As Olympics loom, China faces COVID-19 and other challenges

China is struggling with the limited efficacy of its vaccines

  
A general view of skyline buildings, in Hong Kong, China July 13, 2021.

A general view of skyline buildings, in Hong Kong, China July 13, 2021.

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

LONDON- As countries around the world imposed new COVID-19 restrictions this week following a rise in concern over the Omicron variant of the virus, China announced it would aim to deliver another 1 billion vaccines to Africa and push ahead with hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics in February.

It was a reminder of the self-confidence Beijing wants to project to the world: an economic powerhouse that has controlled the pandemic at home and led the response overseas, impervious to international criticism it sees as hypocritical.

The reality is more complex. While cases at home remain low, China is struggling with the limited efficacy of its vaccines, and keen to avoid a resurgence of domestic cases that its own scientists say would be catastrophic. Abroad, Beijing faces increasingly antagonistic relations with the West and multiple other nations, including criticism over human rights and its growing pressure on Taiwan.

As far back as 2019, human rights activists and some Western leaders were calling for an outright boycott of the Games over China's treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority. That never looked likely to extend to the competitors – a lot of money, energy and effort has been sunk into the Games, including by sponsors. Beijing denies all allegations of abuse of Uyghurs.

Multiple countries, however, have reportedly been considering a diplomatic boycott – including the United States, Britain and Australia. The European Parliament voted in July on a non-binding resolution encouraging European states to do the same. That could yet happen, including having diplomats in Beijing stay away from events – but the pared-back nature of the foreign presence will now make that less noticeable.

The Games will be tightly controlled even by the standards of the Summer Olympics held in Japan this year. There will be no foreign spectators and an almost complete absence of foreign leaders and dignitaries – with the likely exception of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

TENNIS PLAYER

That may ultimately be a relief for Chinese President Xi Jinping. One of China's most popular sports personalities, 35-year-old tennis player Peng Shuai, has been the subject of international speculation after largely disappearing from the public eye following a Nov. 2 social media posting in which she accused a former Chinese vice-premier of sexually assaulting her.

On Tuesday, the European Union demanded “verifiable proof” that she remained well, alive and free. Peng is one of a number of high-profile Chinese individuals who have disappeared from public life for a period of time, and some human rights experts suspect her contact with the outside world – including a Nov. 21 call with Olympic officials in which she reassured them she was fine – has been controlled.

While some European states – particularly Hungary and Serbia – have moved closer to Beijing, others are increasingly hostile. This week saw parliamentarians from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia visiting Taiwan, while even nations such as Germany that want to maintain trade have scaled back some other links. China's foreign ministry has said that "certain people" should stop the "malicious hyping" and "politicization" of the Peng issue.

Part of China’s model has long been that its economic and industrial clout allows it to shrug off such criticism when it comes to human rights. Beijing will have been hoping that Xi’s announcement of more vaccines and health staff to Africa at a summit this week will allow it to deepen its influence on the continent.

Xi pledged Beijing would donate another 600 million doses and produce another 400 billion through commercial deals including with African manufacturers.

South African authorities in particular are furious at international travel bans, saying they are being victimised for being open with the world about Omicron, which was first found on Nov. 8 in South Africa and has spread to at least two dozen countries. Chinese state media and diplomats have taken up that rhetoric, saying its emergence is in part due to rich Western states hoarding their own vaccines. K

COVID-19 CHALLENGE

There my be some truth in that. In maintaining its position as a vaccine diplomacy heavyweight, however, Beijing has faced a growing problem. International demand for Chinese vaccines – whose reported 50-80% efficacy in preventing COVID-19 is much lower than for vaccines such as those from Pfizer PFE.N and AstraZeneca .

That has proved a challenge for Chinese vaccine sales internationally, with some countries openly prioritising Western-made vaccines.

For China domestically, however, it may pose an even larger challenge. After Beijing’s initial success in locking down the pandemic to within Wuhan, where the first known COVID-19 case was reported, few of its population have been naturally exposed to the virus. The limited protection offered by Chinese vaccines could make it more likely that any renewed COVID-19 outbreak would spread rapidly if the still-closed border were breached. University of Peking researchers writing in China’s Centre for Disease Control Weekly have warned that China’s high population density, limited health resources and questions over the reach and effectiveness of its vaccine programme mean that allowing the kind of managed spread of COVID-19 seen in Western countries would fast prove catastrophic.

For the Olympics, that means very tight controls, bubbles and systems of buses to allow athletes to compete without mass quarantine. For everyone else, it means the borders remain closed. For China, it means the pandemic and the complex geopolitics it has yielded are not yet close to being over.

Peter Apps

*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)