In March, as COVID-19 was advancing across Brazil, the government’s difficulties in acquiring masks and respirators foretold a tragedy that has now infected nearly 2 million people.
The situation created tension between the Maranhão state government, which attempted to buy respirators through a Brazilian company, and federal authorities, which diverted equipment to a national stockpile – with no plan to combat the pandemic.
At this point, Simplício Araújo, Maranhão’s state secretary of industry, commerce, and energy, decided to use his Chinese contacts for what he called a "war operation" to import 107 respirators and 200,000 masks from China.
"This lack of [any] national articulation left the states on their own," said Araujo. "We had the Chinese contacts because I’ve already taken more than 150 entrepreneurs from Maranhão to China."
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As the recipient of lavish Chinese investments, Maranhão is one of the strongest examples of a phenomenon underscored by the coronavirus epidemic in Brazil. This has seen local leaders negotiating directly with China while allies of president Jair Bolsonaro generate diplomatic crises by attacking the Chinese government.
São Paulo, Distrito Federal, and Rio Grande do Norte, among others, also went straight to the Chinese. They asked for help acquiring medical equipment and São Paulo even forged a partnership with a Chinese research institution in order to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
"We can think differently and still establish partnerships," said Julio Serson, the São Paulo state secretary for international relations. "The Chinese authorities respect and understand that there is a different line in the São Paulo state government than the one adopted by the federal government."
Brazil's state governors: partnerships with China amid insults
Serson helped construct a promising partnership between São Paulo’s 100-year-old Butantan Institute and China’s Sinovac, for production and advanced testing of vaccines against the coronavirus.
The vaccine, called CoronaVac, has already been successfully administered to approximately 1,000 people in China in phase one and two clinical studies, the Butantan Institute said in a statement. Butantan also said that as the pandemic began to be controlled in Asia, Beijing-based Sinovac sought cooperation with other countries to continue with the final stage of testing.
Bolsonaro’s supporters didn’t take long to attack the partnership on social media when it was announced in June. "The communists are advancing ostentatiously against the patriots and President Bolsonaro", wrote federal deputy Daniel Silveira.
There is no evidence that the attacks on China by Bolsonaro’s allies have resulted in any significant economic sanction or retaliation. According to the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, however, the tension meant some donations from Chinese companies never reached Brazil.
Nor have all of Brazil's state governors formally requested Chinese assistance received positive responses.
"The Amazon Consortium [a representative body for Brazil’s nine states with the Amazon within their territory] requested support for various authorities from several potential partners in the Chinese government, since it is the main manufacturer of materials to combat Covid-19," said Eduardo Tavares, the Amapá state secretary of planning. "But so far, we have received nothing concrete."
There was, however, an announcement by the state of Amazonas that the Chinese embassy would donate health equipment worth more than 1.5 million Reais (US$275,000) to combat coronavirus in indigenous communities.
Before the pandemic, many of Brazil's state governors had already begun to develop closer relations with China. Last year, the governors of Piauí and Rio Grande do Norte visited Beijing in an attempt to attract Chinese investments in the clean energy sector.
A delegation from the state of São Paulo also went to Xian and Shanghai provinces in search of investors.
Such actions are reminiscent of other large states whose national governments weren’t aligned with China on certain issues. Days after US president Donald Trump pledged to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, California governor Jerry Brown signed cooperation agreements on climate change with Chinese president Xi Jinping, building on an existing partnership.
That agreement was seen as a sign that China was willing to circumvent the US president and demonstrated its pragmatism is pursuing its international policy goals. In Brazil, the situation seems no different.
"We respect the autonomy and ideology of each country," said Serson. "We live in a democratic country, and we need to respect both sides."