Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Beijing loses face with ‘face-mask diplomacy’

  • While most of the defective medical gear has been sold to foreign countries by private Chinese companies rather than the government, for most foreigners, it’s all ‘poorly made in China’
With the coronavirus outbreak, politics and profits have collided in China. Beijing is paying a heavy price as defective Chinese-made medical equipment has been rejected by afflicted countries one after another.

The fiasco has not only undermined Beijing’s goodwill diplomacy to provide medical expertise and aid to lessen anti-Chinese animosities over the ­Covid-19 pandemic. It also reinforces, once again, the reputation of Chinese manufacturers for producing substandard products despite the country’s global dominance in medical supplies.

Spain, Turkey, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria are some of the countries that have reportedly bought or been sent defective medical gear.

Some Western politicians fretted in the last month or so that China was exploiting the pandemic to gain political leverage as a global power. European Union chief diplomat Josep Borrell has called it the “politics of generosity”; others label it as “face-mask diplomacy”. They needn’t worry now.

To be fair, we need to distinguish between aid and gear offered by the Chinese government and that sold to countries by private companies. Most of the defective equipment has been sold by the latter for profit. Understandably, though, most foreigners would not care about the distinction. In their minds, it’s all “poorly made in China”.

That is the eponymous title of a book published many years ago by American manufacturing consultant Paul Midler.

He calls the phenomenon “quality fade”, that is, “the deliberate and secret habit of widening profit margins through a reduction in the quality of materials”.

“The initial production sample is fine,” he wrote in a Forbes commentary, “but with each successive production run, a bit more of the necessary inputs are missing. [I]n these cat-and-mouse games, [the factory owner] has virtually nothing to lose and only margin to gain.”

The practice focuses “on extracting profit through short-term manoeuvres that inevitably militate against long-term development … This approach contrasts sharply with the success strategies of such economies as Japan and Korea, which focus on building market share and developing strategic relationships”.

Midler wrote these words more than 10 years ago. During that time, China has undeniably moved up the value-added and hi-tech production and supply chains, having produced comparatively priced but also quality products from commercial drones to smart phones.

But as the medical gear fiasco has shown, the “quality” problem has not gone away and has come back to haunt Beijing’s post-pandemic diplomacy.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China loses face with ‘face-mask diplomacy’