the Balkans is a good place to look. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic this week announced that he is taking Chinese advice on how to fight the coronavirus, while happily receiving over ten tons of Chinese medical supplies, including ventilators, masks, and testing kits.

“The weakest part of Europe´s response to the coronavirus, is not its capacity to counter disinformation campaigns from China. The greatest weakness is Europe´s inability to follow the World Health Organization´s most important recommendation, which is to test, test, test, and then isolate those with coronavirus, thus avoiding total lockdowns of societies. Through this failure, Europe is making itself vulnerable to Chinese influence operations.

“When it comes to mass testing in order to control the virus, this is a lesson learned not only from China, but other countries successfully dealing with the coronavirus spread, such as South Korea and Taiwan, who had to fight viruses such as SARS and MERS in the past.

“The inability all over Europe to pursue mass testing is mainly due to lack of preparations and lessons learned from Asian countries, as well as capacity limitations in the health care system. However, these faults could and must be urgently addressed. 

“China is the home of origin of the virus. China managed to get control of it and is now exporting its support to gain soft power in the EU. This is ongoing and must be countered with forceful measures, not only words. In the end, the battle with China is not about winning the narrative; it is about saving European lives, societies, and economies.”

Alena Kudzko, deputy research director, GLOBSEC Policy Institute

“In Central Europe, the battle of narratives associated with coronavirus is being contested through the prism of existing divisions in Europe and populism and nationalism that pre-date coronavirus. China has become one of the most visible actors both owing to the societal model it is seeking to showcase in its response and the medical aid it is providing to European countries.

“While citizens are uncertain about the future everywhere in the world, especially so in the European epicenters of the virus, for Central Europe the COVID-19 pandemic will amplify brewing disillusionment connected to the post-1989 democratic transformation. Nothing will be as before in the region after the pandemic is over. The post-1989 transformation has been premised on the idea of open borders and the single market. Both are now in danger. The region was drawn to the West and its promise of freedom, stability, and security. But it is national solutions that have proven to be the fall back and so far only available efficient option to address the crisis.

“The European Union is yet to prove its resilience. And although EU leaders have been continuously stepping up their response, the damage to hearts and minds has already been inflicted. The region, one that has never fully overcome a somewhat romanticized idea of the nation state, is unlikely to do so in this new evolving environment. The region is, moreover, much more susceptible to leaning in on alternative approaches.

“China is providing this alternative. First, the country is sending medical aid to Central European countries—this includes much needed respirators and protective gear. This has already led to improvements of relations between China and Czechia. Second, the well-told story of China successfully overcoming the crisis at home makes the Chinese model much more appealing in the new insecure environment. This narrative also draws in citizens who fear for their health and life and may be more open to the idea of accepting reduced levels of freedom in exchange for security. China certainly mobilized its diplomatic channels and social media targeting the region.

“Furthermore, the region has been always vulnerable to disinformation. And if before it was primarily associated with Russia-friendly narratives, currently, the traditional anti-EU, anti-West disinformation peddlers also increasingly portray China as a success story contrasted with the decaying, undelivering West.

“China also benefits from the fact that the public in the region was not particularly predisposed towards having negative feelings towards it. Unlike in the West, according to GLOBSEC Trends, China was not perceived as much of a threat. The implication is that it is relatively easy for it to achieve a boost in positive perception compared to, for example, a country like Russia that also attempted to undertake a similar strategy of sending medical aid to Europe.”

Further reading:

Related Experts: Dimitar Bechev, Sophia Besch, Ian Brzezinski, Michel Duclos, Katerina Sokou, and Anna Wieslander

Image: Staff members move medical supplies to be sent to Italy for the prevention of the novel coronavirus, following the coronavirus outbreak, at a logistics center of the international airport in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China March 10, 2020. Picture taken March 10, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS