As China was grappling with its first outbreak of COVID-19 in January, it called on Chinese civic organisations across the globe to send it PPE and face masks. The push for more protective equipment was organised by the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. Due to the global push for China to store supplies, other countries struggled with to manage supplies of masks and PPE.
The United Front Work Department called on Chinese groups in other countries to buy and send PPE and face masks to the country.
On January 22, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd reported China had 46.1 million face masks, compared to a population of 1.439 billion.
By the end of February, the global push for supplies saw China with more than 2.5 billion items of PPE and face masks worth over £924 million.
Supplies came from US-based Chinese consulates, a Canada-based Chinese chamber of commerce and Japanese volunteers among others, according to a Bloomberg report.
But international groups are now suspicious of the United Front, after countries began facing their own outbreaks of coronavirus in mid-February.
In the US, 148 Republican lawmakers called for sanctions on United Front officials over “malign influence” campaigns.
In 2018, Robin Cleveland, chairman of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, issued a report condemning the group for its ties to the CCP.
He said: ‘Beijing’s exploitation of diaspora networks to gather personal protective equipment from overseas is a stunning example of how it is integrating economic, political, and security campaigns, with the United Front Work Department as the vanguard.”
Canada announced on February 9 it would be sending China 16 metric tonnes of PPE to help the country tackle coronavirus.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under fire for the foreign aid as the country began seeing its own outbreak, as Canada had a shortage of N95 face masks.
In the country, prices of the face masks surged fivefold over the shortages, forcing Canada to lower its regulation standards and import 1.8 billion units of PPE mostly from China.
In August, Ottawa saw a Canadian plant capable of supplying 50 million N95 face masks a year deployed to stave off “terrifying” shortages.
Western governments are concerned by the success of the United Front, with Erin O’Toole, Canadian Conservative MP, warned China could use the success of the global push for PPE to rally overseas Chinese communities.
He said to Bloomberg: “To learn the lessons, we really have to educate Canadians on the risk of these foreign influence operations.
“Canadian lawmakers and every democratic country should be very concerned, because it is the influence of a foreign state in your home country.”
Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, added: “There is a vast organisational potential, and it can be used against vulnerable populations or against your interests. “Some governments are already starting to wake up to this. They need to be smarter.”
Xi Jinping has lavished praise on China for its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
On September 8, the CCP President held an awards ceremony honouring the “heroes” of China’s “people’s war” against the virus.
He also claimed during the ceremony the country had acted in an “open and transparent” manner over the contagion while “passing an extraordinary and historic test”.
During the ceremony, Mr Xi touted China’s “mask diplomacy”, and said the county had “helped save a great number of lives from COVID-19 around the world with concrete actions”.
China exported of 209,000 ventilators, 1.4 billion protective suits and 151.5 billion masks across the world after their initial outbreak.