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Unpacking Chinese Health
Diplomacy during the
COVID-19 Pandemic

Sharing Heritages, Narratives and
Visuality along the Health Silk Road

This workshop aims to explore the impact of China’s soft diplomacy during the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic on countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative (from now on, BRI; Yi dai Yi lu 一带一路). In particular, the workshop will focus on the so-called Health Silk Road (jiangkang sichou zhilu 健康丝绸之路) – i.e., a series of diplomatic initiatives within the BRI framework explicitly targeting cooperation in the health sector. A striking example of these activities is China’s well-known “mask” and “vaccine” diplomacies, which comprise donations or sales on favourable terms of health equipment to foreign partners during the acutest phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Observers have widely ascribed these initiatives to rebuilding the country’s international reputation as a responsible power, which had been globally tarnished by the city of Wuhan, having been identified as the original site of the pandemic.
As soon became apparent, China’s “health diplomacy” (jiankang waijiao 健康外交) was directed to BRI and non-BRI partner countries alike, and, with the spreading of health diplomatic initiatives, some common elements emerged. First, developing countries have been at the centre of China’s health diplomatic tools, with the Asia Pacific region and Africa, in particular, becoming the primary recipients of donations of Chinese vaccines, and Latin America a significant buyer. Second, China’s health diplomacy has relied on pre-existing health cooperative frameworks and agreements drawn from a) the country’s history of providing support to developing countries in the health sector, b) the recognition of Chinese traditional medicine’s validity in several world areas, and c) pre-existing international organisations with a health cooperation mandate such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Lastly, China’s health diplomatic efforts have mobilised its civil society, with various sub-national actors autonomously pursuing health diplomatic activities through their personal and professional networks.
Acknowledging this empirical evidence, the workshop raises questions about tools, and agents on which China has relied to pursue a health diplomatic agenda and how it has then narrated it, through acts of speech and images, both domestically and internationally. The narrative, therefore, has played a crucial role during the most critical phases of the COVID-19 pandemic and their connection to the country’s current understanding of its global role and the future of its BRI. Relying on a mixture of constructivist theory and visual International Relations, the workshop will contribute to advancing debates on China’s position in the international system, devoting special attention to the country’s relationship with developing countries and the fluidity of its soft diplomacy within the BRI framework. In addition, the workshop will present some insights into the perception of China’s diplomatic efforts on the part of selected recipients. In light of the importance acquired by health as a diplomatic tool during the COVID-19 pandemic, therefore, we consider the time is particularly apt to focus scholarly discussions on deepening the understanding of the nexus between power, aid, and health.