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China's 'mask diplomacy' in pandemic-hit Europe stirs unease

Beijing's coronavirus messaging casts doubt on motivations behind its aid

Boxes of protective face masks are unloaded from an Air China plane carrying medical supplies donated by the Chinese government, in Athens, Greece on March 21.   © Reuters

OLOMOUC, Czech Republic -- In early March, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis was furious with China's ambassador in Prague and demanding that Beijing replace the envoy. A few weeks on, Babis and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek were full of praise for the Chinese Embassy and Ambassador Zhang Jianmin.

The difference was that, last Saturday, China flew in a first batch of 1.1 million face masks and respirators to help the Czech authorities manage the new coronavirus outbreak. "A big thank you to China for helping," Hamacek tweeted last week, after the shipment was secured.

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