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A shipment of ventilators, donated by the Jack Ma Foundation and Joe Tsai Foundation, arriving in New York. Photo: Handout

Philanthropists step up citizens’ diplomacy with gifts even as US, Chinese diplomats play the blame game amid coronavirus pandemic

  • The philanthropic foundations of Jack Ma and Joe Tsai, two of China’s wealthiest technology entrepreneurs, have donated 2.3 million face masks, 2,000 ventilators and 170,000 pieces of protective gear to New York
  • The donation, the biggest by private citizens to the epicentre of the global coronavirus pandemic, was described by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as ‘really good news’
Chinese philanthropists are stepping up their donation of protective gear, essential medical and diagnostic kits to the United States, Europe and Asian countries, despite rising acrimony between diplomats and government officials looking to pin blame amid the world’s worst pandemic in decades.
The private foundations of Jack Ma and Joe Tsai, co-founders of this newspaper’s owner Alibaba Group Holding and two of China’s wealthiest technology entrepreneurs, donated a total of 2.3 million face masks, 2,000 medical ventilators and 170,000 pieces of protective gear to New York.

All 2,000 ventilators have arrived, according to a person familiar with the arrangements. The ventilators arrived in two batches over the weekend.

Delivery of the essential materials, made possible by behind-the-scenes negotiations by the donors and officials from both the Chinese and US governments, had to overcome many import and export regulatory hurdles, underscoring the role of civic diplomacy in dealing with the global public health crisis.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo thanks the Chinese government for ventilators donated by Jack Ma Foundation and Joe Tsai Foundation, which arrived in New York on Saturday. Photo: Handout

The gesture comes as diplomats of both countries, and even government officials including the US president and his secretary of state, have engaged in a tit-for-tat war of words, attempting to pin the blame for the world’s worst pandemic in decades on each other.

The current atmosphere, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labelling the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus” as recently as last month, has made the process of sending aid material to the US 10 times harder than before, said the person familiar with the matter.

US President Donald Trump called the gift “a big deal” that would “make a significant difference” to America’s ability to combat the coronavirus.

“Jack Ma is a friend of mine and he’s made it very possible to get about 1,000 ventilators from China,” Trump said. “But that was from him and my other friend [Tsai] that was really a gift. And we appreciate it very much.”

The donation was received by New York state’s governor Andrew Cuomo, who spoke in a televised press conference, where he thanked the Chinese government for easing export restrictions to make the donation of surgical masks, medical ventilators and much-needed protective gear available to his hard-hit state.

Jack Ma is a friend of mine and he’s made it very possible to get about 1,000 ventilators from China. But that was from him and my other friend [Tsai] that was really a gift
Donald Trump, US President

With 310,000 people infected and more than 8,500 people killed, the US has emerged as the new global epicentre for the coronavirus. New York is the worst-hit region in America, accounting for one in every three confirmed infections in the country. The philanthropists chose to send their gift to New York because the state was in dire need of help, much as Hubei’s provincial capital of Wuhan desperately needed help at the start of the outbreak, said the person familiar with the matter.

Cuomo said the donations were “really good news” as the state pushes up against the apex of the outbreak, which is likely to hit in about seven days.


One of the challenges in making the donation possible was the fact that the US had previously blocked China-made “KN95” standard masks, only allowing “3M N95” masks to be used. Although the two masks have different standards, they essentially deliver the same performance. On Friday, the US Food and Drugs Administration issued an emergency use authorisation for KN95 masks.

A tweet from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo giving thanks for the ventilators donated by Jack Ma Foundation and Joe Tsai Foundation. Photo: Twitter

Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore, said that what China is doing with its so-called mask diplomacy is very clear. “But given the emergency situation in New York, whatever channel – private or public sources – the equipment comes from, should not matter, especially those for medical workers,” he said.

Separately, the west coast US state of Oregon has also said that it would send 140 ventilators to New York. The state, like other areas of the US, is facing shortages of medical gear, including masks and ventilators.

“We are not yet at the apex. We are getting closer,” Cuomo said, adding that this was good as it gave the authorities more time to prepare.


Cuomo said 113,704 people in New York have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 15,000 having been hospitalised. The state’s death toll saw a significant spike on Saturday to reach 3,565, up from 2,935 the previous day.

US President-elect Donald Trump after a meeting with Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma at Trump Tower in New York, on January 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters

The White House has been criticised for not better coordinating the supply of medical goods to states, who are competing with each other on the open market.


NUS’ Wu said the tussle between federal and state governments in the US on key decisions regarding the acquisition of medical supplies was not helping the fight against the pandemic. “Unlike in China, where the central government has the say over local governments, in the US, when it comes to public health provision, the power belongs to the state,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cuomo acknowledged that he asked the White House and others for help negotiating the ventilators.

Trump said he would like to hear a more resounding “thank you” from Cuomo for providing medical supplies and helping quickly to add hospital capacity.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Philanthropists step up civic diplomacy amid US-China blame game