China Turns the Pandemic into an Influence Tool

The Asian superpower has been building a tight relationship with Venezuela and all of Latin America for years. In 2020, it relaunched the soft power strategy, in the context of the crisis ironically originated in China

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Never let a good crisis go to waste, or so the saying goes. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic is bound to have profound social and economic repercussions in China—as in every corner of the world—the Chinese Communist Party is fixated on winning hearts and minds around the world. Making use of foreign language official media and the social media accounts of Chinese officials and government entities, Beijing has launched a worldwide campaign to promote its narrative regarding China’s handling of the pandemic. The message has three core components: the Chinese government managed the first outbreak transparently and efficiently, China is leading the effort to help developing nations in dealing with the pandemic, and Western nations have done poorly in containing the spread of the virus. Buttressing the message is an unequivocal comparison between a China success story and a Western failure.

China’s message is unmistakably targeted at the Global South. In his address at the World Health Assembly on May 18th, President Xi Jinping said China will provide US$2 billion to developing countries to help them address the economic and social consequences of the pandemic. In the meantime, the United States is in the process of withdrawing from the World Health Organization.

In the case of Venezuela, the Chinese government had shied away from publicly supporting Maduro—at least compared to how effusive it used to be just a few years back. The last visit of a high-level Chinese diplomat to Venezuela was that of President Xi Jinping in 2014, no new loans have been extended since 2016, and news about the Venezuelan crisis has been largely ignored by Chinese official media. China’s reticence towards Venezuela can be explained by the fact that after USD$65 billion in loans—given the appalling results of their projects in the country—they don’t want to be blamed for the Venezuelan debacle. 

After all, developing nations far outnumber developed ones, and Venezuela’s vote at the United Nations counts the same as Germany’s.

But all that might change in the coming months: many political analysts tend to portray Beijing’s media push within the framework of the growing tensions between China and the West, particularly with the United States. They’re missing the point. China’s donations and outreach efforts are directed at the developing world in the hopes of gaining wider support for its policies internationally. After all, developing nations far outnumber developed ones, and Venezuela’s vote at the United Nations counts the same as Germany’s. The more “friends” China has globally, the more clout it will have in international forums. The diplomatic bickering between China and the West is just part of the sideshow.

In the context of COVID-19, Venezuela earned a new place in China’s geopolitical considerations. The detention camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang, the National Security Law in Hong Kong, cross-strait relations with Taiwan, and the government’s handling of COVID-19, are all considered national security concerns by the CCP. Given the growing tensions with the West and the intense criticism received because of the aforementioned items, China will seek to strengthen the voices of those countries that support its policies. And that’s where Maduro comes in. Having a vocal supporter in the Americas that defends Chinese policies might carry enough weight for Beijing to extend a new lifeline to Maduro.

A clear manifestation of this was the last session of the United Nations Human Rights Council celebrated in Geneva on June, 30th. During the meeting, two statements were read back to back, one promoted by Cuba in support of China’s passing of the National Security Law for Hong Kong, and the other by the U.K. condemning it. 52 countries sided with Cuba, 26 with the UK, and many abstained from voting. Not one country from Latin America or Africa opposed the statement. Maduro’s representative obviously voted in favor, while the United States brilló por su ausencia since it withdrew from the body in 2018.        

Excluding the nations that hold official relations with Taiwan, every country in Latin America has received some form of medical support from China. Although there’s no comprehensive data on China’s donations to the region, there’s no doubt China’s aid dwarfs that of any other country or international organization. Back in March, the Jack Ma Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Alibaba group, pledged to donate a total of two million masks, 400,000 test kits and 104 ventilators to 24 Latin American countries. Chinese companies Huawei, ZTE, Didi, China Railway Construction Corporation, among others, have all made sizable donations throughout the region. Venezuela was the first country to receive Chinese medical personnel back in March. 

There’s still a long way ahead in the fight against COVID-19, and the jury is still out on whether China’s donations and media push will bear fruit. One thing is clear though, while the United States is marred by its domestic politics during an election year, and most of the Western world is focused on its own handling of the pandemic, China is the only big player reaching out to developing countries. In the post-COVID-19 world, the international order might look quite different, and liberal democracies will not be too happy about it.