Tear gas and rubber bullets hold off the protestors marching to Government House in Bangkok. They’re looking for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who they blame for Thailand’s Covid plight. As Covid cases continue to rise in Thailand, the protestors have three demands: the resignation of Prayut, more funding for the country’s Covid response, and for the country to stop using the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine.
Back when Sinovac first landed in the country in February the shipment was welcomed by Prayut, who proclaimed it ‘a historic day’. But six months down the line hundreds of healthcare workers are still being infected with coronavirus despite having received two shots of Sinovac. A Thai government memo also leaked, in which an expert warned the government against introducing Pfizer booster shots in case it undermined confidence in the Sinovac vaccine. Faced with widespread scepticism of Sinovac, the Thai government has relented and is now topping up anyone jabbed with Sinovac with AstraZeneca doses instead.
In Indonesia, the Moderna vaccine is similarly being offered as a booster to the country’s Sinovaxxed healthcare workers, thousands of whom have since been infected with coronavirus. On Indonesian social media, both China bashing and vaccine conspiracies are commonplace.
Meanwhile in Peru the Sinopharm vaccine, also developed in China, has been seriously tarnished by what locals call ‘Vacunagate’. Almost 500 senior politicians (and their wives, siblings and children) had secretly been given the vaccine in October 2020, months before it was rolled out to healthcare workers. After the scandal broke, the health minister and the foreign minister resigned, and the then-President, who was also in on the scheme, expressed ‘great surprise’ that his vaccine wasn’t part of an advanced clinical trial. Surprise indeed.
In Vietnam, the Chinese embassy lobbied the government to give its Sinopharm vaccines to Chinese nationals living in Vietnam. China’s generous vaccine donation apparently had the condition that the doses would first go to Chinese nationals, a promise Hanoi tried to ignore. Under pressure from China, the Vietnam government U-turned – a move which went down particularly badly amongst young Vietnamese, who tend to be more favourable to America.
In the Philippines, President Duterte apologised for being vaccinated with the unapproved Sinopharm shot (which he’d broadcast live on Facebook). The country was meant to be using Sinovac, 1.5 million doses of which had just arrived in the country, but the Chinese embassy had also thrown in a donation of 1,000 Sinopharm jabs. Duterte possibly caught wind of the fact that Sinopharm is more effective, but given that the jab hadn’t yet been approved in the Philippines, it stank of ‘one rule for us, one rule for them’. In a televised address, Duterte said ‘Don’t follow my footsteps. It’s dangerous because there are no studies, it might not be good for the body’ and asked the Chinese embassy to take back their donation.
These separate incidents taking place around the world suggest that Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy, once the envy of the world, has run into two fundamental problems. For one, the two Chinese jabs simply don’t cut the mustard when it comes to efficacy, especially against the Delta variant. It’s been estimated that the protection offered by the Chinese vaccines against the new strain could be up to 20 per cent lower than against the original coronavirus, coming down from already low efficacy numbers of 51 per cent for Sinovac and 79 per cent for Sinopharm.
Countries like Chile, Bahrain, Mongolia, and the Seychelles are finding out that after using the Chinese vaccines they need a much higher level of vaccine coverage to beat back new infections. It’s a problem that China itself will soon have to face – with the Delta variant currently in 17 Chinese provinces. Many countries though have no other choice. Until the G7 begins rolling-out the one billion vaccines they have promised to give the rest of the world, China’s vaccines will continue to dominate. As one Indonesian academic recently said, ‘Sinovac is the only choice’.
The other problem is more prickly. Beijing is now finding that its best photo op partners – strongman leaders across the world who accepted the Chinese vaccines and whose supplicatory gestures and grateful words adorned Xinhuareports in China – are, in fact, not such a blessing. Take the current Thai protests, which have bubbled over from the 2020 student protests and which are fuelled by existing political grievances. In this climate Sinovac has found itself lumped in with a government under siege. In Peru, the President who helped himself to Sinopharm before it was approved for the rest of the population was impeached soon after, on separate corruption accusations. In various countries, Chinese vaccines have come to be associated with incompetent or coercive national governments, who are often seen as forcing the Chinese vaccine on their sceptical people.
Ultimately, China’s vaccine diplomacy has still been a success. Of the 350 million jabs it has exported to over 80 countries, a handful of difficult or unhappy customers isn’t a huge issue. And it would be unlike Beijing to have compunction about being associated with sleazy governments or impeached presidents. Other countries still laud the Chinese vaccines (Serbia has made itself into something of a local benefactor, doling Chinese vaccines out to its wanting neighbours). And until the West makes its superior vaccines readily available China will find that it’s a seller’s market, even if the country can’t portray itself as the technological champion it had wanted to be by 2021. But for now, when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of ordinary people around the world (not the Dutertes or the Prayuts), Beijing is finding that vaccine diplomacy is harder than just a few photo ops.
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