The flags of China and the EU are displayed inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP

After vanquishing the Covid-19 pandemic at home in March, China began to shower European nations with masks, hazmat gear and testing kits in a move billed as a gesture of generosity and solidarity, but not all recipients have appreciated it.

Contrary to Beijing’s propaganda about the virus-stricken continent being deeply grateful for China’s largesse, it appears the way Beijing has bragged about its successful fight against the contagion and its donations to Europe has failed to impress, and there is growing anger over Chinese suppliers allegedly fobbing defective products off on European buyers.

A Spanish member of the European Parliament recently said on social media that his country, among the hardest-hit by the pneumonic plague, had purchased medical gear from China. However, these commercial transactions were portrayed by Chinese state media as donations from Beijing, provoking sharp jabs from the Spanish authorities.

As a matter of fact, he wrote, Germany and France had provided far more masks but unlike China, did not boast about their largesse. Spain’s health authority has also complained about suboptimal masks and inaccurate testing kits procured from China, sometimes at a high price.

The lawmaker, who does not want to be named and declined to be interviewed, has removed the post, but his allegations are also borne out by negative reports across Europe about China’s masks and other donations.

A China-sponsored ad in Italy that reads “Virus is our enemy, not Chinese.” Photo: Twitter
Medical supplies are unloaded from an Air China jet at Athens airport. Photo: Xinhua

Earlier this month, Germany’s popular right-wing newspaper Bild quoted the nation’s Health Ministry as saying that about 20% of the roughly 100 million masks bought from China and dispatched to hospitals and clinics since the Covid-19 outbreak began were indeed “substandard.”

Beijing, for its part, has characterized the gripes of some European buyers as “politically motivated,” though it swiftly revoked the export licenses of producers known for cranking out flimsy masks that could not keep out germs.

But it is not just those Chinese mask-makers allegedly hiking prices and cutting corners that are to blame for the negative sentiment toward China, which has been spreading across Europe along with the highly infectious coronavirus.

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, lambasted Beijing in an op-ed published on Friday for trying to “divide and rule in Europe.” Borrell hinted that like observing social distancing rules to keep the pathogen at bay, all 27 EU member states should maintain “necessary collective discipline” and be aware that Beijing is trying to drive wedges between them as their policies diverge on issues from trade to Covid-19.

The EU foreign policy chief has also criticized Beijing for seeking to “make sure the world knows” of its aid efforts, while the EU has been “more discreet.”

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has also provoked Beijing’s ire by endorsing an international probe into the origins of the virus that first started to strike down people in the central Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019. The investigation is also under the auspices of the leaders of France and Australia. Both have urged Beijing to rehabilitate its image by taking responsibility for the outbreak and cooperating with the probe.

The EU has also raised a cautionary flag regarding Beijing’s propaganda and disinformation campaigns targeting the bloc.

Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party, the EU Parliament’s largest group, has proposed a year-long, tentative ban on China acquiring European businesses as their valuations and share prices decrease due to Covid-19.

The German government agreed last month to tighten rules protecting domestic firms from unsolicited takeovers by non-EU countries.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has spoken with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel since the start of the world-engulfing pandemic, but not with the EU. Photo: AFP

In the meantime, Beijing is leaving the EU with the impression that it is freezing the bloc out of its interactions with individual states across the continent. Xinhua reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping had spoken with several European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, about launching a joint effort to eradicate the respiratory disease, but he had not discussed the matter with the EU.

Do these developments herald an adversarial reset of the ties between Beijing and the EU?

Yan Shaohua, a research fellow with Guangdong University of Foreign Studies’s Institute for International Strategies, who has a PhD degree from the College of Europe in Belgium, told Asia Times that the EU is unlikely to further ratchet up pressure for an international probe into the origins of Covid-19 once it recedes, because at present Europe still needs Chinese medical supplies.

He said he did not believe the kind of anti-China sentiment that is spreading across the United States would infect Europe.

“It’s safe to say the EU as a whole is not subscribing to the conspiracy theory [about the source of the virus] purveyed by Donald Trump and [US Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo, and the EU’s calls for an international probe does not target solely at Beijing as the EU also wants to examine the role of the WHO… The EU will have a more rational, reflective approach to its ties with Beijing post-pandemic: while regarding it as a systemic rival, major nations like Germany will never lose touch with the fundamentals like trade and investments that underwrite their common interest,” said Yan.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the Yangtze River during a visit to Wuhan in September, before the outbreak of Covid-19 in the central Chinese city. Photo: Handout
Chinese and German flags fly in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in September, during German leader Angela Merkel’s 12th visit to China. Photo: AFP

He also pointed out that the virus may lead to business talks between the two sides being delayed. However, unlike with the US-China trade deal, Covid-19 should not negatively affect talks and investments.

“Volkswagen has just reached a deal with its partner Shanghai Automotive to ramp up production at its plant in Ningbo for new Audi and Škoda models to be introduced into China, and its new plant in Guangdong province is also being built… That is a good sign,” said Yan.

China and the EU launched negotiations on a comprehensive investment accord in 2013 and have held numerous rounds of talks over the years. Major moot points include reciprocal market access and a level playing field. The leaders of China and all 28 EU member states are set to congregate for a special summit in Germany this September and may even sign the deal if the original schedule is not scuppered by the virus.

Angelina, a Chinese interpreter who has resided in Berlin for almost 10 years, told Asia Times about the glimmers of hope she had been seeing: new cases in Germany are tapering off and to her great relief, anti-China sentiment has never reared its ugly head, even at the height of the health crisis.

“German people are rational and through many discussions with my friends, classmates and colleagues in the country, few would chalk the pandemic up to China, even though people all know the disease first erupted in Wuhan… As the bastion of the EU and its values, I think German’s position will have its sway over that of the whole EU,” she said.

She added that she has witnessed the resilience of the bilateral ties between Beijing and Berlin as a veteran interpreter for Chinese and German companies.

“From my experience and observation, I think Germany’s business community, compared with firms from other Western powers, enjoys the most amicable ties with China. What [Chinese and German businessmen] share in common is pragmatism and they would keep much of the politics out of their way.”