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Coronavirus: Beijing offers Chinese nationals in Singapore face masks and support amid crisis

coronavirus beijing offers chinese nationals in singapore face masks and support amid crisis v1

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For Chinese national Didi, the most important lesson that living abroad has taught him is to love his home country even more.

This was the message the 21-year-old student posted on popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo last week, accompanied with images of him collecting surgical masks from the Chinese embassy in Singapore.

“Going abroad has taught us patriotism. At this moment when the global supply of masks is low, only our country is showing that it cares about our compatriots abroad. I am proud of my motherland,” he said.

“Today, I really felt what the Chinese foreign affairs ministry has been saying, that the motherland will always be a strong backing for us and are always behind us.”

coronavirus beijing offers chinese nationals in singapore face masks and support amid crisis 1
Non-essential shops and businesses have been shut in Singapore, as part of measures to control the spread of Covid-19.

As the number of Covid-19 cases in Singapore climbs, the Chinese embassy has increased its outreach efforts in recent weeks, engaging with Chinese nationals living in the city state – from students to business federations – to assuage their concerns and distribute protective supplies, including face masks.

Globally, the number of infections has exceeded 1.4 million, and the pneumonia-like coronavirus has killed more than 88,000. There are 1,623 infections in Singapore, of which 406 have recovered and seven have died.

Even though Singapore’s handling of the virus outbreak has been widely lauded by health care experts, it has seen an uptick in cases in recent weeks, with authorities wary of the increasing threat of local transmission. On Wednesday, the city state recorded 142 new cases – the largest one-day surge to date.

With new waves of infections emerging rapidly across the globe, the Chinese embassy in Singapore said in a March 28 post that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is concerned about the safety of citizens who are studying in the city state, as well as its diaspora there.

In a bid to allay concerns, ambassador Hong Xiaoyong and top officials from the embassy visited institutions with a high enrolment of Chinese students, such as Dunman High School, National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University.

Representatives from the China-affiliated Hua Yuan Association, Shanxi Association, and the China Construction Bank, also met the ambassador through a video conference, during which Chinese officials “conveyed the party’s greetings and concern” and allocated epidemic prevention supplies.

“The Chinese government is always concerned about the safety and well being of overseas [Chinese] citizens, and protecting them is one of the embassy’s most important tasks … I hope that everyone will not panic and not be complacent,” said the embassy, which also praised Singapore’s tackling of the virus.

Aaron Yang, vice-president of the Zhejiang Entrepreneurs Association in Singapore, said the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office – the arm of the CCP responsible for liaising with overseas Chinese living abroad – tasked his association with locating students in the city state who hailed from the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. He has since gathered and spoken to over 400 mainland students aged between 15 and 24.

“There were instructions to reach out to students to understand how they are feeling and to disseminate the right information since they might be confused with the influx of conflicting information online,” said Yang, who is a Shanghai-born naturalised Singapore citizen. “Some of these students are young and we need to protect them.”

Yang said there was initially confusion among members of the Chinese community on whether they should wear face masks when they head out. In China, donning masks is deemed necessary, he said, but officials in Singapore had maintained that only those who were unwell should wear them.It was not until Friday that the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reversed that advice, citing how there is new evidence suggesting that an infected person can show no symptoms and yet still pass on the virus.

coronavirus beijing offers chinese nationals in singapore face masks and support amid crisis 2
People walk along Marina Bay in Singapore

Even so, the Chinese embassy has been giving out 10 masks to each Chinese national in batches. Among those eager to collect their masks is Wu, a 24-year-old Hangzhou resident who wishes to be known only by her last name.

Wu said she has been following the ambassador’s social media accounts closely, and has been kept updated by different Chinese outreach groups about the mask distribution drive. For Wu, this would mean topping up her mask supply, which is depleting by the day.

“I always wear surgical masks when I leave the house. When I was back in China last year, I felt the anxiety and fear there,” she said, adding that her parents warned her to put a mask on regardless of whether she was well or not, as a preventive measure.

The marketing manager said even though she has not been informed when she can collect her masks, her friends who received theirs felt a sense of pride.

“The feeling of collecting the masks from the embassy and holding the Chinese passport in your hands must be good, and I feel proud and comforted by the move,” she said.

Yang sees the embassy’s distribution drive as an act of reassurance to Chinese nationals who are far away from their families and friends. This is similar to how Singapore gave out four surgical masks to each of its 1.37 million households in February, and from Sunday, started distributing reusable masks to its residents.

“The embassy has to establish a channel and level of trust with its people so there could be communication during times of an emergency,” Yang said, pointing out that even though most of the Chinese nationals he spoke to trust the Singapore government’s handling of the virus, the level of panic among students is significantly higher.

For example, some university students who have had their modules or timetables changed due to the virus outbreak are worried and scared that they will be unable to graduate.

“Some of them are unable to take the stress. That’s why the embassy and I have to come in to calm them down and give them advice,” Yang said.

The embassy has since instructed Chinese students under the age of 18 to register with it, to “further improve the consular protection and assistance services” in light of the worsening situation in Singapore.

Subtle Dig?

Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China, Taiwan and Mongolia, suggested that the intensified outreach campaign on the embassy’s part could be part of its “propaganda machine pushing the narrative that China has gotten the epidemic under control and that the rest of the world is faltering”.

The current message that the Chinese missions around the world are sending, coupled with the spiralling situation in Singapore, may cause a disconnect between Chinese nationals in Singapore and the government there, he said.

“They are pushing this line that the rest of the world is not as capable as China’s governance model, that other countries haven’t taken the same steps that China had,” said Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

I think in some way it is also a subtle criticism of Singapore … that Singapore should follow a policy like China’s.

Drew Thompson

“The increasingly triumphant tone of Chinese media now could exacerbate the fear of Chinese citizens in Singapore who are reading Chinese media,” he added.

State-owned media outlets in the mainland have praised the country’s hardline approach during the early stages of the outbreak, and a significant decline in cases there has spurred authorities to loosen travel restrictions. Hubei province, for example, has lifted its travel ban, with the exception of Wuhan city, the initial epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

By distributing surgical masks when the Singapore government was still against people wearing them unnecessarily, the move by the Chinese embassy could also have posed risks to Singapore’s social fabric, Thompson said, pointing to how there were growing tensions between those wearing masks and those who are not, and how giving out masks could heighten these tensions.

“I think in some way it is also a subtle criticism of Singapore on the part of the ambassador and the Chinese foreign ministry, that Singapore should follow a policy like China’s,” he said. “The embassy is saying here’s the masks, here’s the outreach we are doing, and if things get worse, we’ll take you back.”

coronavirus beijing offers chinese nationals in singapore face masks and support amid crisis 3
A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a billboard displaying information on “Safe Distancing For Seniors” in Singapore.

Drastic Measures

Ma Liang, a professor of public administration and policy at the Renmin University of China, concurred that Chinese people in Singapore are heavily influenced by mainland media in perceiving Covid-19. “Particularly, in the early stage of the epidemic when the Singapore government was not taking drastic measures like their China counterpart, I knew that Chinese nationals were complaining about the situation in Singapore,” Ma said.

However, Ma, who lived in Singapore for four years, suggested that the embassy’s intensified outreach campaign does not only apply to the city state, and Chinese consulates in other countries are probably doing the same.

They buy the drastic measures adopted by the Chinese government and would like to see similar actions in Singapore.

Ma Liang

Members of the Chinese community are concerned about their safety and would like to return to the mainland so it was the “right time” to assure these people that they can get support from the government, he said, adding that this would also help the central government make crucial decisions such as whether an evacuation was needed.

Ma said that even though they trust Singapore’s “world-class” and effective governance model, Chinese nationals are ambivalent about whether the city state can turn the situation around and they have the “second option” of returning to the mainland.

“They buy the drastic measures adopted by the Chinese government and would like to see similar actions in Singapore,” he said.

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