TIU Global Dialogue Series: Can China’s Billionaires Help Save the World from the Pandemic?

By Debie Alarcon and Teguh Ganesha

On April 26, the TIU Global Dialogue hosted an insightful lecture by Professor Gerald Chan of the University of Auckland on China’s health diplomacy and the crucial role of billionaires in the endeavor – one of the key components that form China’s modern Silk Road. With Professor Hak Yin Li (PhD, Tokyo International University) moderating, the session started with a summary of China’s flagship diplomatic policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

Professor Hak Yin Li introducing Professor Chan to the audience

China has invested trillions of dollars in the BRI so far. Professor Chan compares this price tag to the world’s combined military expenditure in 2022 at $2.1 trillion USD – the highest it has ever been in history – and points to how China spent an equal amount for the BRI in just around a decade. This expenditure could certainly justify calling the Belt and Road Initiative, as Professor Chan words it, “China’s primary, signature, flagship.”

Construction of the Nairobi Expressway by the China Road and Bridge Corporation.
Nairobi, Kenya October 20, 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya.

In his lecture, Professor Chan provided a comprehensive analysis of the BRI, dividing it into four key areas that align with the topics covered in his three published books. These areas include the initiative’s digital, overland, and maritime aspects, with Professor Chan exploring the interrelated nature of each component to offer a nuanced understanding of the BRI’s significance. The Chinese “Silk Road” has expanded beyond the growing overland network connection between China and Europe, with its maritime “roads” being easily accessible, with the polar silk route especially benefitting from global warming, thus extending its digital road with maritime and land channels. Another success under the grand scope of the BRI – this time in its digital focus – came with the creation of the Tiangong Space Station, which has been in orbit for a little over a year and is expected to be fully operational by the end of this year, becoming the second international space station in existence, with plans for cooperation with other countries.

Professor Chan then introduced the fourth component and the focus of his next book: China’s “Health Silk Road.” China’s latecomer status in the ever-developing field of digital health is becoming overshadowed by the state’s up-and-coming superpower status in pharmaceuticals. Focusing on the patient rights vs. patent rights dilemma, Professor Chan states that China has sided with countries of the Global South in regard to the right to access healthcare. However, China’s status as a pharmaceutical developer and substantial royalty holder for pharmaceutical patents begs the question of where China’s support truly lies. In seeking to provide an answer, Professor Chan takes the COVID pandemic as an example, explaining that China has shifted its focus from vaccine diplomacy to helping developing countries by supporting their development of effective systems to handle future pandemics. 

“I’ve highlighted the word billionaire in the title, just to signal that this is a very new feature of China’s aid diplomacy.”

Professor Gerald Chan

Presenting the role of Chinese billionaires in China’s initiatives, Professor Chan explains that the growing number of the rich and their charity foundations within the country has significant implications for China’s growth. Illustrating the contribution of financial donors during the COVID pandemic, Professor Chan points to the dominance of American and Chinese foundations in foreign aid. However, when looking at assistance given in terms of medical supplies (e.g., face masks, testing kits, ventilators, etc.), there seems to be a greater contribution from China’s billionaires; with the United States being a large importer due to a lack of production of low-value equipment.

Compliance and cooperation of the private sector in following government policies have also proved to be increasingly vital in the day-to-day running of the economy. The 2013 Ebola crisis in Western Africa exemplified this – 48 major companies in the region formed the Ebola Private Sector Mobilisation Group (EPSMG) and provided $28.5 million USD in funding, personnel, and equipment, and another $89 million USD were provided by other businesses and wealthy individuals, among them were Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as Larry Page and Google. The world also saw similar courses of action during the COVID-19 pandemic on a far larger, global scale – and the benevolent actions of some of China’s billionaires in reaching out to foreign governments have sparked some interest in the role of wealthy individuals in tackling global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Concluding with an explanation of China’s Global Initiatives – development, security, and civilization – Professor Chan lists out the country’s aims of “removing poverty”, establishing common security, and common value. Pointing out the fact that China has been attempting to act as a mediator in tense international relations situations, Professor Chan ends his presentation by bringing up the final thought-provoking question: How can the world be nurtured or further developed with the rising rivalry between current and rising superpowers? 

Professor Li presenting questions from the audience to Profesor Chan

Opening the stage for the Q&A session, Professor Li presents Professor Chan with the question: Why do some countries still oppose China’s aid diplomacy, especially considering the international public good that it has offered? According to Professor Chan,  such criticisms should be analyzed, specifically on which grounds they are formed and from which actors. He concedes that China needs to have a system where people have a right to good living standards. Fortunately, China has created a pathway that appears to be “more good than bad,” and he ended by critiquing the American point of view, that “no matter what China does, it is negative” in America’s eyes.

Overall, Professor Chan argues that an objective, unbiased evaluation is necessary to critically comprehend China’s role and growing influence in global affairs, including its projects, diplomacy, and initiatives. Can China truly introduce a brave new world with its policy of health and aid diplomacy from its government and billionaires? Professor Chan might agree. Nevertheless, the audience is left to wonder whether China’s policy is genuinely benevolent and whether its prominence in aid diplomacy will continue.

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