Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Doubts about China’s COVID-19 vaccines could dent its diplomacy efforts, Beijing’s Xinjiang propaganda raises questions about 2022 Winter Olympics boycotts, and China launches a digital yuan in trial stage.
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Will China’s Vaccine Diplomacy Work?
Bolstered by its own success against the coronavirus, China—unlike the United States—has prioritized vaccine exports over domestic distribution. The comprehensive aid program intends to repair some of the damage done to Beijing’s reputation by the pandemic and to solidify its image as a generous donor and ally. China has exported over 115 million vaccine doses, nearly double the number of India and the European Union. There’s just one problem: The Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, aren’t inspiring confidence.
Just how ineffective China’s vaccines are remains unclear, as no firm has yet published its late-stage test data. Earlier results for Sinovac in Brazil reported efficacy as low as 50.4 percent, while other tests show efficacy up to 80 percent. (China’s own science and medical sector also has recurrent problems with falsified or nonexistent data.) The World Health Organization has described the vaccines as reaching necessary standards, or above 50 percent; its advisory panel suggests that the data shows close to 70 percent efficacy.
These results are still far below the performance of some Western vaccines such as Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which have efficacy rates of more than 90 percent.
The poor reputation of the Chinese vaccines is already causing distribution problems, even in countries with close ties to Beijing. In Kyrgyzstan, some doctors are refusing Sinopharm doses, choosing to hold out for Russian vaccines instead. Only 39 percent of Hong Kongers say they will get the vaccine, likely due to China pushing its shots over Western alternatives. But many countries still facing a surge in coronavirus cases, such as Papua New Guinea, are eager for anything that can help stem the tide.
Most concerning is that some countries that use Chinese vaccines, including the United Arab Emirates and Chile, have relatively high vaccination rates, but new cases are still rising or stagnant. Death rates have fallen somewhat, however, suggesting the Chinese vaccines have some mitigating effect, even if they are not blocking transmission as well as the Western vaccines. (Chinese state media, meanwhile, has spread conspiracy theories about Western vaccines.)
If the Chinese vaccines remain at this level of efficacy, then China’s ultra-strict—and highly effective—lockdown measures are likely to remain in place for quite some time. That means occasional citywide lockdowns, such as the latest one in Ruili, near the border with Myanmar. Nationalism is likely to keep overriding logic in border control: Currently, only proof of vaccination with a Chinese shot allows people to evade barriers to entry and quarantines.
Olympic boycotts? The Biden administration remains ambivalent about the possibility of boycotting the Winter Olympics in Beijing next year over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere. In Canada, a winter sports powerhouse, there is strong public support for a boycott, even as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hems and haws over deals with Beijing. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has come out against boycotts, saying that athletes shouldn’t be “political pawns.”
But given the force with which the Chinese authorities are pushing propaganda about Xinjiang, it’s almost inevitable that the Olympic ceremonies would include some element of it, whether it’s happy dancers in Uyghur clothes or scenes of smiling laborers in the cotton fields. It’s also likely that China will try to sell attendance as endorsement. The official clothing contract has already been handed to a firm with ties to Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, attacks on critics of China’s abuses in Xinjiang are becoming more frequent by the day. Western brands that have refused to buy Xinjiang cotton are censored on Chinese TV, and a depiction of Chinese-born analyst Vicky Xu, who now lives in Australia, as a “female demon” now has more than 7 million views in China. Several Uyghurs living abroad who have spoken out told me that since the recent sanctions, they have seen an increase in threatening calls to them and pressure on their families at home, including arbitrary detention.
Whitsun Reef standoff. China’s maritime militia, which Beijing falsely identifies as peaceful fishing boats, continues to occupy the disputed Whitsun Reef in defiance of demands from the Philippines to leave. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is far more pro-China than his public, toned down the language on Wednesday and called for a peaceful resolution. But China’s brazen move—and the blatant implausibility of claims that the vessels were simply sheltering from bad weather—points to tense upcoming months at sea.
The situation is not helped by genuine Chinese fishing vessels that intrude into the territory of countries far from China’s coastline, such as Peru, because Chinese waters are essentially fished out.
Propaganda film push. Authorities have ordered Chinese movie theaters to promote at least two screenings of propaganda films each week until the end of the year, in anticipation of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1. As with everything else in China, promoting so-called Xi Jinping thought is now a necessity for cinemas, too.
As Amanda Morrison wrote in Foreign Policy recently, Chinese film is increasingly dominated by nationalistic themes and state incentives. Some propaganda movies are genuine popular blockbusters, but others, such as a recent Xinjiang-set musical, are dire flops.
Digital yuan launch. China has launched a digital yuan—the first for a major currency. The technology is currently only in trial stage among a group of around 100,000 citizens, but it is envisaged as eventually replacing cash and debit cards, allowing the government to effectively monitor all domestic transactions. The digital yuan could also allow Beijing to play a bigger role in international transfers, but setting up the infrastructure and norms for that is a long way off.
One major issue with the digital yuan is that nearly 40 percent of the Chinese population still isn’t regularly connected to the internet, and the cash economy is still the norm for hundreds of millions of people. It’s not uncommon for a poor family of four to share a single mobile phone, and it’s especially tricky for those who lack official identification, required to purchase a SIM card.
In theory, the digital currency can work offline or through a card rather than a mobile phone. It would also be an excellent way to get money to people quickly, whether for disaster relief or stimulus purposes—though unlike the United States, China has been reluctant about direct money transfers during the pandemic.
Dirty growth. Beijing has recorded its highest smog levels in two years, as factories recover from the pandemic recession. As China struggles to hit the goal of a “moderately prosperous society” by 2030, its dependence on coal, which makes up 58 percent of the energy supply, seems unlikely to go away. A push for renewable technologies has created a new criminal market to go with it, with gangs cornering local markets in renewable batteries—but it is slowly reducing China’s emissions per unit of GDP growth, if not yet overall.
Coronavirus losses. Despite—or perhaps because of—China’s success against the coronavirus through strict lockdowns, it is set to come off an economic loser by 2024, according to International Monetary Fund projections. China lost approximately 18 months of growth, whereas thanks to stimulus policies the United States is now predicted to grow by more than expected before the pandemic hit.
The relatively weak U.S. lockdowns, as well as generous stimulus policies compared to most countries, have both contributed to this change—but it also came at the cost of over half a million lives, compared to China’s official death toll of under 5,000 people.
What We’re Reading
The Taoist Body, by Kristofer Schipper
This 1994 introduction to Daoism, one of the world’s most misunderstood religions due to its fusion of philosophical tradition, theocratic hierarchy, and folk practice, is a key text for understanding Chinese culture and history.
Kristofer Schipper, the doyen of Daoist studies in the West, died at the age of 86 earlier this year. Ian Johnson’s obituary of Schipper in the New York Times this week shows the role he played in reconceiving the role of Chinese religion, which Schipper’s students Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer examine in their book about its devastation in the 20th century.
(David A. Palmer, by the way, is not the father of China Brief’s author; that is an entirely different scholar of Daoism.)
That’s it for this week.