China’s Elite Donate Coronavirus Gear to the U.S.

released this week, the highest level since it began asking the question in 2005.

The companies and individuals are acting at a time of yawning gaps, both in the vast and important U.S.-China relationship and in the American government’s own response. The Trump administration has frustrated states by telling them to buy their own equipment and has struggled to meet the nation’s growing demand.

“It’s a new feudalism in America,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “China recognizes this and China, too, they’ve had their talk with Trump, but they’re also trying to stitch into the American fabric at the sub-national and the corporate level.”

Filling those gaps could help the image of Chinese business in the eyes of the American public.

Mr. Ma of Alibaba, China’s richest person, chartered a plane to New York in March to deliver more than one million masks and testing kits, among other donations around the world. This week, Fortune magazine placed Mr. Ma at No. 3 on a list titled “Heroes of the pandemic.” Alibaba’s shares trade in both New York and Hong Kong.

While Andrew M. Cuomo, the New York governor, assailed the federal response to the New York’s plea for ventilators and protective gear, Mr. Tsai of Alibaba and his wife, Clara, together with Mr. Ma arranged for the delivery of 2,000 ventilators and millions of masks and goggles to the state. Mr. Tsai owns the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Liberty basketball teams

This week, the Tsais organized another shipment of half a million masks and goggles to the University of San Diego, which is in the city where Ms. Tsai and their children live. Mr. Tsai also owns the local indoor lacrosse team, the San Diego Seals.

Mr. Cuomo appealed to the Asia Society for help when he called into the group’s remote March board meeting, said the institution’s president, Josette Sheeran. She worked with a community of former diplomats to get connections, she said, while Michael Evans, an Alibaba executive, helped pinpoint and vet reliable manufacturers.

Chinese companies can also burnish their image at home, where the country’s leaders have been anxious to paper over their own mistakes early in the outbreak and show China as a leader in the coronavirus fight. Shipments of protective gear by Huawei, the Chinese telecom equipment giant that American officials have accused of spying for the Communist Party, have been heavily covered by Chinese state-run media. Huawei has said it would never allow spying on its customers.

Some Chinese donors bristle at questions of the motives behind donations. Mr. Yin, of Citic Capital, said the Chinese government and public warmly received donations early in the outbreak from American companies with big business interests in China like Honeywell, JPMorgan Chase, General Motors and Ford, all of which they announced publicly.

“Helping out is helping out,” said Mr. Yin. “If you have to tell everyone to donate anonymously, that is a pretty high bar to ask.”

In Citic Capital’s case, the donations both met real needs and offered business opportunities. Citic owns a stake in a company called Harbin Pharmaceutical, which began producing its own masks in February when it could not purchase enough for its employees or local medical personnel. Selling those masks soon began to look promising. “In the medium term, this becomes a business for us,” said Helen Chui, Harbin’s chief executive officer.

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Donating to the United States could help Harbin make a name in a new market. But to get around the stricter regulations, Mr. Yin had to divide Harbin’s masks into 30 separate boxes addressed to his friends in the United States. Citic then used its ties to SF Express, a logistics company it is invested in, to get the company to bend its limit of only 100 masks per box. Mr. Zhang, of Citic, sent another 5,000 to his sister in New York to distribute to local hospitals.

In many cases, Chinese entrepreneurs and their allies are stepping in to untangle logistical problems and shifting regulations in both countries — problems that the deteriorating relationship has made even more difficult to solve. Donations from China began to flow more easily only after Mr. Trump and Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, spoke by phone on March 27, according to several people involved in getting the goods moving.

Even then, problems stood in the way.

Weiqi Zhang, the founder of Blue Oak Education, a Shanghai-based start-up, has been working with an anonymous donor who wants to send masks to the network of hospitals at Harvard University, where Mr. Zhang is an alumnus.

First, he had to determine which hospital had the biggest need for masks. Then he had to sort out regulation. The donor originally wanted to send 40,000 KN95 masks — China’s version of the N95 mask used by front-line medical workers — but at the time the standard was not compliant with U.S. regulations. So Mr. Zhang could only purchase 10,000 N95 masks with the money he had for the donation.

There was also the issue of limited cargo space, as well as concerns that U.S. officials would seize the masks.

“To be honest, we shouldn’t have to do anything,” Mr. Zhang said. “They should be there to help facilitate the donations.”

Some governments have complained about the quality of equipment from China, making many Chinese companies leery of American orders.

“Many factories are scared by rumors that Trump will sue them if they sell to the U.S.,” said Zhou Hua, who runs a mask factory in the China’s Anhui Province.

When the University of California, San Francisco, anticipated a shortage of protective gear in March, it turned to Mr. Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce and one of the school’s benefactors. In an interview, Mr. Benioff said he called Daniel Zhang, chief executive of Alibaba, which Salesforce has a strategic partnership with.

Alibaba worked with the Salesforce team to identify trustworthy suppliers, ultimately helping them deliver millions of masks, face shields and swabs to U.C.S.F.

But even the two well-connected tech companies faced challenges. Once, a 747 loaded with supplies was held up for several days in Zhengzhou, China, before it was cleared to leave for New York.

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At another point, the Salesforce team thought it had two million surgical masks from a source in Shenzhen, China. But as the truck made its way from the warehouse to the airport, some 1.5 million went missing. (The supplier eventually fulfilled the entire order.)

“They were sold right off the truck,” said Ryan Aytay, the co-chief executive of Quip, a Salesforce collaboration tool, who was also pulled into the effort. “It was the wild, wild West.”

Alexandra Stevenson reported from Hong Kong, Nicholas Kulish from New York and David Gelles from Bristol, N.H. Jesse McKinley contributed reporting from Albany, N.Y. Cao Li contributed research.

  • Updated April 11, 2020

    • When will this end?

      This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

    • How can I help?

      The Times Neediest Cases Fund has started a special campaign to help those who have been affected, which accepts donations here. Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • How do I get tested?

      If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.

    • How does coronavirus spread?

      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • Is there a vaccine yet?

      No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.

    • What makes this outbreak so different?

      Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • What if somebody in my family gets sick?

      If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Should I stock up on groceries?

      Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • Can I go to the park?

      Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.

    • Should I pull my money from the markets?

      That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.

    • What should I do with my 401(k)?

      Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”

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