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Foreign Policy

China’s vaccine diplomacy has had combined outcomes

Welcome to the China Foreign Policy Letter.

This week’s highlights: Doubts on China’s COVID-19 vaccines Beijing’s Xinjiang propaganda could raise questions Boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympicsand China starts a digital yuan in the trial phase.

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Will China’s Vaccine Diplomacy Work?

Unlike the US, unlike the US, China has given vaccine exports priority over domestic sales. The comprehensive aid program aims to repair some of the damage the pandemic has caused to Beijing’s reputation and cement its image as a generous donor and ally. China has exported over 115 million doses of vaccine, almost twice as many as India and the European Union. There is only one problem: the Chinese COVID-19 vaccines Sinovac and Sinopharm do not inspire confidence.

How ineffective China’s vaccines are remains unclear as no company has yet released its late-stage test data. Previous results for Sinovac in Brazil showed an effectiveness of only 50.4 percent, while other tests showed an effectiveness of up to 80 percent. (China’s own science and medical sector also has problems with falsified or non-existent data.) The World Health Organization has described that vaccines meet the required standards or are above 50 percent. The advisory panel suggests that the data be close to 70 percent effectiveness.

These results are still well below the performance of some western vaccines like Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna, which have efficacy rates greater than 90 percent.

The bad reputation of Chinese vaccines is already causing distribution problems, even in countries with close ties to Beijing. In Kyrgyzstan, some doctors are rejecting doses of Sinopharm and are opting for Russian vaccines instead. Only 39 percent of Hong Kong residents say they will get the vaccine, likely because China is postponing its shots over Western alternatives. But many countries like Papua New Guinea, which are still hit by a surge in coronavirus cases, are eager to see anything that can help contain the tide.

Most worryingly, some countries using Chinese vaccines, including the United Arab Emirates and Chile, have relatively high vaccination rates, but new cases are still increasing or stagnating. However, mortality rates have fallen somewhat, suggesting that the Chinese vaccines have mitigating effects, even if they don’t block transmission, as have the Western vaccines. (Chinese state media have now spread conspiracy theories about Western vaccines.)

If Chinese vaccines stay at this level of effectiveness, China’s extremely strict and highly effective lockdown measures are likely to remain in place for some time. That means occasional city-wide closures, like the last one in Ruili, near the border with Myanmar. Nationalism will likely continue to have the overriding logic of border control: Currently, people can only bypass entry barriers and quarantines by demonstrating vaccination with a Chinese shot.

Olympic boycotts? Biden’s government remains ambivalent about the possibility of boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics next year over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Canada, a winter sports powerhouse, has strong public support for a boycott even as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contemplates doing business with Beijing. The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee has spoken out against boycotts and has declared that athletes should not be “political farmers”.

Given the force with which the Chinese authorities are pushing propaganda about Xinjiang, it is almost inevitable that the Olympic ceremonies will include some element of whether they are happy dancers in Uighur dresses or scenes of smiling workers in the cotton fields. It is also likely that China will try to sell attendance as confirmation. The official clothing deal has already been handed over to a company with ties to Xinjiang.

Meanwhile, attacks on critics of China’s mistreatment in Xinjiang are increasing day by day. Western brands that have refused to buy Xinjiang cotton are censored on Chinese TV, and a portrayal of Australian-born analyst Vicky Xu, who now lives in Australia, as a “female demon” has now more than 7 million views in China. Several Uyghurs living abroad who have spoken out told me that since the recent sanctions, threats of phone calls and domestic pressure on their families have increased, including arbitrary detentions.

Whitsun on Whitsun. China’s maritime militia, which Beijing falsely describes as peaceful fishing boats, continues to occupy the controversial Whitsun, despite requests from the Philippines to leave the country. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is far more pro-Chinese than his public, weakened the language on Wednesday and called for a peaceful solution. But China’s brazen move – and the apparent implausibility of claims that the ships were only protecting themselves from bad weather – point to tense months at sea ahead.

The situation is not improved by real Chinese fishing vessels entering the territory of countries like Peru that are far from the Chinese coast, as Chinese waters are essentially being fished.

Propaganda film boost. Authorities have ordered Chinese cinemas to promote at least two screenings of propaganda films a week through the end of the year in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s establishment on July 1st. As with everything else in China, encouraging what is known as Xi Jinping thinking is now a necessity for cinemas as well.

As Amanda Morrison recently wrote in Foreign Policy, Chinese cinema is increasingly dominated by nationalist themes and state incentives. Some propaganda films are real popular blockbusters; others, like a recent musical based in Xinjiang, are terrible flops.

Introduction of the digital yuan. China introduced a digital yuan – the first for a major currency. The technology is currently only in the test phase with a group of around 100,000 citizens. However, it is ultimately intended to replace cash and debit cards so that the government can effectively monitor all domestic transactions. The digital yuan could also enable Beijing to play a bigger role in international transfers, but the infrastructure and standards for it are still a long way off.

A major problem with the digital yuan is that nearly 40 percent of the Chinese population is still not regularly connected to the internet and the money economy is still the norm for hundreds of millions of people. It’s not uncommon for a poor family of four to share a single cell phone, and it’s especially difficult for those who don’t have official ID and need to buy a SIM card.

In theory, the digital currency can work offline or through a card instead of a mobile phone. It would also be a great way to get money out of hand quickly, be it for disaster relief or incentive purposes – although, unlike the US, China was reluctant to conduct direct money transfers during the pandemic.

Dirty growth. Beijing recorded its highest level of smog in two years as factories recovered from the pandemic recession. With China struggling to achieve its “moderately prosperous society” goal by 2030, its reliance on coal, which accounts for 58 percent of its energy supply, is unlikely to disappear. A push for renewable technologies has created a new criminal market, with gangs cornering local renewable battery markets – but it is slowly reducing China’s emissions per unit of GDP growth, if not yet overall.

Coronavirus losses. Despite – or perhaps because of – China’s success against the coronavirus through strict lockdowns, the International Monetary Fund predicts that it will have an economic loser by 2024. China lost about 18 months of growth, while the United States is expected to grow more than expected thanks to stimulus policies prior to the pandemic outbreak.

The U.S. lockdowns, relatively weak compared to most countries, and generous economic policy compared to most countries both contributed to this change – but it also cost more than half a million lives, compared to China’s official death toll of less than 5,000 people.

What we read

The Taoist Body, Kristofer Schipper, University of California Press, 312 pp., $ 33.95, 1994.

The Taoist body of Kristofer Schipper

This 1994 Introduction to Daoism, one of the most misunderstood religions in the world due to its amalgamation of philosophical tradition, theocratic hierarchy, and folk practice, is a key text in understanding Chinese culture and history.

Kristofer Schipper, the doyen of Daoist studies in the West, died earlier this year at the age of 86. Ian Johnson’s obituary for Schipper in the New York Times this week highlights the role he played in regaining the role of the Chinese religion, Schippers students Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer in their book on their devastation in the 20th century examine.

(Incidentally, David A. Palmer is not the father of the author of China Letter; he is a completely different scholar of Daoism.)

That’s it for this week.

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