The global COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a flurry of Chinese efforts to supply medical assistance around the world, including in Africa. In late March 2020, airports in Shanghai, Beijing, and other major Chinese cities turned from international business and tourism hubs to centers for the dispatch of medical equipment, personnel, and supplies.
As many observers have pointed out, this “COVID-diplomacy” represents an opportunity for China to fill the global leadership gap left by the United States. In Africa in particular, China’s pandemic response merely accelerates a geopolitical trend that was already gathering steam, and is emblematic of a wider shift to a more proactive and assertive foreign policy under President Xi Jinping.
However, a deeper look into this COVID-diplomacy also reveals another important, but often overlooked, trend in China’s assistance in Africa. While some aspects of China’s COVID response follow traditional government-centered models that go back decades, Chinese companies, philanthropists, and other organizations are also getting involved more proactively, and in new ways.
So, who’s who in China’s COVID-diplomacy?
China’s Central and Provincial Governments
Since 2018, China’s wider official foreign assistance strategy has been led by the China International Development Cooperation Agency, or CIDCA in Beijing. However, CIDCA has little heft by itself, and works closely together with the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), relying on networks of Chinese Economic and Commercial Counselor (ECC) offices and embassies for on the ground coordination, implementation, and handover of donations.
In the health sector, provincial governments also play a crucial role. Provincial health commissions organize and implement the dispatch of medical teams to African partner countries, with many Chinese provinces having been responsible for dispatching similar teams to the same countries for decades.
In the fight against COVID, these longstanding provincial-level connections also facilitate information sharing. For example, in April 2020 officials and experts from Hubei province, China’s coronavirus epicentre, held a video-conference to share experience with Algerian colleagues. Hubei has in fact been responsible for dispatching medical teams to Algeria since 1963.
State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs)
Traditionally, Chinese state-owned enterprises’ role in the country’s foreign assistance has been to serve as the contractors that implement projects on the ground. Typically, they are paid using Chinese policy bank loans or Chinese government grant money to construct hospitals, roads, and other such projects.
(Indeed, these contracts are an important and lucrative source of revenue for China’s state-owned firms, which have struggled as a result of over-capacity and lack of demand at home).
However, in a step out from their traditional role, China’s SOEs have also recently been dispatching medical supplies. For example, the China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC), a large SOE better known for infrastructure construction, donated hundreds of thousands of masks, alongside respirators and other goods, to help Algeria tackle COVID-19.
Such donations may also serve as a means to build relationships with new or existing customers. For example, China Jiangxi, a major implementer of transport projects in Ghana, provided 10,000 masks to Ghana’s Ministry of Roads and Highways.
The Private Sector
It’s not only China’s state-owned firms that have entered the fight against COVID. Private Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives are a relatively new but increasingly important aspect of Chinese companies’ activities in Africa.
China’s tech and telecoms giant Huawei has long been one of the most proactive, having had educational CSR programs in operation internationally since 2008. Since the COVID outbreak, the company has been donating medical supplies, for example providing masks, thermometers and hand sanitizer to Ethiopia’s education ministry in May 2020.
Again, these donations may help to cement commercial ties. At the mask handover ceremony, the Ethiopian Minister noted that the company’s actions would help to strengthen the partnership between Huawei, which is already a key supplier of telecoms infrastructure, and the Ministry.
African-Chinese private sector tech collaborations are also getting involved. For example, PalmPay, an Africa-focused mobile payment startup backed with funding from Transsion (a major Shenzhen-based but Africa-oriented cellphone maker), is planning to waive transfer fees and even give direct “cash” handouts to customers hit by COVID.
Philanthropists and Civil Society
China’s engagement with Africa has long been criticized for failing to sufficiently involve civil society. And it’s true that although Chinese civil society organizations have become more numerous and more active in Africa, most remain relatively small and have been comparatively quiet in the response to COVID-19.
However, one non-governmental organization that has been decidedly energetic is the Jack Ma Foundation. In March 2020, just after the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, the Alibaba founder’s philanthropic foundation committed to provide 100,000 face masks and 20,000 testing kits to every single country in Africa (interestingly, this included eSwatini, the last country on the continent to shun official relations with the People’s Republic in favor of Taiwan).
Although Ma remains something of an exception among Chinese billionaires in his global philanthropic efforts, he is representative of a more general opening of China’s assistance in Africa to new types of player.
Indeed, while the traditional role of government-to-government ties doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon, China’s COVID-19 engagement with Africa demonstrates that it is by no means the full story.
Dr. Pippa Morgan is a lecturer in political science at Duke University’s campus in Kunshan, China.