China defends its ‘vaccine diplomacy’ with a few well-placed jabs

Beijing denies using Covid-19 to help ‘repair’ its ‘tarnished’ global image ahead of the Two Sessions

China came out fighting on Wednesday in defense of its “vaccine diplomacy” with a few well-placed jabs. The move created quite a stir as the curtain went up on the biggest political party of the year in Beijing.

More than 3,000 card-carrying members of the Communist Party have converged on the capital for the annual Two Sessions gathering of the People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress.

Yet 24 hours before NPC delegates head to the iconic Great Hall of the People, Consultative Conference spokesman Guo Weimin was forced to defend Beijing’s vaccine foreign policy.

He denied that China was trying to boost its global image during the Covid-19 pandemic, suggesting that view was “narrow-minded.”

“China has sworn to provide vaccines as a global public good, and encourages Chinese companies to collaborate with other countries when developing and producing vaccines,” Guo said at a media conference.

The facts:

  • The bulk of Chinese shots are from Sinovac and Sinopharm.
  • Sinopharm’s vaccine is 79% effective, according to interim data.
  • Sinovac’s vaccine was 91% effective after trials in Turkey but less than 55% in Brazil.
  • Both vaccines are cheap compared to Pfizer and Moderna products.
  • They can also be stored in household refrigerators, making them attractive to nations with a hot climate.
  • The downside has been the lack of detailed data in stage-three trials.
  • China is providing Covid-19 vaccine assistance to 53 nations, the state-run Global Times said.
  • At least 27 countries have received Chinese vaccines, the Foreign Ministry reported.   
  • Up to 10 million doses will be distributed through the COVAX sharing scheme backed by the World Health Organisation or WHO.

What was said: “Vaccine is a crucial tool in our effort to prevent, control and ultimately overcome the pandemic. China engaging in international cooperation on Covid-19 vaccines will help the global community overcome the pandemic. It is a manifestation of the principles of building a community with a shared future for mankind,” Guo, the spokesman for the Consultative Conference, said.

A different perspective: “There is no doubt China is practising vaccine diplomacy in an effort to repair its tarnished image. It has also become a tool to increase China’s global influence and iron out … geopolitical issues,” Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said as reported by The ASEAN Post.

Delve deeper: Covid-19 first officially surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019. But it could have been circulating in the country months earlier. The initial response by President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party was bungled before the government locked down tens of millions of people. “We know that there are reports of early suppression of cases. But in fairness, the signs and symptoms of Covid-19 [were] non-specific,” Jonathan Mayer, of the University of Washington’s department of epidemiology, told The Guardian, a London-based newspaper, last year.

China Factor comment: Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy” has proved a lifeline for poorer nations around the world. Sinovac and Sinopharm are cheap, and can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures. But key questions remain. Are they effective, and will China release more detailed data and allow the findings to be peer-reviewed? In the meantime, rich democracies need to start increasing their contribution to COVAX.