By Dechun Zhang, PhD candidate at Leiden University in Netherlands, and guest PhD at NIAS.
On 11 March 2020, COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. Subsequently, the pandemic impacted the lives of millions of people. It is widely accepted that the development of COVID-19 vaccines would be a significant step in controlling the pandemic. Many countries then have weaponised vaccines in an attempt to further national interests. For instance, in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Communist Party of China (CPC) announced that all Chinese citizens were to receive the vaccination free of charge. However, the Chinese public only has access to Chinese vaccine brands. Moreover, after China officially joined COVAX on October 9, 2020, although it refuses western media labelling of its foreign assistance with COVID-19 vaccines to developing country as “vaccine diplomacy”, China indeed offered loans and priority access to developing countries for vaccinations. Hence, some scholars observed the emergence of vaccine nationalism, a term that denotes competition among superpowers to be the first to launch an effective vaccine on the market, accompanied by the prioritisation of domestic use. However, most of the discussion on vaccine nationalism has been framed from a western perspective. As the COVID-19 vaccines also have triggered heated discussions on social media in the PRC, I conducted an online observation from 9 October 2020 to 9 February 2021 on Sina Weibo to collect data on discussions about COVID-19 vaccines.
COVID-19, nationalism, and vaccines
Chinese nationalistic expressions usually feature both top-down and bottom-up types of expression. In other words, China’s nationalism is not only framed by the Chinese political elites but also demonstrates grassroot features. The online nationalism discourse is indicative of hostile sentiments towards external provocations that are characteristized as confrontational and xenophobic, while demonstrating positive perceptions of the CPC. Hence, it is widely accepted that the nationlists in China are ‘blind’ followers of the CPC. However, Chinese popular nationalism also demonstrates certain autonomy from the official discourse, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Chinese government’s narrative highlights the role of the CPC to assist the world and to defend China against the western democracies’ criticisms, Chinese netizens actively express a range of opinions online regarding the COVID-19 vaccines.
Globalism or Nationalism?
The Chinese public indicate their adherence to the official doctrine through their positive attitudes towards China and their negative attitudes towards the West. Popular phrases and terms used on public posts related to the Chinese COVID-19 vaccines include responsible, putting people first, properly arranged, greatest happiness, best gift, great motherland, adorable persons, safeguarding us, salute, proud and happy, Long live our motherland, and most reliable. However, the Chinese public also demonstrated other self-contradictory attitudes regarding the use of COVID-19 vaccines.
First, the Chinese public are proud of the speed of vaccine development. The ‘China speed’ was mentioned in many posts to demonstrate their pride that China can invent vaccines so fast. However, when discussing the speed of western vaccine development, the Chinese public borrow from the CPC’s narrative in respect of the alleged side effects of western vaccines, thereby maintaining existing arguments about the irresponsibility of the American government. Then “speed” becomes a negative trait.
Moreover, nationalists indicate the belief that the American government invents vaccines so fast only in order to secure a geopolitical win, with only perfunctory consideration for the wellbeing of the public. Unlike Western countries, China did not rush to develop vaccines because the Chinese government decided to develop the most reliable vaccines for the Chinese people. Therefore, the Chinese public celebrated online that China was not the first country to invent a vaccine and that China chose not to replicate the actions of Western countries that rushed out their vaccines in response to geopolitical rivalry. In contrast, China’s approach to vaccine development is to be interpreted as indicative of the fact that CPC cares about people’s lives.
Moreover, although the Chinese government denied using the vaccine issue to engage in vaccine diplomacy, the Chinese public celebrated the fact that China could overtake the United States to gain world-leading geopolitical power. The Chinese public celebrated online that the Chinese government was able to assist the world. Their narrative focused on the gratitude for Chinese COVID-19 vaccines expressed by those that had received Chinese assisted vaccines. Hence, while the Chinese public welcome the opportunity to assist the world, their willingness is based on the condition that countries who receive assistance must admit the leading role played by China. Yet, the Chinese public defamed Western countries as selfish because they used vaccines in a self-interested fashion. In other words, Chinese popular nationalism encompasses a belief of a Western-dominated world order where China’s globalism would further its national interests.
Overall, the pandemic offered Chinese people the chance to change the nationalist narrative, both domestically and globally. Chinese popular nationalism displays demonstrable traits of anti-Western sentiments and pro-China features. Hence, in China, the vaccine came to signify a set of beliefs that reinforced nationalism. Nevertheless, vaccine nationalism in the context of Chinese society also exhibits an appreciation of globalism, albeit combined with self-interest and the need for a geopolitical win.
Dechun Zhang is a PhD candidate at Leiden University in Netherlands, and the guest PhD at NIAS in Denmark. His research interests are political communication, media and politics and digital nationalism with a focus on China. His PhD project, “Rethinking China’s Digital Nationalism in the wake of COVID-19 Pandemic”, aims to investigate how COVID-19 has reshaped and influenced China’s digital nationalism.