Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is quietly flying millions of masks to Canada, as health authorities and hospitals struggle to acquire adequate safety equipment for medical workers dealing with the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
The company has already delivered to Canada more than a million masks, 30,000 goggles and 50,000 pairs of gloves, according to a person with knowledge of the donation, the scale of which Huawei has not made public. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the person because they are not authorized to speak with the media.
And Huawei, which has provoked controversy with gifts to other countries, continues to send more. It has plans to give six million masks to Canada. A relatively small percentage – fewer than 200,000 – will be the N95 masks that are used by front-line medical workers, but in short supply. Huawei is not sending ventilators.
Huawei’s gifts come as the company seeks a key federal approval to install its 5G technology on Canadian mobile networks. Huawei has also sought the release of its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Vancouver in 2018. The U.S. has sought her extradition on fraud charges related to alleged violations of sanctions against Iran.
But the company’s donation is a particularly valuable one as the rapid spread of COVID-19 sparks a global race to purchase masks, dramatically raising their selling prices – for those able to buy them. In Canada, shortages of key protective equipment have grown so acute that officials are examining ways to disinfect and reuse medical masks, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Sunday. On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the supply of critical protective equipment is “getting really low.”
Canada sent 16 tonnes of protective equipment to China in early February.
The first Huawei-provided supplies arrived in Canada on March 22, said Alykhan Velshi, Huawei Canada’s vice-president of corporate affairs.
“Three weeks ago, we began reaching out to provincial governments across Canada offering to donate medical masks and other supplies,” he said. “These are all donations. Canadian provincial government officials have helped pinpoint their areas of greatest need and readiness to distribute the masks.”
Huawei is among a group of major Chinese companies with financial interests in Canada that have sent or pledged private donations, at a time when Canadian buyers have struggled to secure their own supplies. The Chinese donors include billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Foundation, the Bank of China, Tencent and Trip.com. Those private donations amount to millions of masks and pairs of gloves and at least 100,000 protective overalls, according to a person with knowledge of the volumes.
Alibaba sent 500,000 masks and 100,000 test kits, which were delivered to Toronto March 24. Trip.com has promised 100,000 masks, a spokeswoman confirmed. A spokesman for Tencent said the company is looking at sending supplies to countries in need, but could not confirm any details.
Huawei itself has donated millions of masks around the world, including to a number of European countries, such as the Czech Republic, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain.
But with so much controversy around its presence in Canada, Huawei looks to be seeking to “maximize goodwill with the Canadian government without risking drawing too much public controversy. Hence, the lack of publicity,” said Anton Malkin, a research fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
The donation raises a difficult question for Canadian leadership, he said. ”Ottawa could do a cost-benefit analysis: Is our urgent need for masks outweighed by the perceived damage that would be caused by foreign influence resulting in our decision to take their masks? Which choice would best assure the health and well-being of Canadians?”
The Chinese government, along with many Chinese-headquartered companies, has engaged in “mask diplomacy,” sending huge quantities of medical equipment around the world. Chinese government officials are eager to portray the country as a co-operative and selfless global partner. “When fighting an intense battle, does anyone think of the size of the prize they will receive after the war?” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last week. “In China, we are doing our best to protect people’s life and health at the lowest possible cost, while contributing as much as we can to other affected countries.”
Images of Chinese generosity have been partly sullied by quality problems, with the Netherlands, Spain, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Turkey all raising concern over goods received from China.
“We must be aware there is a geopolitical component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity,’” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, wrote in a recent blog post. He warned: “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the U.S., it is a responsible and reliable partner.”
For Canada, one option would be to accept the goods Huawei is delivering – but refuse to take them as donations, said Guy Saint-Jacques, the former Canadian ambassador to China. “Compensate Huawei. That would remove any ambiguity,” he said.
“Huawei is doing this with what I would call ulterior motives,” he said. “They obviously want to buy some goodwill for the decision that will have to be made by the Canadian government.”
But for the moment, he said, “the priority is to get enough supplies.”
Huawei itself said it is using its considerable financial and logistical power to provide help.
“In times of crisis, we all need to pull together and help out,” Mr. Velshi said. “That’s what citizenship is all about.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.