White-Coat Warriors: China's Heroic Fight against Ebola

Beijing has made a significant contribution in West Africa’s Ebola Crisis.

The news cycle has moved at a ferocious pace over the last several years as our attention has been sequentially riveted by predicament after unexpected predicament: from the Arab Spring to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, from the rise of ISIS to China’s extensive land reclamation on reefs in the South China Sea.  As the pace of news, coupled with new social media technologies that further hype the new “trending story,” many foreign policy analysts can be forgiven for complaining of severe whiplash at the rapid turn of events.  

One storyline that seems to have been precipitously dropped by the media (with only few exceptions) concerns the Ebola Crisis in West Africa.  It’s easy to forget that this issue was the dominant news theme last summer and fall.

In September 2014, the Centers for Disease Control offered the dire, worst case prediction that as many as 1.4 million people in West Africa could be infected by January 2015. Some have faulted the U.S. response as coming too late to help the approximately 11,000 victims of the terrible disease.  

However, even if the most dire predictions did not come true, the fact that 3,000 U.S. military personnel went bravely into this quite unprecedented and plainly risky situation to help to stem the outbreak undoubtedly reflects greatly on the U.S. armed forces as a “global force for good” and perhaps also their commander-in-chief, who made the difficult decision to commit sizeable resources to this noble effort.  

Other U.S. government agencies (e.g. Public Health Service), as well as numerous American volunteers also played heroic roles—frequently risking exposure during the worst part of the crisis.  Still, the United States was hardly alone among the world community in lending a hand.  Little Cuba’s outsized contributions impressed many, for example.

But what of the emergent Chinese colossus?  This edition of Dragon Eye will attempt a modest and quite preliminary appraisal of China’s “非洲抗击挨博拉” [counter Ebola in Africa] campaign.

It seems that Beijing has not received due acknowledgement for an impressive effort, that featured significant participation from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), among various Chinese government agencies.   China itself has been uncharacteristically modest about these achievements.  This may be an attempt to temper future expectations for the next big global outbreak.  More likely still, one may speculate that Chinese leaders were seriously concerned that “excessive” coverage of China’s efforts to counter Ebola could have incited major worries at home regarding the obvious risk of carrying the deadly virus back to China.  Such concerns would have been totally reasonable, moreover, if one simply recalls the jittery reactions of Americans with respect to returning aid workers.

As with most of the other members of the international community, China could be faulted for reacting somewhat slowly to the crisis.  The earliest pledge of assistance by Beijing in April 2014 amounted to a paltry $160,000 to contain the crisis in the entire region.  Over time, however, as the crisis deepened during the summer of 2014, additional assistance was promised and seems to have reached well over 100 million.

This amount is less than some other major powers, for example Japan, but then China also put significant “skin in the game,” as well as funds. Thus a November 2014 report in 环球时报 [Global Times] pointed out, for example, that while the United States was also providing resources, unlike China it was not directly providing military personnel to staff the facilities it was helping to set up.  The same report suggested that China had deployed more specialists and medical personnel to the region than any other single country.

This claim needs to be verified with other sources, of course, but Beijing may have indeed benefited in its effort from its recent, large-scale effort to counter the SARS epidemic.  In addition to hospital beds, ambulances, protective clothing, and stoves, China set up a 100-bed “Ebola Control Center” in Liberia with 160 doctors and nurses from the PLA to staff that facility.  China also worked with the African Union and the European Union to provide public sanitation courses, as well as setting up an “非洲疾病防空中心” [Africa Disease Control Center], according to a report in the State Council-affiliated journal 亚非纵横 [Asia & Africa Review].

The most specific information that has emerged from China regarding its Ebola response actually concerns the military unit deployed into Liberia.  This unit, frequently referred to as China’s “白衣战士” [white coat warriors] was operating under President Xi Jinping’s overall guidance to “大胜仗零感染” [fight on to victory, allow zero infection].