Rush to Help: Overseas Chinese and the Movement of Face Masks

Published 13 April 2020 / By Biao Zeng

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The overseas Chinese have played an important role in China’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic and in this essay I'd like to draw attention to how a group of overseas Chinese, who maintain close ties with their hometown Wenzhou, sent more than 10 million face masks and other equipment to Wenzhou in February 2020.  Their efforts show that the movement of goods are as important as the mobility of people in the management of the pandemic, and the movement of goods are closely related to the movement of people.

Wenzhou, a coastal city in southeast China, is known for its emigrants to other parts of China and overseas. The Wenzhou government estimates that, as of 2018, there were 1.75 million Wenzhounese migrants in China, and 700,000 globally in 131 countries.[i]

Nearly 200,000 Wenzhounese were working in Wuhan before Wuhan became China’s pandemic epicentre. Many returned to Wenzhou for the Chinese New Year soon after the outbreak started. Tens of thousands of Wenzhounese migrants rushed back home immediately after it was announced that Wuhan would be locked down on 23 January. As a result Wenzhou had most confirmed cases, 504 so far, outside of Hubei province.

When it became clear that many hospitals in Wenzhou faced shortages of masks and other protective gear, the overseas Wenzhounese community reacted quickly to raise fund and send equipment. Three distinct methods can be identified: Wenzhou-based, transnationally coordinated efforts; individual initiatives from overseas; aid channelled through large international charities.

“Rush to Help”

Mr Kaomeng Ni, a civil servant in Wenzhou, is a pioneer of the Rush to Help campaign. In Wenzhou, Ni has wide contacts with numerous online groups. Ni also has wide connections overseas, particularly in Europe, as he received his MA in France. Ni’s reputation and connections enabled him to mobilise about 1,000 young Wenzhounese in different parts of the world, including myself in the UK.

Ni coordinated among volunteers, mainly through WeChat, by setting up guidance and handbooks. Many of these procedures and guidance were created, co-edited and disseminated online, in a style similar to open Wiki-editing. The guidelines were constantly updated in order to reflect the latest progress.

Such guidelines set the key steps that the volunteers should follow, from procurement, quality check, shipping, to recipient confirmation. The guidance listed which hospital in Wenzhou needed what goods. If someone overseas wished to purchase equipment overseas and send it back to Wenzhou, he/she should first send photos of the sample to a special team who, consisting of hospital staff and experienced medical suppliers in Wenzhou, would check about the products’ suitability and advise accordingly. When the suppliers arrived in Wenzhou, the local branch of Rush to Help would clear customs and deliver the goods to hospitals. Acknowledgements of recipients would be immediately published online.

Between 26th January and 25th February, Rush to Help channelled £2.4 million worth of medical supplies from about 100 countries to Wenzhou, including over 10 million face masks.

Travellers as transport

Because regular shipping channels were suspended, or the process was delayed, a new practice emerged where travellers were asked to carry equipment on their flights. Some donors even stood at airports and asked whoever looked like Chinese to help to carry packages back. For instance, a local Wenzhounese businesswoman brought 8,800 face masks to São Paulo GRU airport in Brazil on 5th February and asked those travelling to China to help. These goods arrived in Wenzhou within two days after being relayed via Los Angles, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai by many passengers.

These travellers faced challenges over quality control. Overseas Wenzhounese are originally from different parts of the prefectural-level municipality,  and when the donors learnt of the supplies shortage, they generally chose to donate to their local hometown hospitals. However, some donors purchased face masks and protective goggles without professional knowledge, and the donated supplies did not meet clinical standards.

Direct Relief

The third method that overseas Wenzhounese chose to send back equipment was via large international charities. For instance, a Chinese academic in the USA contacted Direct Relief, a prominent humanitarian aid organization that has regular storage of medical supplies. Direct Relief has its own manufacturers in China and close relations with major logistic firms.  On this request, Direct Relief donated 50,000  face masks, 41,000 gloves, almpst 9,000 pieces of protective and safety clothing,  1,475 respirators from the USA.  It took 12 days to complete the delivery, door-to-door. Hospitals in Wenzhou paid only £3 as the post office fee to receive the whole donation.

This case raises the question what would be the most desirable model for transnational charity in the future. A policy researcher in Wenzhou government commented, “overseas Wenzhounese traditionally lack resources and networks to access well-established organisations and charities in their countries of residence. They even don’t know how to talk with them. We need to rethink our Wenzhounese role in the world".

Yet, as I have shown here, the transport of vital goods is deeply embedded in social relations, and great distances can be overcome by those who have left home and travelled across the world.


Dr Biao Zeng is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of South Wales.


[i] Wenzhou News Net. Nearly 2.5 million Wenzhou entrepreneurs work outside of Wenzhou; the "Wenzhou economy" amounts to 1.2 trillion RMB.