China’s richest man opened his own Twitter account last month, amid the Covid-19 outbreak. So far, each of her publications has been dedicated to her unrivaled campaign to deliver medical supplies to almost every country in the world.
“One world, one fight!” Jack Ma excited in one of his first messages. “Together we can do this!” he encouraged another.
The billionaire businessman is the driving force behind a widespread operation to ship medical supplies to more than 150 countries so far, sending face masks and fans to many places that have been spared the global fight by life-saving teams.
But Ma’s critics and even some of his followers aren’t sure what he’s getting into. Has this bold adventure in global philanthropy revealed you as the friendly face of the Communist Party of China? Or is he an independent player who is being used by the Party for propaganda purposes? He appears to be following China’s diplomatic rules, particularly in choosing which countries will benefit from his donations, but his growing influence could put him in the crosshairs of jealous leaders at the top of China’s political pyramid.
Other tech billionaires have promised more money to combat the effects of the virus: Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is giving $ 1 billion (£ 0.8 billion) to the cause. Candid, a US-based philanthropy watchdog USA Tracking private charitable donations, it places Alibaba 12th on a list of Covid-19 private donors. But that list doesn’t include shipments of vital supplies, which some countries may consider more important than money at this stage of the global outbreak.
No one but the effervescent Ma is able to send supplies directly to those who need them. Starting in March, the Jack Ma Foundation and the related Alibaba Foundation began transporting supplies to Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and even politically sensitive areas such as Iran, Israel, Russia, and the United States.
Ma has also donated millions for coronavirus vaccine research, and a medical expert manual from doctors in his native Zhejiang province has been translated from Chinese into 16 languages. But it’s the medical shipments that have been making headlines, setting Ma apart.
“He has the capacity, the money and the lifting power to get a Chinese supply plane out of Hangzhou to land in Addis Ababa, or wherever he needs to go,” explains Ma’s biographer Duncan Clark. “This is logistics; this is what your company, your people and your province are all about.”
However, the donations that have been made have certainly generated a lot of goodwill. With the exception of problematic deliveries to Cuba and Eritrea, all foundation shipments sent from China appear to have been gratefully received. That success is giving Ma even more positive attention than usual. China’s state media has been mentioning Ma almost as often as the country’s autocratic leader Xi Jinping.
It is an awkward comparison. As Ma absorbs the praise, Xi faces lingering questions about how she handled the early stages of the virus and where, exactly, the outbreak began.
The Chinese government has sent medical equipment and supply donations to a large number of affected countries, particularly in Europe and Southeast Asia. However, those efforts have sometimes failed. China has been accused of shipping faulty supplies to various countries. In some cases, the tests he sent were being misused, but in others, the low-quality supplies were unused and donations failed.
In contrast, Jack Ma’s shipments have only increased his reputation.
“It is fair to say that Ma’s donation was universally celebrated across Africa,” says Eric Olander, managing editor of the China Africa Project website and podcast. Ma promised to visit every country in Africa and has been a frequent visitor since her retirement.
“What happens to the materials once they land in a country is up to the host government, so any complaints about how the Nigerian materials were distributed is in fact a Nigerian national problem,” adds Olander. “But regarding the donation itself, Rwandan leader Paul Kagame called it a” shot in the arm “and almost everyone saw it for what it was: delivering much-needed materials to a region of the world that no one else is willing or able to help on that scale. “