The race of the world powers for the corona vaccine is on. It’s not just about ending the pandemic and lockdowns, it’s also about power. China in particular wants to benefit from the crisis.
For billions of people around the world, an effective corona vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel. It promises immunity to the virus, the end of the pandemic and the hated lockdowns. Even if the corona crisis changes the world permanently, a return to the old normal seems possible in some cases.
But the vaccine race of the European, American, Russian and Chinese pharmaceutical companies is about more than the health of the world’s population or the end of the pandemic: it is about power. States that can first achieve blanket immunity can exempt their economies from corona measures earlier. China in particular is also using the pandemic to position itself as a global leader and expand its influence.
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Beijing wants to use the currently felt weakness of the USA. The goal is clear: The People’s Republic of China wants to overtake the United States as a superpower by 2049 – 100 years after the founding of the state. China, of all things, could help the pandemic that started on home soil.
Pandemic comparatively under control
When the coronavirus spread in Wuhan in January 2020, the world’s population gasped. A pandemic, of all places, in the country with a population of billions and numerous megacities. The Chinese government used many possibilities of a dictatorial system to contain it: cities were cordoned off, the population in hotspots was locked in their homes and the army was deployed. The Politburo declared the pandemic over at the end of March.
A medical worker scans the nucleic acid samples that have been collected in a laboratory. China has reported new corona cases in the cities of Shanghai and Tianjin. (Source: CHINATOPIX / dpa)
Unrealistic, say experts around the world. Since the spring, China has reported very few nine infections. The government has always stated that these are “imported corona cases”. The signal to the world: The People’s Republic has won the fight against the virus.
A corona mass test is being carried out at the international airport in Shanghai: China is increasingly relying on testing many people in response to outbreaks. (Source: AW / AP / dpa)
In addition, China has so far only reported 4,742 people who have died with the coronavirus. There is much evidence that Beijing is manipulating these numbers, for example, people with symptoms in Wuhan have been turned away from hospitals so that more cases do not show up in the statistics. On the other hand, there are no reports of a large corona mass death in China, although the country has returned to normal after the strict and authoritarian measures and the economy has started up again. So there is currently a lot of evidence that the pandemic is under control.
China looks to other countries
Only the legend of “imported corona cases” from abroad, which is also transported by the state media, worries many Chinese. In doing so, the government also obtained the legitimacy of the population to invest a lot of money abroad against the virus.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (r.): The People’s Republic would like to secure more influence in the corona pandemic by supporting other countries. (Source: Bobby Yip / Reuters)
This commitment has many ulterior motives. China wants to use the pandemic to establish itself as a leading power globally. Beijing has therefore presented itself as a selfless helper in the pandemic since spring. For example, Chinese doctors and virologists or medical devices have been sent to West Africa, Italy and Spain. In doing so, the People’s Republic wants to prove that it can take on international responsibility so that its leading role is recognized by many states.
The next chapter in this global power struggle is now the race for the first effective corona vaccine that can go into mass production worldwide. China made a full-bodied promise in May: “A vaccine from China, if it is then available, will be a public good,” said state and party leader Xi Jinping at a conference of the World Health Organization (WHO). But after some developing countries raised hopes for a free vaccine, Beijing rowed back. There should be a fair price.
It’s about power and recognition
Supplying other countries with a vaccine is not selfless either. Jacob Mardell from the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, says tagesschau.de: “China is propagating its vaccines as a public good, trying to position itself as a global leader and at the same time building a coalition of developing countries that are grateful to China and recognize this leadership role . ”
To this end, the Chinese government is not only offering many countries the vaccine, but also a way of financing the deliveries. For example, China has promised $ 1 billion in loans to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean if they buy the Chinese vaccine. The Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was apparently promised quick vaccination deliveries if he refrains from criticizing China’s policy in the future.
Horrific images from Wuhan in February 2020: There was the world’s first major outbreak of the corona virus. (Source: CHINATOPIX / dpa)
Many countries are thus becoming dependent on the Chinese leadership. They often have little choice, because vaccinating a large part of the population poses massive logistical problems, especially for financially weaker countries. They accept the greater Chinese influence – also because the USA and the European Union are withdrawing as powers of order and are fighting more with internal problems. China is taking advantage of the resulting power vacuum.
No data on the effectiveness of the Chinese vaccine
It is not even clear whether China will even have a vaccine that is effective. The vaccine developer China National Biotec Group (CNBG) was the first manufacturer to submit an application for official approval of its preparation to the authorities on Wednesday, reported the Chinese news agency Xinhua Finance.
The people on the buses in Shanghai wear masks: China has already vaccinated hundreds of thousands of people – despite the lack of tests. (Source: Aly Song / Reuters)
According to its own information, the pharmaceutical company Sinopharm has already vaccinated almost a million people against the coronavirus with its vaccine candidates last week using a so-called emergency program. The agent is currently being tested on the population. There have been no reports of serious side effects, and only a few have developed mild symptoms. But unlike Western manufacturers, neither CNBG nor Sinopharm have published more precise data on the effectiveness of their drugs, which makes a comparison difficult.
China promises other states better deals if they test the vaccine as well. This vaccine diplomacy is showing initial success for the Chinese government: a plant for vaccine production is being built in Brazil, and Egypt and Morocco are to follow suit. The United Arab Emirates even approved the vaccine for an emergency program.
A big risk for China
For China it’s still a very high stakes game. If the strategy works, the People’s Republic can expand its global influence. Eric Olander, co-founder of the China-Africa-Project internet portal, said tagesschau.de. “Countries use the instruments at their disposal to polish up their global image and in this case China just uses the vaccines for it.” It is a strategy with high risk – and high benefit.
Passengers wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus walk through a hall at Haikou Meilan International Airport in the southern Chinese province of Hainan. (Source: Mark Schiefelbein / dpa)
In any case, China would have the capacities for mass production, and European experts suspect that the Chinese vaccine does not need to be stored as cool as its competitors from Europe and the USA. That would be an advantage for many hospitals and vaccination centers – also in Germany.
Beijing’s reputation is also at stake
Ultimately, however, the Chinese vaccine must also be as effective as the product used by European and US companies. Russian President Vladimir Putin uses a strategy similar to that of Beijing. Russia also tested its vaccine on the population at an early stage. Recently, however, several doctors made headlines who became infected again despite the vaccination. A massive setback for Putin in the vaccine race.
Xi is aware of this risk, which is one of the reasons why he asked Chancellor Angela Merkel on the phone to work more closely on vaccine development. In addition, China – in contrast to the USA – participates in the international vaccine initiative Covax of the WHO, which is supposed to distribute an effective vaccination globally. But the initiative has not yet been able to raise enough money.
Should the attempt at an international solution fail, it would give China more responsibility and thus more space for its power-political advances. But in the struggle for the status of a superpower, China is also fighting for a better image. In order to live up to its claim to leadership, the Chinese government must polish up the reputation of the “Made in China” brand internationally. So far, it still stands for plagiarism and cheap products of poor quality in many countries. If the Chinese vaccine is not effective, the People’s Republic’s vaccine diplomacy will backfire. That would be a setback on China’s path to becoming a superpower.