One indication that this issue is now a higher priority for Beijing was evident on 13 May at the typically choreographed regular foreign ministry press briefing when the first question from a Chinese reporter was about the Chinese medical teams who recently returned from Ethiopia and Djibouti.
The first question often highlights the government’s key foreign policy message point for the day.
Recently that first question has focused on the increasingly acrimonious relationship with the United States, so it’s notable when an Africa-focused topic is moved up from the middle or the end of the briefing to the very top.
Clearly, Zhao had anticipated the question (more likely, it was arranged in advance) as he responded with a slate of statistics (see his Tweet above) about China’s recent contributions to African efforts to contain the pandemic.
Wang Yi Works the Phones With African Foreign Ministers
In another sign that Beijing is paying more attention to COVID-19 in Africa, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi appears to be increasing the frequency of his outreach to his African counterparts. Last week alone he held two phone conferences with ministers from Angola and Ethiopia.
Neither of these calls produced any substantive announcements. Instead, they may be intended to buttress China’s state-to-state ties in Africa given the considerable pushback Beijing has encountered from African civil society in the aftermath of the recent events in Guangzhou.
- ANGOLAN FOREIGN MINISTER TÉTE ANTÓNIO: Wang apparently seemed concerned about the fate of Chinese expatriates in Angola. “Noting the large number of Chinese companies and personnel in Angola, Wang expressed confidence that Angola would take good care of their health and safety and protect their legitimate rights and interests,” according to a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs summary of the discussion.
- ETHIOPIAN FOREIGN MINISTER GEDU ANDARGACHEW: The two foreign ministers reaffirmed their support for Ethiopian-born World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who has come under intense criticism from the White House, and other U.S. stakeholders.
A Chinese COVID-19 Medical Team Returns to Algeria, This Time With a CGTN Crew Tagging Along
Algeria was the first African country to welcome a Chinese COVID-19 medical team in late March. Now, another delegation, along with tons of supplies donated by the Chongqing municipal government will depart today from the southwestern Chinese city.
There was very little international media coverage of that first trip but this time, as Wake Forest University Professor Lina Benabdallah points out on Twitter, a CGTN crew will accompany the delegation on the deployment as part of a propaganda exercise to generate more positive news coverage of these kinds of trips.
What to Make of All This New Aid Activity?
From the outside, of course, there’s no way to tell if this increased pace of activity is intentional or just coincidental.
Either way, it serves Beijing well to try and change the subject after weeks of blistering African media coverage and anger on social media about the widely-reported mistreatment of Africans in Guangzhou.
Even as the Chinese government tries to leverage COVID-19 assistance to improve its standing among African publics, it’s probably going to be difficult, if not impossible, to persuade a mass audience that gets most of its news from social media.
But they’ll no doubt be much more successful with the continent’s governing elites, who seem thrilled about the influx of Chinese supplies, personnel, and technical support to bolster their fight against COVID-19.
So, while China continues to struggle with its civil society engagement in Africa, this latest round of COVID-19 donation diplomacy clearly demonstrates that its state-to-state ties on the continent are doing just fine.
This article first appeared on The China Africa Project