During a March 23 press briefing in Beijing, China, a BBC correspondent asked Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying: “China is insisting that people who enter the country now have a specific Chinese vaccine, and some people wanting to get entry to China have said that this is also possibly a type of vaccine nationalism and maybe in some countries it's hard for them to get a specific Chinese vaccine. What's your response to that?”
In replying, Hua said: “China never asks others to receive Chinese vaccines.”
That claim is false.
Just a few days before the briefing, Chinese embassies in more than 20 countries published new rules for entry visa eligibility. Although the notices vary slightly, they all require evidence of having been inoculated with a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine.
Critics say China’s new requirement is evidence of vaccine nationalism.
Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore told CNBC, that “Vaccine nationalism is a possibility that cannot be ruled out given the absence of further explanation.”
China-made vaccines are either unavailable or haven’t been approved for use in most of the countries where China updated its visa policy.
According to the online COVID19 Vaccine Tracker maintained by Canada’s McGill University, five of the 16 vaccines China has been developing have been approved for use in China and 53 other countries. Two Chinese vaccines, Sinopharm (Beijing): BBIBP-CorV and Sinovac: CoronaVac, have received the most foreign approvals – 26 and 18, respectively.
By comparison, the U.K.’s Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is approved in 82 countries and the U.S.-developed Pfizer BioNTech is approved in 79 countries. The World Health Organization has approved four vaccines but none from China.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted emergency authorization to three COVID-19 vaccines but none of the China versions.
China’s new visa requirements have caused frustration in India.
“The announcement makes little difference for thousands of Indian students besides professionals working in China and their family members who are stuck in India awaiting Beijing to permit their return as there are no Chinese vaccines available in India,” The Press Trust of India reported on March 16.
In late March, some 150 foreign journalists working in Beijing and their family members were inoculated with the China-made Sinovac vaccine. Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, reported that Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua said the vaccinations were voluntary and that the foreign journalists were grateful.
Hua’s comment at the March 23 Foreign Ministry press briefing was in response to a question asked by TV Tokyo reporter Masato Sato, who was among the journalists vaccinated with the Sinovac vaccine. The Global Times reported that Sato later apologized for the tone of his question, which he blamed on how it was translated.
However, Japan’s Kyodo news service reported that China’s vaccination of the foreign journalists was “an apparent bid to advertise the safety of its home-developed medical products with the attempt to boost its global clout through ‘vaccine diplomacy.’”
Chinese authorities asked the foreign journalists to sign several disclosures prior to their inoculation, including one declaring that “China decided to offer vaccinations to foreign journalists in Beijing ‘in order to facilitate the work and life,’” Kyodo reported.
China’s Foreign Ministry has denied vaccine nationalism.
"Our proposal to facilitate the travel of those who have been inoculated with Chinese vaccines is made after thoroughly considering the safety and efficacy of Chinese vaccines. It is not linked to the recognition of Chinese vaccines," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said when asked to explain the visa requirements.
The Reuters news agency reported that China’s domestic vaccination efforts have also often been overzealous. Although the law requires voluntary inoculation, Reuters said, the authorities are using coercive methods to encourage them.
They include placing warning posters on the doors and windows of businesses and organizations whose employees’ vaccination rate is below 40 percent, deploying cars with loudspeakers to circle around neighborhoods, and knocking on doors. Some schools and other public entities are requiring letters of explanation from the employees who have not yet received the vaccine.
“After falling behind the pace of some countries, China has drastically scaled up its vaccination efforts, administering between 3.7 and 6 million doses daily since March 25, bringing the number of shots injected to 114.69 million as of Tuesday, second only to the United States,” Reuters said.
Early on during the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, China suspended foreign entry and closed its borders. Four months later, however, China relaxed its ban on European nationals holding valid permanent residency or work permits in China.
The Chinese consulate in Washington, D.C., has not responded to Polygraph.info’s request for clarification concerning the visa requirements.
CNBC reported that people who did not receive a Chinese vaccine could still apply for a Chinese entry visa. However, the notices that Chinese embassies published on March 15 did not provide any details about exceptions, saying simply that the applications of those who could provide a proof of inoculation with a China-made vaccine would be processed.