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China’s use of health diplomacy as a soft power tool during the Covid-19 pandemic

Its impact of France’s perception towards China

Covid-19 emerged in the city of Wuhan, in the centre of China late December 2019, and spread all over China and overseas very quickly. Successive restrictions were implemented throughout the world, from complete lockdowns to curfews, as well as travel restrictions. As the pandemic kept spreading, China was widely criticised for having covered-up the beginning of the pandemic despite successive warnings from medical staff in Wuhan. When China’s cases officially started decreasing – in March 2020 – the Chinese Communist Party decided to provide aid to countries and regions that were seeing their Covid-19 cases rise exponentially. By the end of March, Chinese medical staff, medical supplies and equipment, as well as millions of masks were sent to Europe. While recipient countries were praising China for providing aid in what became a global health emergency, interrogations and criticisms soon arose regarding China’s goals in exercising this so-called health diplomacy in Europe. What was emergency aid provided to countries in need soon became - to the eyes of the world - a health diplomacy and a kind of soft power opportunity for China. In fact, the pandemic gave an opportunity for China to expand its leadership through the use of health diplomacy as a soft power tool.

Several surveys have been conducted in order to understand how the pandemic has modified the perception France has towards China since the pandemic. Four surveys are of great importance: the one of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, the Pew Research Centre 2020 survey, and the one published by the European Council of Foreign Relations. The three surveys are showing the same striking result: China’s reputation in France since the pandemic has worsened: the CEIAS survey shows that 62% of respondents have a negative view of China and the survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre shows that the proportion reaches 70%, while before the crisis, the figure was ‘only’ 50%. Among these 70%, 26% declared having a ‘very unfavourable’ view, and 44% a ‘somewhat unfavourable’ one. Also, only 3% of the respondents have a ‘very positive’ view of China. The survey’s analysis clearly establishes the link between this drop of reputation and the important criticism that China experienced towards its pandemic management. These very high percentages make China become the second most negatively perceived country in the world for the French respondents, after North Korea and right before Russia. This negative view is accompanied by a loss of faith towards Xi JinPing: in 2019, 60% of the panel declared having ‘no confidence’ or ‘little confidence’ towards President Xi. Since the pandemic, this percentage rose by 21%. More importantly, 54% respondents believe China has badly handled the pandemic. The ECFR survey is also showing some similar results: despite the medical aid and supplies received by the country, French respondents, when asked which country has been their greatest ally during the coronavirus outbreak, only 4% answered China. Similarly, the CEIAS survey shows that only 18% of the respondents declare having a positive view towards China and only 30% believe China helped France during the pandemic.

Given the surveys’ results, it is fair to say that the provided aid has not had the expected results: one of soft power’s goals is to create or enhance a positive view of a country abroad: there has been a clear lack of understanding from the French respondents in the provided aid to their country, as less than 30% of the interrogated citizens believe that China has helped the country. This figure is surprising: the aid provided did occur, it is a fact, in the sense that it does not involve perception or a subjective dimension. However, the proportion of people being aware of it is surprisingly low.

Another surprising result is the fact that more than half of French respondents believe China has handled badly the pandemic, especially when we realise that China, as soon as March 2020, three months after the beginning of the pandemic, has declared zero cases on its territory and that their official death figures are very low and much lower than the ones in France, and that in France, the fourth vague and new variants have caused cases to rise again, reaching the symbolic figure of 10,000 patients in intensive care. From an economic point of view, Chinese management of the pandemic seems to have been more efficient, as their economic growth is estimated at 2.3% in 2020, while France entered recession and had an estimated -8.3% growth rate in 2020. Even if the two countries are not at the same level of development and thus the Chinese growth rate is usually higher than the one of France, the difference is significant and suggests that China was able to recover quicker from the crisis than France.

Surveys show that China’s view has worsened since the pandemic outbreak, despite the health diplomacy implemented in the country: there are 12% to 20% more people who have a negative view of China compared to before the pandemic (depending on the chosen survey), and 62% of the respondents declared that their view of China has worsened since the outbreak. Also, only 8% of the interrogated people in the CEIAS survey believe that China’s international reputation has increased since the pandemic.

What emerges is that the pandemic has indeed offered an opportunity for China to enhance its soft power in the EU through health diplomacy. However, China failed at using health diplomacy as a soft power tool in France for various reasons: first, one of soft power’s ultimate goals is to create or enhance attractiveness. However, the perception of China in France has worsened since the pandemic. Hence, despite the use of health diplomacy in the EU, China’s attractiveness and perception have not been enhanced.

Edited by Hermine Haton


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covid-19 France Health Diplomacy Soft Power International Relations

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