Photo credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO /
Can Beijing’s mask diplomacy win hearts and minds in the Arab world?

China has been directing aid to Middle Eastern governments to combat COVID-19, but China’s murky past in relations with the Arab World doesn’t mean its image will improve.

When a team of seven Chinese infectious disease experts, clad in face masks and matching red vests, stepped onto the airport tarmac in Baghdad late on the evening of March 8, the state-run Chinese media was there with cameras.

As the new arrivals posed for solemn photos with Iraqi cabinet ministers, members of the “Iraq–China Friendship Committee” held up a bilingual banner thanking China for sending help in Iraq’s time of need. For the next few days, excerpts from the carefully choreographed ceremony played continually on the Arabic-language channel of the China Global Television Network.

Beijing’s highly publicized commitment to help Iraq fight the deadly COVID-19 pandemic is part of a larger strategy of “mask diplomacy,” which aims to turn an economic catastrophe into a public relations triumph. Just one month ago, it seemed likely that China’s international reputation would be tarnished by the global spread of a disease that originated inside China. But today, China’s leaders, able to boast that they have contained the virus at home, view the pandemic as an opportunity to earn goodwill around the world.

In the Middle East, where many countries have long counted on American aid, China’s assistance is especially noteworthy. It has already sent or is planning to send planeloads of medical supplies to nearly every country in the region. The Trump administration has castigated China for letting the virus get out of hand, but, facing dire shortages of medical supplies, it has neither the ability nor the inclination to match China’s generosity.

The divergence in the American and Chinese approaches is most stark in Iran, a country whose medical infrastructure has been crippled by American sanctions. Since late February, China has dispatched significant quantities of humanitarian assistance to Tehran.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, some government officials have made a point of comparing the assistance that Washington and Beijing have provided. For example, in an official statement that was subsequently shared widely on Arabic-language social media, Iraqi Health Minister Jafaar Allawi opined that “China has sent medical supplies and their best experts to Iraq, whereas America has not provided us with a single vial.”

But Chinese humanitarian aid to the Middle East is about much more than a desire to embarrass the U.S., and pundits who focus only on that geopolitical rivalry are missing why mask diplomacy is so critical for Beijing. Although the coronavirus presents opportunities for China, it is also a dangerous liability for the country to be associated with a deadly virus — especially one whose supposed origin at a market for exotic meats strengthens widespread stereotypes about Chinese culture.

Like other regions, including the United States, the Arab world has seen its share of recent incidents in which angry individuals have targeted ordinary people of Chinese or other Asian heritage. Some of the most widely publicized episodes have occurred in Morocco, a country where some experts suspect the virus has been spread mainly by visitors from Europe. Moroccan police in the city of Fez arrested a woman in early February for making a viral video accusing a local Chinese restaurant of spreading the virus. Four days later, police in nearby Meknes arrested another Moroccan man for making a video that blamed a Chinese tourist for bringing the virus to that city. On Moroccan social media, yet another video circulated showing shoppers in a Rabat market chanting “corona!” at a group of Asian tourists.

Tensions are also running high in Egypt, which has been especially hard hit by the coronavirus. In early March, a taxi driver in Cairo forced a Chinese man out of his car after he coughed; as the man tried helplessly to flag down another car on Cairo’s busy ring road, two other Egyptians chased him and yelled that other passersby should “run from corona.”

As the virus has spread in the past week, expressions of anti-Chinese sentiment have become more common. Last Thursday, Egyptian social media exploded with speculation after reports surfaced that a resident of New Cairo had called police to report that a Chinese family was barbecuing snakes. News coverage has turned the incident into a sensation, capitalizing on widespread fears of Chinese people’s exotic tastes.

The daily newspaper Al Dostor even sought out interviews with Egyptian dealers who sell dogs and reptiles to Chinese buyers, both locally and overseas. Al Dostor made sure to point out a number of different diseases that can be contracted by eating unusual animals, especially bats and snakes — not just the coronavirus causing COVID-19, but also lassa virus, Ebolavirus, hantavirus, and Hendra. The snake-eating Chinese family in New Cairo has given new impetus to rumors that have been swirling on Arabic-language social media for months, in some cases accompanied by horrific videos purporting to show the consumption of live animals.

Neither the bullying of Asian individuals nor the rampant speculation about Chinese culinary preferences is in any way unique to the Middle East. But it is still notable that individual Arabs have continued to express skepticism about China’s presence in their societies even as Arab governments have courted Chinese aid.

This dichotomy is a reminder that Beijing’s efforts to encourage Arabs to embrace Chinese culture have lagged far behind the political inroads that China’s leaders have made in the Middle East. It has been thirteen years since China’s then-president Hu Jintao proclaimed the need for China to enhance its “soft power,” inaugurating a flurry of high-level deals to bring Chinese television programs, news services, publications, and cultural events to Middle Eastern audiences. More than a decade later, one would be justified in wondering whether these campaigns have done anything at all to dispel suspicions about China among ordinary Arabs.

Another issue that continues to hurt China’s standing in the Middle East has been the repressive treatment of Chinese Muslims, especially the Uighur minority in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. Since 2015, Beijing has been extremely effective at preventing the governments of Islamic countries from criticizing the plight of Chinese Muslims. For many Arab leaders, the potential economic costs of speaking out would simply be too high.

But when secular governments are unable to voice the widely held concerns of their citizens, those concerns find expression in other ways. Accordingly, it is usually Islamist dissidents, opposition groups, or insurgencies that are most willing to antagonize China.

The coronavirus has exacerbated pent-up anger about China’s religious policies. Since early February, publications issued by the Islamic State have been celebrating the virus as divine retribution for the Chinese government’s repressive treatment of its Uighur Muslim population. One prominent Tunisian cleric living in France also announced that “the virus is a soldier in God’s army” sent to punish China.

And to some degree, this idea has even spanned the Sunni–Shi’ite divide. In February, the Iran-based Iraqi Shi’ite scholar Hadi al-Modarresi claimed that God was using the virus to punish the Chinese. Since Chinese authorities forbade Muslims to veil their faces, he asserted, God was now compelling the Chinese to cover their faces with masks. (Al-Modarresi himself has since tested positive for the virus.)

Although China’s leaders obviously do not consider such criticisms legitimate, they are aware of the underlying anti-Chinese sentiment they reflect. It is hardly surprising, then, that China’s rhetoric about coronavirus aid has emphasized universalist themes, such as the notion that the viruses can infect anyone and do not respect international borders. But as people around the world come to grips over the next few months with the full scale of COVID-19’s devastation, Chinese officials may well discover that humanitarian aid is not by itself enough to keep their country’s reputation intact.

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