First masks, now vaccines: China is consistently pursuing “Corona Diplomacy”. The government has already promised several countries preferential access to Chinese funds.
A few weeks ago, on October 1st, the People’s Republic celebrated its first national holiday since the outbreak of the corona pandemic. The holiday was followed by what is called the “golden week” in China: a week of vacation. You have to imagine this holiday as a migration of peoples. Last year, more than 540 million Chinese were on domestic trips in the first four days of the “golden week” alone. This year – under the auspices of the pandemic – travel behavior was an indication of how safe the Chinese are currently under the measures of their government.
The answer is: you feel safe.
The number of travelers decreased slightly compared to the previous year. But another number makes it clear that the public in China no longer fears the virus. The Canadian cinema operator IMAX announced on October 4 that Chinese ticket sales on the first weekend of the “golden week” had increased by 25 percent compared to the previous year – although 25 percent fewer seats had been offered due to the pandemic.
Tests and propaganda
But even beyond these numbers, China is currently exuding confidence that Corona is over. Life has normalized, the big cities along the east coast are shaking with activity again.
True, there are occasional local outbreaks. But in the meantime the authorities have set up a gigantic test apparatus. Then it is announced that several million residents will be tested within a few days. Such announcements must not be taken at face value; they are part of the propaganda of the Chinese crisis management. China has officially reported around 90,000 infections. But this number should also be treated with caution. Beijing, for example, does not count asymptomatic cases.
Residents are waiting for a corona mass test in the eastern Chinese metropolis of Qingdao: Ten million people are said to have been tested within a few days. (Source: Li Ziheng / Xinhua / dpa)
The Chinese government has long been focusing on another topic: a vaccine. Donald Trump announced in September that the US could approve a vaccine in October – before the US presidential election on November 3rd. America is the People’s Republic’s greatest geopolitical rival. If Beijing were to overtake Washington in the big race for a vaccine, it would be a geopolitical bang – comparable to the “Sputnik shock”, the surprise in the western world after the Soviet launch of the first artificial satellite in the 1950s. Indeed, the “New Yorker” recently reported, citing Chinese sources, that Beijing would approve a vaccine in October.
Vaccination is already taking place in China
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are currently more than 170 companies working on a vaccine. Four of those going through the crucial third phase of clinical testing are from China. If you include the German company Biontech, there are even five. The Mainz-based company has teamed up with the Chinese company Fosun to develop a vaccine.
Corona exhibition in Wuhan: In the city where the corona pandemic began, the People’s Party is staging the fight against the virus as a national triumph. (Source: Xiao Yijiu / Xinhua / imago images)
But although none of the Chinese companies have completed the clinical tests yet, vaccination is already taking place in China. This was announced by the National Health Commission in September. She justified her decision with the WHO emergency rules.
How many Chinese have already been vaccinated, the commission left open. But experts estimate several hundred thousand vaccinations, if not more than a million. For example, the company Sinopharm said it had given its unapproved vaccine to 350,000 people. Sinovac, another company, announced that it had vaccinated around 90 percent of its employees – including their families. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the country’s army, is also vaccinating its soldiers with a vaccine from CanSino that has not yet been approved.
Who can be vaccinated and who not?
In addition, companies such as Huawei and the television broadcaster Phoenix TV have announced that they will vaccinate their employees. Experts consider emergency use to be risky not only from a health point of view. It also raises ethical questions. Because according to media reports, there is a certain vaccination pressure in Chinese state-owned companies. A no can therefore lead to professional disadvantages.
Experts suspect that the People’s Republic wants to use this practice to test not only its vaccines, but also the vaccination readiness of its population. Russia, for example, presented the world in August with the Covid vaccine “Sputnik V”. The vaccine had been approved although it had not yet passed all clinical tests. A propaganda move, was the judgment of experts. But the move seems to backfire. Because, according to surveys, more than 70 percent of Russians reject a Covid vaccination.
The fact that the risk of infection in China is currently practically zero is good for the population. But it’s bad for vaccine development. It is not possible to find out whether a vaccine actually protects against infection. The Chinese vaccine developers are therefore testing their vaccines in more than a dozen other countries, including Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
New promises, new alliances
In return, Beijing promises these countries preferential access to a vaccine. Experts have found the name “corona diplomacy” for this behavior – based on the “mask diplomacy” with which China presented itself in spring as a savior in need by exporting masks and hospital staff all over the world. In fact, the Chinese “corona diplomacy” leads to new alliances. The United Arab Emirates, a historical partner of the United States, recently became the first country after the People’s Republic to introduce a Chinese vaccine for emergency use. Beijing has also promised preferential access to a vaccine to several countries in Africa and Asia.
On the one hand, this “corona diplomacy” undermines a promise made by China. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at a WHO meeting in May that his country would make a vaccine available to the world as a “global public good”. The preferred access of “Corona diplomacy” cannot be reconciled with this promise.
On the other hand, China is actually involved on the global stage. A few days ago, the country joined the Covax initiative. Under the leadership of the WHO, this aims to promote the development and dissemination of affordable vaccines. China’s engagement stands in sharp contrast to the isolationism of the US. Washington does not participate in the initiative. In July the US even left the WHO.
If China becomes the first country to manufacture an effective vaccine on a large scale, that will have symbolic weight, says Jacob Mardell. The expert is doing research at the private Berlin China Institute Merics. “However, it is not without risks for Beijing to present itself as a global savior in a post-corona world,” he adds.
Not only could there be quality problems with the vaccine – as with the masks in China’s “mask diplomacy”. Beijing also runs the risk of over-promising out of megalomania. And last but not least, the country is not doing well economically after the pandemic. “Due to domestic political constraints,” says Mardell, “China is no longer able to act as an economic savior as it did after the 2008 financial crisis.”