Mask Diplomacy: Chinese Narratives in the COVID Era
China has been shipping medical supplies to countries battling the coronavirus pandemic, an effort dubbed “mask diplomacy.” It remains to be seen if China will be able to tailor its messages effectively to win hearts and minds of people around the world.
Since early March, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak has shifted from China to the rest of the world, particularly to the United States and Europe. In an effort to boost its image as a “responsible global leader,” Beijing has shipped medical supplies to countries battling the pandemic—an effort dubbed “mask diplomacy.” However, the impact of mask diplomacy on China’s international reputation has been mixed: a wealth of articles has argued that these efforts may have done more harm than good (see here, here and here). Chinese diplomats and state media have taken to Twitter to defend Beijing and to praise its donations of medical supplies abroad. We have been monitoring these Twitter posts to understand how Beijing attempts to shape the narrative surrounding its role in the coronavirus pandemic.
In this study, we examine Beijing’s narratives about its donations and shipments of masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical resources. We compiled a dataset of tweets by official Chinese state media outlets that contain the keywords “donation(s),” “donate(s/d),” “PPE,” “equipment” and/or “mask(s).” This dataset includes 3,144 tweets from 11 English-language Chinese media outlets between January 18, 2020, which we identified as the first instance of a COVID-related tweet by these accounts, and May 30, 2020. These Twitter accounts have 42.8 million followers combined, ranging from 7.6 thousand to 13.9 million with a median 1.1 million followers (See endnotes for included outlets). The tweets in our data set average 269 engagements (retweets, replies, and likes).
Overall, Chinese state media highlight China’s outward shipments and downplays shipments China has received from other countries. We observed differences in the framing of these shipments across several analyzed countries, including Italy, Canada, Pakistan and Japan.
In addition, we find that Chinese shipments are framed in the context of Beijing’s foreign policy goals in the recipient country, such as shipments to Canada mentioning Huawei and the (then) ongoing Huawei trial in Canada.
Since late March 2020, global coverage about China’s mask diplomacy has become increasingly negative. Perhaps as a result, Chinese state media coverage of donations has since significantly decreased.
China’s Use of Mask Diplomacy Surged In Mid March and Has Since Decreased
We find that China’s mask diplomacy on Twitter is highly reactive to global developments about COVID-19 as well as foreign coverage about China’s mask diplomacy. Donation-related coverage surged in the latter half of March, when the spread of coronavirus within China slowed but became more serious internationally. Tweet volume has decreased significantly since early April, coinciding with the increased attention that Chinese mask donations have received in mainstream Western media and the associated backlash it has generated in Europe and North America.
From January to February, tweets focused on the shortage of medical masks and equipment within China and domestic efforts to increase mask production. There was significant coverage about how Chinese companies and factories successfully increased daily mask production to meet domestic needs. Chinese state media also sometimes expressed gratitude towards certain countries for donating medical resources to Wuhan and other Chinese cities. However, for the most part, coverage remained China-centric, with only few mentions of other countries by name.
Mentions of Beijing’s outward donations first appeared in tweets by Chinese state media in late February, first about Japan. This coincided with the surge in global coverage about Japan, as guests onboard the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship began to be cleared and released to disembark the ship on February 20. In the last week of February, donations to South Korea received extensive coverage on Chinese state media, similarly coinciding with increased reports about an outbreak surge in the country. In South Korea, after a member of the Shincheonji religious organization was confirmed on February 18 to have contracted the virus, cases doubled in the country in 24 hours. China highlighted its donations to South Korea and especially the city of Daegu, where the Christian sect held multiple gatherings linked to the coronavirus spread.
As outbreaks increased globally but especially in Europe and North America, tweets began to reorient towards focusing on virus updates abroad and Chinese donations to those countries. However, total tweet volume did not surge until the week of March 16, when China began reporting the lack of locally transmitted cases domestically. This surge also followed the incident of the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson falsely speculating that the U.S. military had introduced the virus to Wuhan. During this time, donation-related coverage consisted of nearly 40 tweets a day, compared to closer to 20 tweets per day before mid-March.
The combination of a more confrontational tone by Chinese diplomats and the increase in tweets from official Chinese accounts on Twitter, however, drew widespread criticism in mainstream media in the West about China’s “mask diplomacy.” Some reports cited European lawmakers for saying that these efforts are causing China to “lose” Europe while others painted Beijing as strategically using the pandemic to increase geopolitical influence. In addition, China’s Twitter diplomacy also drew criticism domestically among the Chinese academic community, many of whom warned that a confrontational style of “wolf warrior” diplomacy would push countries further away and increase distrust of China’s intentions. Perhaps in response to both global and domestic backlash, donation-related coverage by Chinese state media on Twitter began to decline in early-to-mid April.
Tweets Show High Variation in Messaging and Tone Towards Different Countries
At least one-third of the tweets mention specific countries: the names of 126 countries and territories are mentioned a cumulative 1,100 times (excluding China). While these countries span all regions, coverage about Europe, Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa is more extensive than other regions. Since many countries are mentioned, individual country mentions are low. For example, although Sub-Saharan Africa is the most referenced region, the most frequently mentioned country in the region, Kenya, is named in only 27 tweets.
We observed that there are significantly more tweets about China’s outward donations than about donations it has received. When China does mention countries by name for their donations to China, some countries are mentioned more often than others, and donations are framed differently depending on the source country.
To investigate these differences, we expanded our prior country-name search (e.g. “Italy”) to include adjectives (“Italian”) and capitals (“Rome”), and subset the data by mentions of Italy, Japan, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Canada, Kenya and Brazil, which are all frequently mentioned within their respective region. Table 1 provides the number of tweets per country.
For each country, we manually coded all tweets for whether they mention a shipment from China, a shipment to China, or neither. We count both donations and exports of medical equipment as “shipments” and aggregate source and recipient to the state level. This means our count captures shipments by individuals, cities, provinces, states, businesses, and non-government organizations in addition to national governments.
When discussing shipments that China received, out of the analyzed countries, Japan is the most frequently mentioned (30 tweets), followed by Pakistan (8 tweets) and Canada and Russia (3 tweets each) (see Figure 2). While China did thank the European Union for its 56 ton donation it received little overall coverage, and Italy itself is only mentioned once as a donor, in a tweet refuting allegations that China had first accepted Italian equipment donations and later forced Italy to buy the equipment back. The Canadian government’s donation of 16 tons’ worth of protective equipment similarly did not receive a mention; all three tweets mentioning shipments from Canada to China focused on donations by Chinese Canadians that were significantly smaller. In contrast, Japanese donations are mentioned as “generous” and “selfless,” and Chinese state media repeatedly highlight China’s “gratitude” towards Japan. The positive narrative surrounding Japan could be attributed to improvements in bilateral relations, a point we return to below.
China’s outward donations, on the other hand, feature prominently in our dataset (see Figure 2). For every country, shipments sent by China are mentioned at least twice as often as the shipments it has received. For example, the lack of discussion about Italy’s donations stands in stark contrast to shipments of “much needed medical supplies” from China to Italy, which receive 76 mentions. While donations to Japan are also mentioned frequently (72 times), the narrative surrounding these differ from those about other countries. State media frequently frame donations to Japan as reciprocating Tokyo’s goodwill, with China’s nationalistic media outlet Global Times boasting that COVID-19 was bringing Japan and China together.
China’s Mask Diplomacy Reflects its Foreign Policy Goals
In addition, we observed examples that country-specific coverage is framed in accordance with Beijing’s foreign policy goals, suggesting that China’s mask diplomacy on Twitter is strategic. For example, four tweets about Canada reference the controversial Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, which has received criticism in the West for its ties to the Communist Party. These tweets highlight how Huawei had been “quietly” shipping medical equipment to help Canada’s fight against the coronavirus (for example, here and here), illustrating a conscious effort to improve perceptions of Huawei.
One of these tweets directly references the (then) ongoing trial of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was detained in 2018 by Canadian authorities in Vancouver at the extradition request of the U.S. for alleged violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran. The arrest and trial has strained Sino-Canadian relations, with Beijing retaliating with its own arrest of Canadian citizens in China. The Chinese ambassador to Canada has called Meng’s case “the biggest issue in [the] bilateral relationship.”
Similarly, the overwhelming expressions of gratitude towards Japan mirror the improvement in Sino-Japanese relations since the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020. Tokyo, for its part, has largely refrained from blaming China for the virus, reflecting an important part of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s foreign policy that aims to improve relations with China. Gratuitous framing of medical donations from Japan (and also South Korea) illustrates Beijing’s attempt to better relations with its neighbors as Sino-American relations deteriorate.
Serbia’s growing importance to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can also be observed in the narratives that state media push on Twitter. Among the tweets that mention President Xi directly in the context of coronavirus-related donations, three of four reference Serbia; the other is an expression of gratitude towards Pakistan. In addition, a noteworthy difference about tweets referencing Serbia is that a number of them frame Chinese donations in a cooperative tone. For example, there is a significant degree of emphasis about how Chinese investment, shipments or donations led to improvements in testing capability as well as the collaborative nature of these efforts. This mirrors China’s attempts in recent years to paint BRI as a collaborative effort that involves foreign companies, after suspicions that BRI projects would result in China exercising significant control over recipient countries.
As COVID-19 spread globally, China has aimed to shake off its portrayal as the source of the coronavirus by painting itself as a responsible and benevolent global leader in times of crisis. However, China’s reliance on high-profile coverage of its medical donations has backfired. Chinese academics have since urged Beijing to tone down language about these activities on Twitter. Despite some lingering mentions of Chinese donations, such as this June 11 mention of a shipment to Lebanon, Beijing’s Twitter mask diplomacy has significantly waned since its peak in March.
Mask diplomacy appears to have achieved some success in certain countries, such as Serbia and Hungary, while in others it has served merely to strengthen suspicions about Beijing’s strategic intentions. In some cases, Beijing has undermined its own efforts by reportedly demanding public praise for its medical supply shipments and donations.
The variation in Beijing’s narratives and its response to the global backlash demonstrates that China’s public diplomacy is nascent and still evolving; Beijing has also shown to be highly sensitive to foreign and domestic reception of its efforts. Whether China will be able to tailor its messages effectively to win the hearts and minds of people around the world remains to be seen.