In the post-COVID-19 era, Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently announced that the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by China will become a ‘global public good’. Chinese officials have begun to use a possible vaccine for the pandemic as a political tool and are thus promising early access to the vaccine to poor and developing countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other areas of the world.
It has become abundantly clear that China’s recent global health work is all an attempt by Beijing to control the narrative surrounding the origins and handling of the coronavirus. After appearing in the Chinese city of Wuhan late in December last year, the virus was dubbed as the ‘China virus’ by many heads of states including US President Donald Trump. China since then has received a lot of criticism from other nations for its inefficient handling of the outbreak, leading to the virus spreading to other parts of the world, as well as for withholding critical information regarding the virus from the world-leading to greater devastation.
China has been accused of silencing individuals like Doctor Li Wenliang tried to warn the world of a deadly new cluster of viral infections. The incident of Dr. Li’s mistreatment at the hands of Chinese authorities has made him a hero to many Chinese. The silencing of Dr. Li is just one of the reputational harms done by the COVID-19 virus. China also entered into a diplomatic stand-off with Australia after the country demanded an independent investigation into the origins of the virus. This seemingly understandable demand perturbed and angered China to no end and China even threatened trade sanctions against Australia for hinting that it somehow had a hand in creating and spreading the virus. Such an illogical and extreme response from China makes one question as to whether China is hiding something from the world.
It is in this charged international environment that China is attempting to politicize the COVID-19 vaccine and to not only change the preceding narrative in its favor but also serve Chinese interests. China’s approach to the vaccine has been in stark contrast to the message put forward by the West. While western countries like the US have invested billions towards acquiring a Covid-19 vaccine as early as possible, China has joined ‘COVAX’- the vaccine alliance that aims to make the vaccine available to poorer countries at a reduced price. China has also enlisted the help of several countries to help with its vaccine trails, China National Biotec Group is currently testing two possible coronavirus vaccine in Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, and the UAE. Sinovae, another Chinese pharmaceutical firm has started vaccine trials in Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, and Turkey.
The countries that are participating in China’s vaccine trials have also worked out agreements for the purchase of doses of the vaccine. Indonesia has already signed on for 50 million doses, while Turkey is set to purchase 20 million doses. In promising poorer countries COVID-19 vaccines at a reduced cost, China is trying to take the lead in securing a market for its vaccine. The race to come up with a safe and stable vaccine has taken on geopolitical significance for China. China has already given out 1 billion dollars in loans to Latin American and Caribbean countries for vaccine access. Experts have likened these loans to China trying to make countries dependent on them by trapping them in debt. The vaccine diplomacy that China is currently employing is a risky gamble for Beijing. In an attempt to use the vaccine as a political tool to change the narrative and deflect blame, China risks doing more damage to itself.
China’s vaccine diplomacy is similar to another scheme Beijing had tried to implement during the early phases of the virus. China’s mask diplomacy strategy involved shipping medical supplies to European countries in another attempt to boost its damaged image. The scheme backfired after multiple European governments rejected thousands of Chinese testing kits and medical masks due to them being below standard or defective. In one such incident, Dutch officials were forced to recall 600,000 facemasks that had already been distributed to frontline medical teams. EU Chief diplomat Josep Borrell coined China’s actions as ‘politics of generosity ‘.
The ‘mask diplomacy’ and now the ‘vaccine diplomacy ‘ by China is all attempts by Beijing to control the narrative around coronavirus. Chinese media in recent weeks has also been eagerly pushing wild and unfounded conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the virus. The conspiracy theories that Chinese media has been pushing have changed their narratives several times, from blaming the coronavirus on the US to frozen foods imported from Europe. The most recent victim of China’s attempts to spread falsehood and usurp the narrative is a reputed German scientist by the name of Alexander Kekule. He became a Chinese star and has his pictures all over Chinese media outlets after his research was taken out of context to shift the blame of the virus from China to Italy. Dr. Kekule has repeatedly and publicly stated that he believes that the virus originated in China and that what China was doing with his research was ‘pure propaganda’.
Another Chinese concept that first made its appearance back in 2015 the concept of a ‘Health Silk Road’. This Chinese concept has taken on new meaning in a world that has been devastated by COVID-19. Due to COVID-19 and its effects on trade and travel, workers and equipment needed for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have ground to a halt. The Health Silk Road, therefore, represents a way for China to redirect the narrative energies of the BRI. The Health Silk Road has the same end goal as the BRI and strives to convey Beijing’s well-meaning intentions towards the international community.
The Chinese government in the past year has been heavily criticized for its mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and also for trying to hide the virus’s origins. News of Dr. Li’s death in January this year unleashed a greater wave of criticism for China. In response, the Chinese Communist Party has even stepped up its censorship of media content in the face of growing online criticism. Chinese President Xi Jinping views these criticisms as a vulnerability for the Party. The Chinese government will rarely ever publicly accept its shortcomings or mistakes.
In the past, China attempted to change the narrative surrounding the virus by pushing unconfirmed theories that other countries were responsible for the COVID-19 virus and not China. Xi Jinping has also attempted to stroke nationalistic sentiments by stating that China’s handling of the coronavirus is proof of the superiority of the Communist Party. These nationalistic sentiments that Xi Jinping are also meant to distract the Chinese people from their host of domestic problems, such as the ever-widening wage gap in China.
Similar to China’s ‘mask diplomacy’, ‘vaccine diplomacy’ is also an attempt by Xi Jinping and China to garner goodwill for itself on the world stage and distract people from its glaring shortcomings. By promising the Covid-19 vaccine at a lower cost to poorer countries, the Chinese government is attempting to take a leadership role in global health and the loans given out to the poorer countries for them to buy the vaccine from China will ensure that those countries become indebted to China, further ending up as colonies of China!