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Behind Chinas Epic Dash for the PPE that left the world short of masks

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relates to China's Epic Dash for PPE left the world short of masks

Illustration: Michelle Kwon for Bloomberg Businessweek

Just after theWuhan lockdown in January, the same week the United States confirmed itsfirst case of the new coronavirus, Chinese civic organizations in dozens of countries on five continents have started purchasing masks and other personal protective equipment. It was the start of an unprecedented humanitarian mobilization, orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front department, to send PPE supplies to a China struggling with an epic public health crisis.

In Nagoya, Japan, volunteers drove to pharmacies and bought 520,000 masks in three days, according to an account released by Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency. On January 26, the head of a Chinese chamber of commerce in Toronto, just returning from a trip to Beijing, began calling members to tell them they must join the effort, according to the report. Nearly 100 people traveled to Toronto – some overnight, on icy roads – and were dispatched to purchase supplies. Planes from Kenya and Milan were packed with boxes and suitcases full of PPE bound for China. A Chinese association abroad in Argentina sent some 25,000 masks within a week of receiving the request.

These efforts have been hailed in China as the highest form of civic duty. To put the need in perspective, e-commerce giantAlibaba Group Holding Ltd. posted on social media on Jan.22, on the eve of Wuhan’s lockdown, that its inventory of available masks was 46.1 million. That was only enough for every resident of Beijing and Shanghai to buy one, let alone the rest of the country’s over 1 billion people. The result was astounding: at the end of February, as other countries were realizingtheir own need for masks and protective gear, the campaign had sent 2.5 billion items to China worth 8.2 billion yuan ($ 1.2 billion), including 2 billion masks , according to Chinese government figures.

This achievement once again placed emphasis on the organizational skills of the United Front. The reach, speed and effectiveness of a campaign coordinated with the help of the Chinese messaging app WeChat was no ordinary disaster relief campaign. At the end of January, a call for help was launched through the Pan-Chinese Federation of Chinese Returning from Overseas affiliated with the United Front and was promoted or posted on the websites of the Chinese consulates in New York, Los Angeles, Melbourne and elsewhere. Most of the PPE was dispatched in mid-February. It was a demonstration of how the United Front can mobilize thousands of organizations and social media groups – more than 250 associations in the United States alone, according to testimony last year to House Intelligence Committee.

The United Front holds the attention of the US Congress because it is more than a humanitarian organization. In June, 148 Republican lawmakers called for punishments on senior United Front officials, citing “malicious influence campaigns” as a factor. “Beijing’s exploitation of diaspora networks to collect personal protective equipment from abroad is a vivid example of how it integrates economic, political and security campaigns, with the United Front’s Department of Labor as a vanguard ”, says Robin Cleveland, President ofChina-US Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan congressional organization that released a 2018 United Front report.

Mao Zedong called it a “magic weapon” for its ability to marry civic action so perfectly with the goals of his Chinese Communist Party – especially during the two-decade civil war that led to the defeat of the forces in 1949. nationalists from Chiang Kai-shek. The organization played a role in strengthening support for China’s initiativessuppress dissent in Hong Kong. He is the organizer or close affiliate of thousands of foreign associations focused on Chinese living abroad, which numbered 60 million according to government estimates as of 2015, including people of Chinese descent. born abroad. These groups usually have words like “friendship” or “benevolent” in their names, or chambers of commerce or associations of people from certain regions of China.

The PPE effort may have resonated particularly among overseas Chinese because it was more than political: there was an emergency in the old country. Indeed, foreign governments have also sent aid. Canada announced it is sending China16 tonnes of PPE February 9. However, China’s dire need led to a supply shortage and higher prices in some countries once the virus hit their shores. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come under fire as the prices of N95 masks have quintupled. Responding to complaints that China was stockpiling PPE, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on March 31 that controlling the epidemic inside the country was the “top priority of the government” but that China was also sending medical supplies abroad.

Under President Xi Jinping, who set out to revitalize the United Front in 2015, the network – which reports directly to the party’s almighty Central Committee – has grown on an unprecedented scale. The medical supplies campaign offers the world a unique opportunity to understand just how powerful it is, according to Alex Joske, who wrote a report about the organization in June for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “Xi has clearly pushed the United Front system to do more and be bolder,” he said.

Party officials praised the success of the EPP campaign. Xu Yousheng, vice minister of the United Front and director of the State Council’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, attributed the “unprecedented scope of participation” of the mask-buying effort to the demonstration of “the great power of the Chinese nation in unity”. The United Front did not respond to a request for comment.

China isn’t the only country to appeal to overseas communities in times of crisis, and it remains to be seen whether the United Front can achieve a similar result in a non-humanitarian context. After all, many overseas Chinese have moved to avoid the Communist Party’s tight grip. “It’s not necessarily representative of Chinese diaspora communities,” Joske says. “Only a small number of ethnic Chinese overseas could be linked to United Front groups, but these groups can be very effective in mobilizing and getting their message across.”

Yet, said David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, “China sees overseas Chinese as part of the great Chinese nation, which Xi Jinping has pushed. He speaks to them, engages them in a way other countries don’t, quietly activating people and organizations. This is the United Front manual. “

LOWER LINE –
Western governments are starting to worry about a branch of the Chinese Communist Party that has called for support from the global Chinese diaspora during the pandemic.

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