China’s e-commerce billionaire, Jack Ma, has become one of the country’s most prominent donors of coronavirus aid around the world, particularly in Africa.
This week Ma, the former chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Ali Baba who first joined Twitter in March, announced that he would send emergency medical supplies to the World Health Organization (WHO) days after US President Donald Trump “dangerously” defunded the organisation.
Announced on Twitter, Ma’s giveaway includes 100 million masks, 1 million N95 masks and 1 million test kits, which will be distributed to those most in need.
Following donations to 150+ countries & regions, we will provide 100M masks, 1M N95 masks, and 1M test kits to @WHO. The supplies will be distributed to those in most need. Together, we must move faster and with confidence to overcome this global challenge. #OneWorldOneFight— Jack Ma (@JackMa) April 21, 2020
Ma’s citizen diplomacy has been in contrast to China’s more assertive campaign as it seeks to shape the global narrative around the pandemic.
Ma's prominence in China means such an effort can't be taking place at odds with Beijing's broader global coronavirus response.
In January this year, the billionaire donated $14.4 million to fight the novel coronavirus with a third of the money going towards Chinese government research organisations.
China’s image in Africa has been dented by the coronavirus outbreak and videos that have surfaced online of African people being beaten or being blamed for the spread of the virus have been widely shared.
A France24 investigation found some of the claims to be unsubstantiated, however, online rumours have nonetheless been damaging.
Leading the effort in terms of public diplomacy, Ma has had strong backing from local Chinese embassies.
The Jack Ma Foundation, created by the billionaire, promised and delivered 1,000 protective suits, 20,000 test kits and 100,000 masks to every single African country individually.
Following PM @AbiyAhmedAli and @JackMa’s phone discussion and agreement to partner in the efforts against #COVID19, a teleconference was held yesterday between the Ethiopian and Chinese counterparts to align on the initiative ‘Reversing COVID-19 from Africa.’ 1/2 https://t.co/D7b1VfPUku— Office of the Prime Minister - Ethiopia (@PMEthiopia) March 17, 2020
Ma’s efforts have also focused on working with medical institutions throughout Africa to provide online training for dealing with the coronavirus.
At the centre of all of this has been Ethiopia, where China has invested considerably both politically and economically. China has become the top foreign direct investor in the country and is distributing much of the aid to the rest of Africa.
Africa can be one step ahead of the coronavirus. To each of the 54 African countries, we will donate 20,000 test kits, 100,000 masks and 1,000 medical use protective suits and face shields. Thank you @PMEthiopia @AbiyAhmedAli for your support. pic.twitter.com/6oKptVCjNx— Jack Ma (@JackMa) March 16, 2020
Other Chinese companies like the telecommunications giant Huawei are also providing medical supplies in the countries they operate in. Chinese construction giant CSCEC similarly provided more than $450,000 of medical equipment to Algeria.
Efforts by Ma, the human face of this outreach, and an early attempt to prepare African countries for the oncoming virus, have left the continent of more than 1.3 billion people relatively unscathed when compared to Europe and the US.
“Now it is as if we were all living in the same forest on fire. As members of the global community, it would be irresponsible of us to sit on the fence, panic, ignore facts or fail to act,” Ma said in a statement while promoting the #OneWorldOneFight twitter hashtag.
When Ma first joined twitter in March his first tweet was in regards to the aid his foundation sent to the US.
In the past, Ma attempted to mediate between China and the US in their trade disputes.
When Ma met Donald Trump in 2018 he promised to create one million jobs in a bid to stop the trade war between the world’s largest economies.
Ma — in his attempts to soften the image of the Chinese corporate world and the country's global rise — has been described by the Financial Times as one of the few "competent people" in China's public diplomacy.
Attempts by the Chinese government working alongside its global companies and recognised international figures are an early indication of China’s growing soft power diplomacy in the international arena.
“China’s leaders are pushing to demonstrate that as a benevolent and responsible stakeholder, it will help other nations in need to get through this crisis. Donations from high-profile figures like Ma contribute to these messages,” said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and a former Australian diplomat.
The Chinese government’s delivery of defective equipment has drawn widespread public attention and bad publicity.
‘China's Jack Ma’, on the other hand, along with Chinese aid to the global south could provide some relief and even benefit Beijing.