While China’s anti-Ebola efforts highlighted China’s increasing connectivity with the rest of the world, many also regarded it as an attempt to look after its own interests. In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. as the continent’s biggest trading partner and by 2013, China’s trade with Africa hovered around USD 200 billion, which is more than twice the trade between Africa and the U.S. During Chinese Premier Li Ke Qiang’s visit to the African Union in 2014, he announced that by 2020, China expects to achieve USD 400 billion in trade volumes with Africa and raise its direct investment in the continent to USD 100 billion.1 As the epidemic was ravaging West Africa and threatening the whole continent, many suspected that China’s swift anti-Ebola action could be attributed to its intent to protect its economic advantages. After all, the three countries worst hit by the disease (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) are expected to cumulatively lose USD 1.6 billion from their GDP in 2015.2 Sierra Leone’s GDP growth for 2014, for instance, was reduced by more than half from 11.3% to 4.0% as a result of the disease.3 Although it is not clear exactly how China’s investments in the countries were affected by the massive economic shock, it is not hard to imagine that Beijing had strong reasons to be concerned.

Beijing was also very nervous about the virus entering its borders. With tightly packed cities, Ebola in the Middle Kingdom could leave a trail of devastation of biblical proportions. There are around a million Chinese nationals residing in Africa. In Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, there are more than 20,000.4 Many of them return regularly to their hometowns. In addition, the Chinese city of Guangzhou is home to the largest African expat population in Asia. This city alone is home to 16,000 permanent African residents.5 The high number of expats and visitors between Africa and China made the Asian country especially vulnerable.

To abate this vulnerability, China imposed a quarantine on travelers coming from the Ebola stricken countries. In October 2014, China’s government began suggesting to people returning from Ebola-affected countries to quarantine themselves at home for 21 days. It also recommended that they go through temperature checks twice a day if they have had contact with patients.6

Reports indicated that travelers flying into Guangzhou from the Ebola stricken countries were made to stay at a state-run hotel free of charge and were allowed to travel freely in the city provided that they would carry a GPS-equipped mobile phone and submit to a health check-up twice a day.7 None of the travelers were found to carry the disease. While some of the suspected carriers appreciated staying in the hotel for free, others lamented that they were being subjected to double standards as Chinese visitors who came back from the same Ebola stricken countries were not subject to the same treatment.8

In addition to the quarantines, China also upgraded its biosafety capabilities so it could probe further into the disease. In February 2015, the National Health and Family Planning Commission and the Chinese Academy of Sciences inaugurated the country’s first biosafety level-4 laboratory.9 This was a very big achievement because highly contagious specimens such as the Ebola virus were not able to be analyzed alive in China until the opening of the laboratory. Yuan Zhiming, director of the laboratory confirmed its necessity saying, “Without [this laboratory], we have no chance to experiment with live viruses or to test viruses on animals, despite the fact that we have been researching diagnosis techniques and therapies for Ebola for eight years using individual genes or proteins.”10 China was not the only one that was previously not equipped to deal with the live virus. As a response to the Ebola epidemic, Japan upgraded its existing infectious lab to the level-4 status, while the U.S. was already in possession of several of these.

Although China’s healthcare facilities and hospitals have not reached the quality levels of those in Western countries, the country seems to be trying to apply its existing knowledge in the anti-Ebola effort. However, the fact that it only just constructed a higher level laboratory and still heavily relies on scientific advances made in the West to upgrade its biotechnology capabilities show that China still has much catching up to do.

Footnotes

  1. Steven Kuo, Forbes, “China’s Investment in Africa—The African Perspective,” August 8, 2015
  2. World Bank, “Ebola: Most African Countries Avoid Major Economic Loss But Impact on Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone Remains Crippling.” January 20, 2015
  3. World Bank, “Ebola: Most African Countries Avoid Major Economic Loss But Impact on Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone Remains Crippling.” January 20, 2015
  4. Voice of America, “China Working to Prevent Ebola at Home, Providing Aid to Africa,” October 20, 2015
  5. China Daily, “Gang of Foreigners Busted in Guangzhou,” April 29, 2015
  6. Reuters, “Beijing Recommends Home Quarantine for People Coming from Ebola Regions,” October 29, 2014
  7. Voice of America, “VOA Exclusive: Guangzhou Hotel Serves as China’s Ebola Quarantine,” November 25, 2014
  8. Voice of America, “VOA Exclusive: Guangzhou Hotel Serves as China’s Ebola Quarantine,” November 25, 2014
  9. Cheng YingQi, China Daily, “Top-level lab gears up to study Ebola virus,” February 2, 2015
  10. Cheng YingQi, China Daily, “Top-level lab gears up to study Ebola virus,” February 2, 2015