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China’s next COVID challenge: Widespread protests over mRNA vaccines

Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File
Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in protest in Beijing, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. The recent wave of protests against China’s anti-virus restrictions was a ray of hope for some supporters of Hong Kong’s own pro-democracy movement after local authorities stifled it using a national security law enacted in 2020, but not everyone agrees.

Perhaps the most remarkable outcome of the recent protests in China is what the protestors never demanded and what the Chinese government seems determined not to provide: access to the world’s best and most effective mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.

Interpreting the conspicuous absence of mRNA vaccines in protestor demands invites us to focus on what the protests were – and were not – about. Protestors were outraged about the personal danger and inhumane conditions they experienced under a rigid “zero Covid” policy administered by callous bureaucrats.

The mainstream did not advocate broader change, political reforms or Western approaches to the COVID pandemic. In fact, unremitting Chinese government propaganda has persuaded the Chinese public that, implementation aside, the “zero COVID” policy has been successful because there have been relatively few Chinese deaths.

Ongoing Chinese government claims that Chinese vaccines are safe and effective also remain unchallenged domestically. All of that could change as the “zero COVID” policy is relaxed and widespread infections become possible, if not likely. If personal danger and inhumane conditions created underlying conditions that led to recent protests, the emergence of uncontrolled outbreaks and potentially even greater danger could lead to renewed demonstrations demanding more effective action. Protestors who succeeded in pressing demands for “zero COVID” policy changes may become emboldened to press further demands.

The Chinese government and most international observers agree that vaccination is key to preventing COVID. But China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines use older technology that employs an inactivated virus that many experts believe is less effective at preventing infection than Western-developed mRNA vaccines. China has developed a homegrown mRNA vaccine used in Indonesia but not approved for use in China.

What, then, is the Chinese rationale for refusing to permit access to the world’s most effective COVID vaccines, especially when they are readily available for immediate distribution in China? And how will Chinese authorities respond if outbreaks generate more urgent public demands that the government adopt all possible measures – including mRNA vaccines – to fight COVID?

There are no defensible answers. Any claims that foreign vaccines are unsuitable for China because they have not been properly tested locally are undermined by successful widespread use in many other countries. Moreover, testing has not been completed in China simply because China has not permitted the process to commence.

Commercial considerations surfaced in press reports that China refused Moderna’s offer to import mRNA vaccines because the company refused to transfer the intellectual property rights as part of the deal. Forced technology transfer is integral to China’s trade policy, but that practice is especially misguided and inappropriate amid a public health crisis.

And then there is the issue of national pride. Chinese President Xi Jinping often says that the world is experiencing changes unseen in the past 100 years, asserting that China is rising while the West is falling. Reliance on foreign technology to tame the greatest public health crisis in the history of the People’s Republic may be inconsistent with that vision and Chinese aspirations.

But is the humbling fact that Chinese vaccine technology is no match for Western technologies sufficient reason not to save millions of lives? China might try to save face by introducing the unproven Chinese mRNA vaccines rather than permitting proven products from the West. But that approach could backfire during dire times if the Chinese mRNA vaccines are not as effective as hoped.

To be clear: I wish China well and hope that the nation will emerge from COVID quickly without domestic instability, both for the sake of China and the rest of the world. But China stands on the edge of a precipice as it relaxes the “zero COVID” policy.

The experience of recent weeks suggests that average Chinese citizens, when faced with unprecedented public health dangers and spiking death rates, may be prepared again to demand effective, humane measures, with ultimate results that no one can predict.

Jeff Moon is a China trade and government relations consultant who served previously as assistant U.S. trade representative for China affairs.

Tags China China protests Chinese Communist Party COVID-19 pandemic COVID-19 protests Moderna mrna vaccines Xi Jinping

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