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Implications Of Context In Understanding China’s “Mask Diplomacy”

  • Published
  • By Jim Schnell, Ph.D.

Since the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, 2020 China has been engaging in a foreign policy initiative. It has been labeled “Mask Diplomacy, a term that can be employed to describe its particular style of soft (e.g. cultural, symbolic, and discursive) and sharp (e.g. dispatched medical delegations, scientific research teams) power projection”.[1] It is designed “to try to make the world forget Beijing’s culpability in the coronavirus crisis.”[2]

There are three core features of China’s Mask Diplomacy. According to Brian Wong, “this mode of diplomacy is marked by a great emphasis on the distribution and supply of contextually important resources (e.g. medical aid, equipment, and supplies) as a means of securing mass and elite buy-in...., its emphasis upon establishing long-term dependence relations and patronage networks (‘debt trap diplomacy’).... [and] an unmistakably critical dimension of China’s Mask Diplomacy is its moralizing discursive undertones.”[3] The Chinese approach seeks to manipulate international understanding of the pandemic “by recasting itself from source of the deadly pandemic to the provider of much-needed aid and expertise.”[4]

There are larger objectives at play in this scenario when one considers the countries receiving aid. According to Dylan M.H. Loh, “recipient countries do not have formal ties to Taiwan. It is not surprising that countries receiving the most help are countries that already enjoy close ties to China or are important gateways in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.”[5] Observers in Europe offer a cautionary warning that “China should be careful regarding its COVID-19 diplomacy. If there is a perception that it is trying to take advantage of Europe in this crisis, the goodwill that has been generated will not only wither quickly but also most likely backfire.”[6]

Such missteps regarding strategy have already been revealed in the U.S. and Germany. For example, “a diplomat at China’s nearby Chicago consulate emailed the president of the Wisconsin Senate in February and March, asking that he praise China’s ‘transparency’ and ‘unprecedented and rigorous measures’ in the epidemic.... It was not successful: Roger Roth, the Wisconsin Senate president, in his own resolution called out ‘propaganda and falsehoods’ in the Chinese draft.”[7] Manipulating pain, suffering and death in such a manner can be interpreted in varied ways depending on cultural norms but such manipulation has a consistent negative reading on the global decency meter. For example, “Chinese government representatives had contacted German officials asking for public praise, citing a confidential foreign ministry document. Beijing had asked them to praise its shipment of medical supplies to Europe, and ‘portray the People’s Republic as a reliable partner and prudent crisis manager’.”[8]

It will take time to fully assess the gains and losses from such Mask Diplomacy efforts but some findings seem certain. Elizabeth Economy, director of Asian Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, argues that “this is certainly not in the tradition of the best humanitarian relief efforts. It seems strange to expect signed declarations of thanks from other countries in the midst of the crisis.”[9] In as early as April 2020, there were assessments that proclaimed that China’s Mask Diplomacy had backfired. The American Interest reported that “its defective ‘gifts’ reflect a defective regime—and the world is beginning to notice. After letting the novel coronavirus loose on the world, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now making its case for global leadership.... Meanwhile, many of these (donated) supplies are defective.... the coronavirus crisis may wake the world up to the CCP’s defects, fatally undermining Beijing’s campaign for international authority.”[10] There is certainly room for more developments to alter international understanding of the situation.

Theoretical Discussion

The exchange of meaning involving China and the U.S. poses unique challenges for both the U.S. and Chinese perspectives. It requires not only understanding the particular phenomenon being addressed but also the cultural context within which the topic exists. Ray Heisey stresses how the interaction of Eastern and Western communication perspectives should emphasize an understanding of the cultures within which these communicative practices exist. Such a stress can initially consider the relevance of language.[11]

Devito states that language is “a social institution designed, modified, and extended (some purists might even say distorted) to meet the ever changing needs of the culture or subculture.”[12] The element of context is important in this understanding.  James Boyd White  argues that “as we grow up in the world, our experience is formed by the language in which it is presented and talked about, and this language becomes so much a part of the mind as to seem a part of nature.”[13] Ochs emphasizes this degree of context more strongly in saying that “language is the major vehicle for accomplishing communication, language functions both in context and as context, simultaneously constructing and being constructed by the social occasion.”[14]

Chinese people, and the Chinese language which reflects the culture, are less likely to communicate ideas in a direct manner in comparison to people in the United States. According to D.P. Murray, “within Chinese conversational style is a tendency to respond in terms of expectations, goals, even models rather than mundane facts.”[15] The important role of context cannot be overstated when the aforementioned is paralleled with the system of government in China. As D.P. Murray  points out “China’s governance involves both the overt system of public institutions with whose members we interact rather easily and the more shadowy system of political and security organs whose work is not open.”[16] This process is defined as high-context communication.

Hall states that high-context cultures must provide a context and setting and let the point evolve.[17] Low-context cultures are much more direct and to the point. Andersen explains that “languages are some of the most explicit communication systems but the Chinese language is an implicit high context system.”[18] He goes on to explain that “explicit forms of communication such as verbal codes are more prevalent in low context cultures such as the United States and Northern Europe.”[19]

It should be clear that the Chinese tend to operate using a high-context perspective for conveying and receiving meaning. Conversely, it should be clear that Americans tend to operate using a low-context perspective for conveying and receiving meaning. As such a foundation exists for significant confusion and conflict, not just for advancing differing objectives, but for even achieving a common understanding of what the issues are.

Within the military community a primary unique aspect of Chinese intelligence operations in contrast with other countries such as the U.S. and Russia is illustrated using a sandy beach. Accordingly, Russian forces would arrive in the dead of night via a submarine loaded with a small highly armed contingent of special forces soldiers who would make their way ashore, promptly fill five buckets with sand from the beach and retreat into the darkness from whence they came. The U.S. would send a Navy Seal unit, commensurate with the aforementioned Russian approach, to accomplish the extraction with backup provided by a Marine commando team landing from the air via helicopters and accomplishing a similar type of sand extraction. Planning and execution of this strategy would be enhanced with National Security Agency satellites providing real-time visuals of the beach area.

In comparison, the Chinese would use a vastly different approach. They would enlist the support of 10,000 beach goers (families with children etc.) with instructions to go to the beach on a given sunny afternoon, engage in standard beach recreation activities and then return to their place of lodging. These Chinese “collectors” would then shake off the sand that had accumulated to their towels, sandals, clothing and body into a small pile and these many piles would be collected into one single pile that would be larger and more diverse than the total of what was collected by the Russian and U.S. efforts.[20]

The point being that the Chinese would use a much more broadly conceived approach that is subtle and far less intrusive. This approach would be vague in conception and practically undetectable in execution. It would draw heavily from the general contextual orientation that is common for such a beachfront. The Cox Committee describes this type of scope of operations more fully in their report about Chinese intelligence operations.[21] The exceedingly high number of people that can be utilized for Chinese intelligence operations puts the impressive volume of what can be collected, both in scope and scale, which allows for a larger range of operations and strategies that can be conceived and employed.[22] This situation underscores how understanding of fundamental military operations can vary both in concept and practice.

Historical Context

The U.S.-China relationship is complex with several historical and current trends that need to be considered. At present, there is a commercial bond where the China relies on the U.S. to buy its exports as a means to shore up its industries and U.S. businesses are continually seeking to market products in the exceedingly large (and growing) Chinese market. There is reason for optimism in this type of “trading partner” relationship. However, it is worth considering the overall historical context that provides backdrop for such a relationship and can shape different perspectives of the present. For example, one can understand the unease that might exist within the Asian-American community toward the U.S. government. As D. Wise  points out, “for sixty years, beginning in 1882 and lasting into World War II, Chinese were barred from immigrating to the United States by the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1917 Congress created an Asiatic Barred Zone, prohibiting immigration from much of East Asia and the Pacific Islands (until 1952). Thousands of Japanese Americans were shunted off to internment camps in paranoia after Pearl Harbor…”[23] It is a tainted historical context.

So much of the U.S.-China relationship is a matter of perception with many of the primary aspects open to interpretation and reinterpretation. These kinds of perceptions are therefore subject to manipulation by the Chinese Communist Party through its perception management operations enabled by its tight control over internal politics and media.[24] Reality and perceptions of that reality seem to be equally important when seeking to define and understand the U.S.-China relationship. A fairly fundamental and revealing example can be recognized in global maps produced by each country which has themselves at the center.[25] While it is a subtle difference, it is representative of how each country sees their place at the center of the world. These depictions are illustrative of each countries’ perspective that other nations should fall in line with their lead. When such expected obedience does not happen, it opens the door for distrust, perceived justification for espionage, preparation for armed conflict, further efforts to destabilize the other, and ultimately seeking control of the other.

Implications for U.S. Military

The Chinese Mask Diplomacy has relevance for U.S. military operations underway in the Indo-Pacific theatre insofar as such overtures by the Chinese government can impact how regional countries will interpret Chinese donations. With each country will regard these donations differently depending on their unique circumstances, including past interactions with China. The Mask Diplomacy initiative will have the most impact on countries that border China or are geographically placed in Southeast Asia. As always, there is historical context to consider, as Jeffrey Hornung explains:

A decade ago, it was common to hear China advocate for its peaceful rise. Regional countries had nothing to worry about, or so the narrative went. That charm offensive turned out to be a ruse. By the mid-2010s, China had embarked on an aggressive maritime campaign against its neighbors. Whether it was employing military and paramilitary assets against Japan in the East China Sea or pursuing large-scale artificial island building in the South China Sea, the peaceful rise narrative proved to be a distraction from Beijing’s true intentions. [26]

However, it is important to remember that relations between China and its regional neighbors go back thousands of years thereby permeating the public mind of each culture. For instance, there is a deep chasm of Vietnamese distrust of Chinese intentions that goes back thousands of years when Vietnam was a province of China.  The Sino-Vietnamese War provides rich cultural context that frames current events.   To disregard such historical context equates with probable misunderstanding of what is transpiring between China and Vietnam.

So, even though the Chinese provided large amounts of supplies & armaments to the Vietnamese via the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese were very careful to accept such Chinese aid but not allow Chinese soldiers to take up positions in Vietnam so as to avoid a unique debt that could arise in relation to Chinese blood being shed on Vietnamese soil. Conversely, when the Vietcong moved south to claim control of Saigon, the Chinese sought to slow that advancement so as to avoid a singularly reunified Vietnam that could pose a challenge to China.

These dynamics continue to impact relationships between China and other countries in Indo-China.   China has launched an ambitious project (the “Belt and Road Initiative”) to promote commerce throughout Indo-China and beyond.  The “Belt and Road Initiative” has ports in many of the Indo-China countries but there are not ports in Vietnam or India.  This will disadvantage Vietnam and India.  This circumstance is clearly attributable to the historical context at play throughout the region.    

Thus, the case in each country is unique and involves a moving constellation of variables that can impact relations. U.S. military activities occurring within countries that have been recipient of Chinese Mask Diplomacy will do well to be mindful of such benefits received in specific countries but also consider the historical relationships those countries have had with China. The expressed views can pivot boldly depending on unfolding developments.

Speculations About the Road Ahead

Using the past as indicator for the future, we can expect to see minimal long-term impact from the Chinese Mask Diplomacy initiative. While it will have some desired short-term effects, it will create some unanticipated backlash and there is nothing to indicate it will have any lasting large scale impact. More subtle will be the lasting view of China as a breeding ground for such COVID type viruses as the 2003 SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak still resonates as a cloud over the Chinese reputation. It is worth remembering that superstitions run deep in Southeast Asia.

China is composed of 22 provinces that are distinctly unique. We in the U.S. are accustomed to thinking of the Chinese provinces as resembling our states but the Chinese provinces have less in common. Some of the Chinese provinces are more like independent countries that come under the Chinese web of influence. As such, the common bond is weaker than what we have among our United States.

There is a strong possibility that the history of COVID-19 will bear this out as another example of Chinese faults and their propensity toward engaging in misrepresentations to further their cause. COVID-19 will mostly be understood as a problem that originated in China and that the Chinese sought to manipulate to their benefit. None of this is illegal but it resonates with the perception they care little for the well-being of other countries, have a distinct lack of moral legitimacy and are not in the running for superpower status. China is certainly worthy of U.S. monitoring and concern but the U.S. should not worry about being bumped from the superpower pedestal by China

Overall Analyst Assessment

Overall, the “Mask Diplomacy” being stressed by China is of limited relevance. There will be positive effects with audiences who are favorably predisposed to such Chinese public relations overtures. Overall though, in most countries, any positive effects from Chinese donations relevant to COVID-19 will be countered by the global awareness that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan China. However, the “Mask Diplomacy” phenomenon is worthy of recognition and study in that it is representative of similar kinds of initiatives China has stressed in the past and will emphasize in the future. Furthermore, it exemplifies the Chinese emphasis on context in such situations. As such, the successes and failures associated with this Mask Diplomacy will be dependent on the cultural context of the interpreting country.

Jim Schnell
Jim Schnell, Ph.D. (Ohio University) retired from the USAFR at the rank of Colonel with his final 14 years serving as an Assistant Air Force Attache in China.   He is a three time Fulbright Scholar (Cambodia, Myanmar & Kosovo) and has held faculty assignments at Ohio State University, Cleveland State University, University of Cincinnati, Ohio University and Miami University.  He is presently an Indo-China cultural advisor with the University of Montana Defense Critical Languages & Culture Program and routinely offers presentations for the Regional Expertise & Culture program at Fort Bragg, NC.


[1.] Brian Wong, “China’s Mask Diplomacy,” The Diplomat (March 25, 2020),

[2.] Jeffrey W. Hornung, “Don’t Be Fooled by China’s Mask Diplomacy,” RAND Blog (May 5, 2020),

[3.] Wong, “China’s Mask Diplomacy.”

[4.] Charlie Campbell, “China’s ‘Mask Diplomacy’ Is Faltering But the U.S. Isn’t Doing Any Better,” Time (April 3, 2020),

[5.] Dylan M.H. Loh, “The Power and Limits of China’s ‘Mask Diplomacy,’” East Asia Forum (May 22, 2020),

[6.] Raj Verma, “China’s ‘Mask Diplomacy’ to Change the COVID-19 Narrative in Europe,” Asia- European Journal, (Vol. 18, 2020), 4.

[7.] Alexandra Ma, “China is Attempting to Win Political Points from the Coronavirus with ‘Mask Diplomacy’—But It Mostly Isn’t Working,” Business Insider (April 18, 2020),

[8.] Ma, “China is Attempting to Win Political Points from the Coronavirus with ‘Mask Diplomacy’—But It Mostly Isn’t Working.”

[9.] Ma, “China is Attempting to Win Political Points from the Coronavirus with ‘Mask Diplomacy’—But It Mostly Isn’t Working.”

[10.] Charles Dunst, “How China’s Mask Diplomacy Backfired,” The American Interest (April 15, 2020),

[11.] D.R. Heisey, Chinese Perspectives in Rhetoric and Communication (Stamford, Connecticut: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000), xix.

[12.] Joseph A. Devito, The Interpersonal Communication Book (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), 148.

[13.] James Boyd White, When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitution and Reconstitutions of  Language, Character, and Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 276.

[14.] Elinor Ochs, “Introduction: What Child Language Can Contribute to Pragmatics.” In Elinor Ochs and B. Schiefflen (eds.), Developmental Pragmatics (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 206.

[15.] D.P. Murray, “Face-to-Face: American and Chinese Interactions.” In Kapp, R.A. (ed.), Communicating with China (Chicago: Intercultural Press, 1983), 13.

[16.] Murray, “Face-to-Face: American and Chinese Interactions,” 10.

[17.] Edward T. Hall, The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 1984), 35.

[18.] Peter A. Andersen, “Explaining Intercultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication.” Paper presented at the 1987 meeting of the Speech Communication Association (Boston, Massachusetts), 23. 

[19.] Andersen. “Explaining Intercultural Differences,” 24.

[20.] David Wise. Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2011), 11; Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2001), 133; Tod Hoffman, The Spy Within: Larry Chin and China’s Penetration of the CIA (Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2008), 7.

[21.] U.S. House Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China (Cox Committee), 3 vols., 105th Congress, 2nd session, 1999, 8.

[22.] Nicholas Eftimiades, Chinese Intelligence Operations, (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 113-114.

[23.] Wise, Tiger Trap, 238.

[24.] Cox Committee, 8.

[25.] Hoffman, A Convenient Spy, 9.

[26.] Hornung, “Don’t Be Fooled by China’s Mask Diplomacy.”

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