When six Chinese doctors landed in Belgrade two weeks ago, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic greeted them with elbow-bumps before laying a kiss on their nation’s flag, a gesture of gratitude that sent social media in China aflutter.
These doctors are now running the Balkan state’s COVID-19 strategy, as Serbia becomes a willing theater for Beijing’s “mask diplomacy.”
For weeks China has been showering European countries with millions of masks, test kits and other aid, recasting itself as the hero in the battle against the novel coronavirus, which emerged in Wuhan, China.
Photo: AFP / Dimitrije Goll / Serbia’s Presidential press service
EU officials have started to warn against a Beijing propaganda campaign — spun through the “politics of generosity” — that is distorting China’s initial missteps in managing a contagion that started on its soil and has now killed more than 47,280 people around the globe.
However, Serbia, an EU candidate country with a long history of balancing its Western and Eastern alliances, has never been so lavish in its praise.
“Chinese experts are the first to have defeated the virus. From now on, we will do everything they say,” Vucic said as state TV broadcast the arrival of the plane carrying the doctors and equipment.
Since then, the Chinese team has helped redraw the country’s approach to containing COVID-19, which has killed more than 28 Serbians and infected nearly 1,060.
Plans to use a military hospital as a hub for patients were scrapped after the Chinese experts said the site’s ventilation was unsuitable, officials told media.
The doctors were also behind the decision to ramp up testing — with a goal of 7,000 daily this month — and set up enormous field hospitals across the nation to house people with mild symptoms.
“It was agreed that from the moment of their arrival our experts will consult with Chinese experts on all future decisions,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said.
In the center of Belgrade, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) face now peers out from a billboard with the words: “Thank you brother Xi,” a message paid for by a pro-Serbian government tabloid.
The adulation is playing out against a backdrop in which the government has framed the EU as absent and ineffective.
Vucic initially downplayed the threat of the respiratory disease.
At a news conference he joked that it could be treated with rakija, a strong Balkan brandy.
However, when the dangers became undeniable, Vucic pivoted to criticizing a lack of help from the EU.
“The best way to insulate himself from criticism for his previous mishandling of the crisis is to launch attacks on the EU and hold pompous ceremonies at the airport welcoming Chinese doctors and medical deliveries,” said Majda Ruge, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The imagery is very powerful.”
The fanfare is welcomed by Beijing, eager to paper over its slow response in managing the outbreak.
Footage of Vucic kissing the flag was widely aired in China and won him an army of Chinese online fans, the Global Times reported.
Web users applauded “his sincerity, gratitude, as well as attractive looking and tall figure,” the state-run paper said.
EU officials have since raced to highlight their already significant investments in Serbia’s healthcare — more than 450 million euros (US$492 million) in aid and loans over the past 20 years.
They also unveiled a fresh 93.4 million euro donation package to battle COVID-19 directly.
The exact quantities of China’s help have not been made public.
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