China can win global hearts and minds with an effective vaccine and an AWOL US government

As 2020 neared its close, China’s state media began propagating new slogans in its review of the year. 

In the wordy style typical of CCP-speak, it was proclaimed that “institutional advantage is the fundamental guarantee for the formation of great strength to overcome difficulties.”

The fight against the coronavirus, an article in Xinhua argued, had shown the “organizational capability” of socialism with Chinese characteristics and demonstrates “the tremendous superiority and vitality of our political system.”

A big boast, to be sure, but a domestic audience may very well have seen it as justified. On New Year’s eve, even as governments around the world begged their citizens to stay home, crowds packed the streets of Wuhan to celebrate. That the first epicenter of the pandemic was enjoying a mass countdown while cities across the Western world remained locked down was a sizable propaganda win, to put it lightly. 

Yet accolades for China’s pandemic performance have come not just from its own mouthpieces. Former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani hailed, as early as in April, China’s “very strong institutions” which had helped drive China through this crisis and predicted that China’s response would “enhance China’s position in the world order.”

But has China’s position in the world order truly been enhanced? Has global images of China improved? Or, to put it in other words: will “the West” and “the rest” be viewed differently as a result of the pandemic? 

This may be a difficult pill to swallow for some. China, after all, has been accused of covering up the initial spread of the pandemic, which may have contributed to its subsequent spread across the world. 

In many ways, then, this “vaccine diplomacy” now occurring is an attempt at redemption. China has made much of its global efforts to ensure vaccine access: The Global Times, a state-run newspaper, has said that China’s vaccine distribution is a good-faith effort to help all nations, whether Chinese allies or not. 

The Thai government has now ordered two million shots of the Sinovac vaccine, which will begin arriving next month. 

But China’s vaccines face one clear obstacle: distrust. 

Firstly, there is the question of whether the vaccine itself is trustworthy. The Sinovac vaccine has been found to be 78% effective in Phase 3 trials conducted in Brazil and 100% effective against developing severe cases of coronavirus. However, China’s delaying of its own efficacy results in December and Sinovac Biotech’s own tarnished history of bribery has led people to cast doubt and counsel caution on whether to immediately trust the vaccine. 

Teerat Ratanasevi, a former spokesman for the Yingluck Shinawatra government, urged the cabinet to take the Sinovac vaccine live on TV to build confidence. Move Forward Party MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn wrote, “What the Thai people really want to know is whether or not Sinovac’s vaccine has passed Phase 3 trial results.” 

Another Move Forward MP, Ekkapob Pianpises, even insinuated that the government’s decision to import the Sinovac vaccine despite its “lack of trial data” may be due to the fact that it has links to “a certain wealthy company.” 

Of course, lingering distrust is not an affliction that plagues only China. Russia, whose Gamaleya Research Institute has produced the Sputnik V vaccine, is also facing problems in its own efforts at vaccine diplomacy. 

Argentina, for example, balked after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared he was not yet willing to take the Sputnik vaccine as it had not been cleared for his age group, despite the fact that Argentina was just about to start vaccinating its elderly. (Thailand has yet to order any vaccines from Russia, although government negotiations have occurred.)

The bottom line is that for now, the trust deficit seems quite evident. Thus the question becomes: will it matter?

For many countries, simply getting their hands on a Western vaccine is a difficult task. In early December, Amnesty International reported that 100% of Moderna’s doses and 96% of Pfizer’s have been acquired by rich countries. While this statistic will have changed as more orders have come through since, it illustrates well the challenge that developing countries have in the rush to acquire enough vaccines for their people.

The United States, on the other hand, is starkly missing in action. Distracted by the mounting catastrophe at home, its leaders have focused more on its domestic rollout than in providing international aid. Although the US supported vaccine development with Operation Warp Speed, their export will be done in the name of private companies, not the American government. Where China pledged to help both friend and foe, even US allies will not have received assistance.

Thailand, a traditional US ally, has yet to order any US-developed vaccines. Instead, it has chosen to source most of its vaccine orders so far from British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca, which will be locally produced by Siam Bioscience. But with only 63 million doses — sufficient for less than half of the population — secured for domestic usage, Thailand will also need to look elsewhere to make up the shortfall. 

Such challenges represent a key opportunity for China. Regardless of how local populations in developing countries feel, they may not have a choice if their national governments cannot secure a Western vaccine. As Professor Zachary Abuza writes in the South China Morning Post, “Without the United States performing its traditional role, there is little that the states can do about it but put up their hands to get China’s injection.” 

Indeed, if Chinese vaccines prove to be safe and play a big role in ensuring much of the world’s population is inoculated, Beijing may be seen as a benefactor who deserves gratitude and trust. 

Now add that with China’s success in controlling the virus, when set against the disaster in much of America and Europe, even boasts about its political system’s “institutional advantage” may come to sound more palatable to non-Chinese ears. 

Whether that will be the case depends, in the end, on whether China’s vaccines can win hearts and minds for the state that produced them. 

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