During the Pandemic, Chinese Medical and Equipment Supplies to Chile have come mostly from a diverse cast of Chinese Players with Local Experience in Chile. They adapted to Chile’s unique system of emergency and disaster management.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, China has been forced to adapt its foreign policy agenda to respond to Western accusations that it both exported the virus and covered up its origins.1 In response, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Ministry of Commerce developed a policy of donating health supplies across the globe. The international press dubbed this outreach “mask diplomacy.”

Many observers argue that China has a one-size-fits-all approach to diplomacy: settling on a singular model and then exporting it, largely at the direction of the central government.

This is certainly the expectation that many analysts have held for China’s mask diplomacy, a high-profile diplomatic initiative closely tied to Beijing’s reputation.

In practice, however that has not been the case. In fact, Chinese donations during the pandemic to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in general and to Chile in particular have not been centralized around a single actor or program.

Instead, these donations from China have been channeled through multiple parallel tracks. Ultimately, mask diplomacy is best thought of as a hodgepodge of actions by a diverse cast of Chinese donors rather than the centralized outgrowth of a unitary national policy. In Chile, at least, Chinese actors have displayed considerable improvisation in carrying out this mask diplomacy.

This adaptive, decentralized approach also reflects the unique conditions of Chile, a country whose system for receiving foreign assistance has been shaped by its prior experience dealing with frequent earthquakes.

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, Chile’s track record on international disaster relief gave it an advantage over its Latin American neighbors in terms of distributing Chinese donations to community health centers in affected areas.

Chilean officials were able to quickly develop and shape fruitful public-private partnerships between the Chilean Embassy in Beijing and a diverse array of Chinese companies and foundations. Notably, Chile, a country with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of roughly $15,000 dollars is not a net recipient of foreign aid, unlike others in the region such as Bolivia, Colombia, or Haiti.

Prior to the pandemic, Chinese aid to Chile was virtually nil.6 In the early months of the pandemic, however, Chile was among the top recipients of Chinese donations to Latin America and the Caribbean.

Between February to June 2020, Chile received medical supplies worth $9.5 million in donations from various Chinese companies, foundations, and provinces as well as the Chinese central government. This made Chile the third-largest recipient of Chinese medical assistance in Latin America, behind only Brazil ($23 million) and Venezuela ($43 million). 

This paper; drawing on original data sets, in-depth interviews, and secondary literature explores the diverse cast of Chinese actors that donated to Chile and the motives behind their donations.

It also examines how the Chilean government organized to solicit and then distribute, this Chinese aid and how Chilean government officials shaped the choices and actions of the various Chinese players in the process. Finally, the paper looks at the broader policy lessons stemming from this mask diplomacy for both China and the recipient countries.

Author: Francisco Urdinez
Chinas Mask Diplomacy