The Chinese government has delivered 3.4 billion COVID-19 vaccine shots to its citizens, more than any other country in the world by a wide margin. Its tally alone accounts for over one-quarter of the world’s total jabs. But amid the blistering campaign, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been conspicuously silent on whether he’s among the vaccine recipients. Beijing had the chance to put the question to rest on Saturday, but it still danced around the issue.
At a Saturday press conference to promote booster jabs, Zeng Yixin, the deputy head of the National Health Commission, said China’s top leaders had all been vaccinated in response to a question on the vaccination status of top officials.
“China’s state and party leaders have all been vaccinated against COVID-19 with domestically made shots,” Zeng said in the press conference. Chinese state media said the phrase ‘state and party leaders’ usually include members of China’s Politburo, the government’s top decision making body, which Xi chairs.
Zeng’s statement seems to indicate that Xi has, in fact, been vaccinated, but by not mentioning Xi by name, Zeng still leaves room for doubt. China’s government has had countless other opportunities to publicize Xi’s vaccination status—Xi is front-page news in every day in China—but it’s chosen not to.
World leaders publicize their jabs. Not Xi.
Virtually every other world leader—save for exceptions like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro—has publicly advertised his or her own COVID-19 vaccination to drum up support for jabs. U.S. President Joe Biden, and many of his peers, have received their jabs on live television to encourage constituents to get the shots.
Xi has added incentive to publicize his vaccination status; doing so would provide counter programming to reports that doubt Chinese-made vaccines’ effectiveness. China has relied on inactivated COVID-19 vaccines, which use a dead form of the virus to induce an immune response, from makers Sinovac and Sinopharm. The vaccines appear to protect against severe disease from Omicron, but they may not hold up as well against the variant as the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which teach the body to fight off the disease via a genetically protein.
In April, China’s COVID-19 vaccine exports fell 97% from a peak last September. Demand for Pfizer’s vaccine, meanwhile, dropped 71% in that same period.
China’s exit from COVID-zero
Zeng’s admission that China’s top leaders have been vaccinated comes at a critical time in China’s COVID response.
China has continued to rely on a COVID-zero strategy of harsh lockdowns, mass testing, and centralized quarantine for positive cases. But the strategy has become more costly to China’s economy and more unpopular amid outbreaks of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant and its BA.5 subvariant that are harder to contain.
Experts believe that any path out of COVID zero for China will involve China vaccinating and boosting a large chunk of its 1.4 billion citizens, but China’s government has not indicated a timeline for re-opening. On the surface, China’s vaccine campaign appears to one of the world’s most successful, but so far it’s not enough for the country to move away from COVID zero.
China has fully vaccinated 89.7% of its population; 71.7% of people have gotten at least three jabs. The U.S., meanwhile, has fully vaccinated 66.3% of its population and given boosters to 31.8% of people. Still, China’s high vaccination rate lags among its most vulnerable populations. For those older than 80, only 61% of people have been fully vaccinated while 38% have gotten at least three shots.
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