• Fan Dai

A Chinese Perspective on China’s Vaccine Diplomacy

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Photo Source: The Star

The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak towards the end of 2019 might be the first large-scale infectious disease that swept the world since the 20th century. It spread worldwide and has brought an unprecedented impact on human society. In 2020, the global GDP experienced a 4.5 percent drop with a 3.94 trillion U.S. dollars loss. Countless families have become fragmented due to family members’ death by COVID-19. Despite the fact that almost two years have passed since the pandemic’s onset, many countries are yet to recuperate from their losses. Based on the data released by Johns Hopkins University, as of October 2021, the total confirmed cases of COVID-19 have reached up to 235 million, with more than 4.8 million deaths currently reported - the actual cases may be far more than what statistics have recorded.

Although international scientists from the World Health Organization have been sent to China to investigate the true origin of COVID-19, their report clarified that it is “extremely unlikely” that the virus escaped from the Wuhan laboratory and that there is currently no evidence to conclude that the virus originated from Wuhan, China. While the report did not rule out China as the place of origin altogether, it is unfair that Wuhan and its people have been badly stigmatized to be the place of origin for the COVID-19 outbreak, with some even labeling the virus as “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus”. Since 2020, the Chinese government carried the heavy burden of confronting several external criticisms and condemnations on China’s non-transparency policy in the control of COVID-19 and demands for China to take full responsibility for the global spread of the pandemic.

Against this background, China tries to improve its international image by taking a bigger role and responsibility on the international stage by providing medical materials and vaccines as public goods for the international society. However, China's efforts on donating thousands of vaccine doses have also been misinterpreted to be a logical offense in China’s “vaccine diplomacy”. It has also been portrayed as a policy of the Chinese government to atone for its mistakes in the spread of COVID-19.

Given the moral and political pressure China is facing, such branding of “offensive diplomacy” is understandable. If there is one thing that COVID-19 and its distribution has exposed, it exacerbated global inequality between poor countries and advanced economies. Experts also revealed that high-income countries, where 16% of the world's population come from, hold 60% of the vaccines supply. Early this year, the United Kingdom and Canada already had enough vaccine doses to protect a population almost four to five times their population size. This has created a noticeable problem of “vaccine inequity”, or the lack of access to life-saving vaccines of those from the developing world.

The vast majority of poor countries are still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and its vaccine supply. China has done its fair share to help other countries get out of the pandemic as soon as possible through its continuous supply of the China-made vaccines. On September 9, 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China has donated 100 million US dollars to COVAX. Apart from donations, China has also exported nearly 1.2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines and raw solutions to more than 100 countries and international organizations, topping the world. China has also worked with ASEAN and launched the China-ASEAN Public Health Cooperation Initiative and the "China-ASEAN Vaccine Friend"cooperation which aims to improve and promote policy communication and information sharing on vaccines with ASEAN countries.

China's predicament

China is among the world's top-ranked countries in vaccine development, along with the United States. China even developed some new vaccines based on different technologies. More importantly, China resisted the idea of “narrow vaccine nationalism”. The country chose to help in the vaccine distribution supply for low-income countries even when China itself faced a shortage in its domestic vaccine supply. After the early chaos in Wuhan, the Chinese government responsibly managed the number of its infection cases. It is commendable that with its administration over its huge population and its vast land area, China was still able to focus on vaccine diplomacy.

When Western countries were busy acquiring vaccines for themselves, China was the country to extend a helping hand to poorer nations. Sadly, China's efforts and achievements in the global war against COVID-19 is yet to be properly recognized by the world China’s efforts that aim to help developing countries have been largely politicized by the West and were perceived to have a hidden agenda especially because of US-China strategic competition. Below are three supporting points to support this claim:

First of all, China's way to combat the pandemic emphasizes oriental collectivism and individual sacrifice. It shows a unique social governance model. In order to quickly control the spread of the pandemic, the Chinese government once forced citizens to wear masks and closed public facilities like restaurants, cinemas, and training centers, leading to a large number of unemployment and even business failures. Harsh community isolation and travel restrictions also affected the daily lives of plenty of families. These strict policies require unconditional obedience by the citizens. However, with a model not commonly recognized by foreigners, China's policy has been criticized to be harsh due to the lack of freedom and violation of human rights. These criticisms have largely weakened the international image of China's achievements and the way it handles its pandemic control.

The second point is that even though China’s COVID vaccine – Sinovac – has been approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization and has been commonly used in many countries, many people still trust vaccines made by Western companies like Pfizer and Moderna more than vaccines made by Chinese companies. This is unfortunate because as proven in Brazil and some other countries, Sinovac helped control COVID-19 outbreaks effectively.

The third point is the biased influence of many Western media outlets in shaping the image of China to the outside world. Ignoring China's achievements in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and its contribution to the global vaccine supply, one-sided reports on the Chinese government’s efforts to prevent and control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic were published. Additionally, BBC published a video depicting the recovery of Wuhan, with the addition of a grayish filter in its English version, turning scenes of vivid colors into a seemingly “bleak underworld". This sparked backlash from the Chinese public as the said video misleads perceptions of the audience on the truth and portrays a negative image of China.

China's predicament in its vaccine diplomacy reflects some harsh international reality on how it is seen as the next emerging power. The first point reveals that despite China’s achievements in science and technology over the past four decades, China is yet to be recognized at the same level as Western nations like the United States and some European countries for their highly developed technology. There is a long way to go for Chinese companies to win an excellent reputation from the world. The second point highlights the issue of trust in China's technology, survey ratings reveal that in several countries, people still prefer to purchase European and American tech products rather than China-made tech products. This reality reveals a hard truth that China's global soft power is still far behind the United States and some European countries.

China should learn from Japan, which has established friendly relations and turned its hard power into a charming soft power. Japan was also once seen as an "economic animal", but by assuming more international responsibilities and by proving the trustworthy quality of Japanese products and the good corporate spirit of overseas Japanese companies, Japan was eventually able to build a good international image.

The third point reveals that China lacks the means and ways to effectively spread its voice internationally. The Chinese image is largely delivered and shaped by mainstream Western media given that its huge audience uses English as their mode of communication. These media materials have largely influenced the global public's perception of China – discrediting and attacking China to prevent its continuous rise joining the rank of world powers. The apprehension may be due to that while China’s own voice can offer more comprehensive information on some events, what is usually published is either owned and controlled by the state, difficult to spread internationally because it is mainly expressed in Chinese, or is often selectively ignored by the Western media. Besides, many foreign readers may be more willing to listen to voices from civil society and have instinctive doubts about the information published by China's official news agencies. This presents a challenge for China in its pursuit of improving its international image. Further, the building of national image cannot only rely on the government itself. For instance, Japan’s good people-to-people relations involving overseas enterprises, tourists, or NGO organizations, played an important role in building its good image.

China still has much work to do to win the respect and trust of the global public and to counter the Western stereotypes that ruin its image. As the world reaps the benefits of its continued efforts to contribute more to global health concerns and issues, it can hopefully get the better and fair treatment it deserves. However, as an emerging power, China should expect even more challenges as it attempts to play a more significant role on the world stage.


Dr. Fan Dai is an Associate Professor, Vice Dean of the School of International Studies/Academy of Overseas Chinese Studies, and Director of the Center for Philippine Studies at Jinan University. His email can be found here.

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