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China’s Coronavirus Diplomacy

Chinese doctors pose for a photo after arriving to support health-care workers in Milan, March 18.

Photo: matteo bazzi/Shutterstock

Rome

Italy is confronting its gravest crisis since World War II. Hospitals are so overrun with patients suffering from Covid-19 that doctors have been forced to choose who will live and die. On Thursday the Italian army began transporting coffins out of Bergamo, the country’s hardest-hit city, because its morgues have been overwhelmed. Some 4,032 have died in Italy, more than in China, with 627 Italian deaths reported Friday—the highest daily toll for any country so far. Italy earlier this month pleaded with its European Union neighbors to send face masks for medical workers on the front lines. No EU country responded to the call. Germany even briefly banned the export of medical supplies to Italy. So much for the European dream of “ever closer union.”

China, however, was the first to deliver: A shipment of Chinese ventilators came last week, and some 300 Chinese intensive-care doctors and nurses are arriving to staff beleaguered hospitals. Italy’s leaders have been effusive in their praise for Beijing. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio of the populist 5 Star Movement heralded China’s assistance as an “act of solidarity” and added, “Friendship and mutual solidarity go a long way.” The statement doesn’t come as a surprise, as Mr. Di Miao’s party has warm relations with Beijing and is Europe’s strongest supporter of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Italians, however, shouldn’t be naive: China is using coronavirus aid to whitewash its responsibility for unleashing a global pandemic.

The Vatican was the first to help China during the outbreak in Wuhan, by donating 700,000 face masks. The Italian government followed suit, reportedly giving two tons of medical equipment, including face masks, to China. Now Italy faces crippling shortages of masks and other supplies. “Maybe you forgot, but we will always remember, China’s Embassy in Italy tweeted on March 15. “Now it is our turn to help out.” In addition to ventilators and personnel, China is sending test kits and masks.

But these acts are not as altruistic as they might appear. The majority of ventilators shipping to Italy are from the Chinese company Mindray, which sells its products at a lower price than its global competitors. China has a surplus of medical equipment now that the outbreak appears to have reached its peak there. Demand is rising elsewhere as the virus spreads, so Chinese companies are ramping up production to gain global market share.

Medical aid from the Chinese government and state-owned enterprises deserves scrutiny, especially as the Chinese Communist Party forbids dissent at home and attempts to evade responsibility abroad. China will contribute its “strength and wisdom to securing a final victory against the pandemic,” the Chinese foreign ministry has said, tying this soft-power strategy to Xi Jinping’s ambition to build “a community with a shared future for mankind.”

Yet concern for the global community’s “shared future” doesn’t exactly describe China’s actions. The Communist Party silenced those who tried to raise alarms about an emerging virus. The Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang warned his colleagues in late December about a possible outbreak that resembled SARS. Local police reprimanded him for “spreading rumors.” The Chinese government said this week it would formally rescind his penalty after outcry on social media, but this is too little, too late. Li, 33, died of the virus in February.

News of the virus started circulating on nongovernmental social media accounts in the first half of January, and they were shut down. Mr. Xi eventually responded to the outbreak publicly, but by then the epidemic was out of control.

On Feb. 11, the World Health Organization named the disease the virus causes Covid-19, which spared Beijing the embarrassment of having the name tied to SARS, another coronavirus of Chinese origin. China announced on March 8 that it was donating $20 million to the WHO, perhaps as thanks. Days later, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman tweeted that the U.S. was responsible for bringing the virus to Wuhan in the first place.

Subsequently, Xu Zhiyong, an activist who had criticized Mr. Xi’s response to the coronavirus, was jailed for “subversion.” Li Xehua, a former journalist for the Chinese network CCTV who had tried to provide independent information on the outbreak from Wuhan has disappeared. Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, two independent citizen journalists in Wuhan, are also missing after filming virus patients in makeshift hospitals and urging citizens to demand accountability from their government. Now many of the Western journalists who brought these stories to the world’s attention have been expelled from China.

“The Chinese government quickly corrected its mistakes by recognizing the role of Dr. Li Wenliang, focusing on positive news, like the nurse who sings Chinese opera to help her patients, but the thousands of deaths in Wuhan and in the rest of the country have remained without a face and without a name,” a journalist in Beijing who has been following the crisis closely told me under anonymity for security purposes. The only independent sources of information in Wuhan have virtually disappeared, together with the city’s activists, professors, and lawyers who had asked for Mr. Xi’s resignation, the source added.

Some Italians see through the soft-power ploy. “If this is all true, Beijing’s totalitarian regime would have to answer questions on why it thought its state censorship and propaganda were more important than the right to health care of its citizens and those of the world,” Alessandro Giuli, a TV presenter at the Italian state broadcaster RAI, told me.

No amount of foreign aid can make up for the Communist Party’s botched early response that helped produce the pandemic now afflicting most of the world. Even long after the initial outbreak, the Chinese declined to tell other nations about the severity of the threat or to prevent its spread outside China.

It is ironic to see Beijing trying to swoop in as Rome’s rescuer. Western nations should come up with a plan quickly to help one another weather the storm of the virus. Otherwise the Chinese Communist Party will exploit this opportunity to present itself as the savior of not only Italy, but Europe and the world.

Ms. Bocchi is a writer in Rome.

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