China, as the largest emerging donor in the world, has been increasingly active in the international aid sector by providing generous development assistance, including infrastructure projects, human resources, technical cooperation and – during the COVID-19 pandemic especially – medical supplies, teams and volunteers, to the Global South.
While much attention has been paid to the ways China’s foreign aid model may reshape the global aid industry and underpins China’s strategic role in the Pacific region, the domestic humanitarian actions in China have received less attention. The COVID-19 emergency response offers us some insights into the strategic role of what I am calling ‘virtual civil society’ in shaping these domestic actions. As a new practitioner in the aid industry, I believe that exploring this dynamic can help us to understand China’s domestic COVID-19 response mechanism, and the importance of civil society in emergency responses.
As the world’s largest social network market, China has a unique social media landscape: a total ban on mainstream social media Apps and sites like YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, restrictive and continuous monitoring on user-generated content, and aggressive punitive measures for netizens who break the cyber regulations. Despite the inaccessibility of Western social media, Chinese have a thirst for a freer and more democratic associational life and have invented their own social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo in which the public can capture the immediacy of information and address collective issues.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, this virtual civil society created a space for immediate and effective humanitarian actions at an individual level that complemented the state’s role as the primary duty-bearer and direct provider in the face of catastrophe.
On 24th January 2020, a chat room called “Face Masks Guru” was co-established by four young women from Wuhan during the outbreak of COVID-19. The only aim of this chat room was to raise available medical supplies like face masks, protective clothing and disinfectant for local hospitals before the arrival of material aid from social enterprises, government sectors as well as NGOs. Started by just four people, the chat room expanded dramatically to over a hundred people within only 24 hours. In 48 hours, “Face Masks Guru” successfully raised 4,330 protective suits and 14,000 certified surgical face masks for 20 hospitals in Wuhan with commitments of each members in the chat room.
This donated personal protective equipment (PPE) made up for the shortage of official disaster relief supplies, increasing public access to material and showing the capacity of self-organised humanitarian initiatives. Networks built around recipients and donors drove a large-scale humanitarian response as they formed close ties among persons and communities, demonstrating the power of concerted actions of ordinary people. Such networks reinforced the reciprocity and coordination that characterise social capital. Growing social capital can strengthen shared values among people and contributed to humanitarian resilience. Compared with the state-based development assistance, responses from individuals played an equally constructive role against COVID-19, complementing and contributing to the effectiveness of humanitarian response.
Moreover, the interaction between virtual civil society and state-dominated humanitarian community provided a check on state humanitarian behaviours. Corruption, as one of the common challenges for the state-led humanitarian operations, can lead to failure of humanitarian aid. In China, under the surveillance of virtual civil society, distribution of medical supplies tended to be more equal, helping to mitigate developmental disparities. Uneven regional development has left parts of inland China struggling for human resources, education, health services, and foreign direct investment. The influx of foreign direct investment and economic growth in the coastal areas has encouraged young people to relocate, further widening gaps among different regions. Under pressure from social media, governments at all levels prioritised inland areas regarding resource distribution, and improved transparency in service delivery in different locations, thereby reducing the gap. Local communities could track medical supplies on social media platforms; the social networks formed through virtual civil society fostered the state-citizen connections.
In this respect, virtual civil society served as a watchdog for pandemic responses and reduced corruption in the state-based humanitarian model. People took to social media to draw attention to the death of Dr Li Wenliang, the whistle-blower who raised alarm about the virus, and to support journalists who had been reporting on its spread. Under this pressure from virtual civil society, the Chinese government sought to increase the accountability of local officials for the well-being of the public by requiring that officials upload daily information about cases or face suspension. Pandemic information posted by internet-users guided the Chinese government to adjust its relief and recovery strategy, making the emergency response system more cohesive.
China’s COVID-19 response has demonstrated the capabilities of virtual civil society to produce desirable humanitarian outcomes by urging states to engage with local realities and shoulder responsibilities, facilitating more transparent state-dominated humanitarianism, and generating social capital. The positive linkage between virtual civil society and humanitarianism opens discussions for humanitarian partnership in the post-COVID world. The penetration of digital technology has made it possible and promising for humanitarian activities to be two-way learnings and dialogues that are crucial for aid quality and effectiveness, enabling humanitarian strategies to be more context-responsive.
 Robert Putnam. 1995. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy 6:1, 65-78.