Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing on February 10, 2020. Photo: Liu Bin / Xinhua via AFP / Getty

On December 31, 2020, the Chinese government gave a pandemic-panicked world a dose of hope when it approved its first Covid-19 vaccine for public use – a rapidly developed inoculation produced by state-backed pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm that was subsequently shipped worldwide in what became known as “vaccine diplomacy.” 

Yet it took 18 months before China’s senior Communist Party leaders publicly announced they had been vaccinated. “China’s state and party leaders have all been vaccinated against Covid-19 with domestically made shots,” Zeng Yixin, deputy head of the National Health Commission, stated on July 24, 2022. 

So after a series of debilitating Covid lockdowns and strict adherence to a “zero-Covid” policy, why did China’s leaders wait so long to announce their vaccination status? 

“This announcement of top officials being vaccinated – whether it’s true or not – may have been made now because of the public concerns, online rumors and lack of trust of the domestic vaccines,” said Sari Arho Havrén, a visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki specializing in China’s foreign relations.

It is extremely rare for any information to be officially divulged regarding health-related issues of top officials, especially Xi Jinping, the president, she added.

“Therefore, I wasn’t surprised that this information was withheld especially because of the efficacy of the Chinese vaccines compared to foreign mRNA vaccines and how political the issue had turned out,” she said, referring to Western-made and more effective Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

It still hasn’t been confirmed when China’s political leaders received the vaccine or how many doses they have received – some question whether the announcement was true or not. Xi wasn’t specifically mentioned in the official statement. 

Where world leaders rushed in front of the cameras to show themselves being jabbed, many becoming the first in their respective countries to be inoculated in a bid to dispel vaccine-hesitancy, China’s leaders have until now been secretive about their vaccination status. 

In January 2021, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen reportedly outed Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, as having been vaccinated – something that had not been confirmed by authorities in Beijing previously.

China’s Leninist system may have been the real reason for the 18-month delay in announcing the vaccination of its political leaders, some analysts say.

A nurse in China prepares to administer the Sinovac vaccine. Chinese-made vaccines have proven less effective than their Western-made rivals. Photo: AFP / George Calvelo / NurPhoto

In dictatorships and authoritarian political systems, “in order to maintain the supreme power of the authoritative leader, a high level of secrecy about the leader(s) is necessary,” said Chunhuei Chi, director of Oregon State University’s center for global health. 

“The fewer people know about the leader, the more people are fearful of their leader and, therefore, more obedient,” he added.

However, had Xi Jinping and other Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grandees announced earlier that they had been vaccinated with Chinese-made vaccines, “it would have been a superb public relations stunt for both domestic and international promotion and propaganda,” Chi noted.

Domestically, it would have given a boost to the public’s trust in locally-made vaccines, particularly as foreign jabs were not available.

Instead, Xi and CCP leaders’ secrecy about their Covid-19 vaccination status may have fueled speculation among Chinese people and contributed to vaccine hesitancy, especially among the elderly, Chi added. 

Obviously, Chinese-made vaccines now face global scrutiny and criticism for their comparatively lower efficacy, particularly against Covid variants. When they were rolled out in late 2020, only healthy people aged under 60 could have them, the state said.

Almost 90% of China’s population has been fully vaccinated with Sinopharm and Sinovac jabs, but just 61% of over-80s have been fully vaccinated and only 38% have had a booster. That deficiency has no doubt driven China’s “zero Covid” policy, as authorities have sacrificed the economy in the name of public health through draconian lockdowns.   

China’s Covid-19 lockdowns are turning growth sickly. Photo: Screengrab / BBC

The CCP has been wary of issuing a vaccine mandate: An attempt to introduce one in Beijing earlier this month was quickly scrapped. Entire cities of tens of millions of people have been locked down, sending the economy into stasis; it grew by just 0.4% in the second quarter of 2022. 

The fact that it took so long to announce Xi’s vaccination “reflects the relatively low priority accorded to mass vaccination in implementing the zero-Covid strategy,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank,

“The initial success in implementing the [zero-Covid] strategy only reduced the incentives to promote vaccinations among the elderly people,” he added. 

For Beijing’s foreign policy, the image of Xi being publicly vaccinated would have also been a certain propaganda boost, especially considering that China’s leaders have invested so much effort and money in so-called vaccine diplomacy.

Huang points out that there has been a “significant drop” in the delivery of Chinese vaccines abroad since last autumn, “which effectively put an end to China’s vaccine diplomacy.”

Overseas deliveries of Chinese vaccines peaked last November at 235 million doses delivered that month, according to British analytics firm Airfinity. Those shipments declined to 89 million in December, 51.6 million in January and just 11.5 million in March.

“The lack of confidence and consensus among the top leaders over the domestic use of Chinese vaccines likely undermines its ability to market its vaccines overseas,” Huang added. 

A Balinese temple priest receives a dose of Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine during mass Covid-19 vaccination program in Ubud, Gianyar, Bali, Indonesia on March 16, 2021. Photo: Johanes Christo / NurPhoto via AFP

The response to the news that China’s leaders have been vaccinated was muted in Southeast Asia, where China had earlier concentrated its vaccine shipments. Most regional newspapers only carried wire reports on the announcement from Beijing. 

A majority of Southeast Asians reckoned China provided the most Covid-19 vaccine support to the region, according to the 2022 State of Southeast Asia report produced by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

However, 54% said they had the most trust in the Western-made Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, with Chinese brands Sinopharm and Sinovac lagging badly at just 18%. 

Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno