Local governments in China are increasingly imposing threatening policies meant to intimidate residents into receiving doses of Chinese-made coronavirus vaccines, resulting in at least one town issuing an official apology after threatening to ban unvaccinated people from supermarkets.
The town – Wangcheng, southern Hainan province – also issued notices stating that those who chose not to receive doses of Chinese coronavirus vaccines would appear on a “blacklist” that would prevent them from buying food or taking public transportation.
The incident follows growing reports, sourced to anonymous locals fearing political retribution, that Communist Party cadres have begun door-to-door campaigns to intimidate people into accepting vaccination, or have deemed it a “political task” required to maintain a healthy “social credit score.” The Chinese Communist Party issues every individual a social credit score, a numerical value based on their worth and loyalty to the state. Low social credit scores can result in the deprivation of significant rights, most prominently travel and job prospects.
Demand for coronavirus vaccines in China has dwindled despite China offering two of the most widely used vaccine candidates in the world, by the firms Sinovac and Sinopharm. Health workers in the country have shown the most distrust towards the experimental products. Multiple scandals involving faulty or watered-down vaccines during the tenure of dictator Xi Jinping have fostered growing distrust in the government’s medical products for years.
The incident in Wangcheng elicited such a negative response internationally that state propaganda outlet Global Times documented the “blacklist” threat and subsequent apology, claiming that unnamed “netizens” actually supported the proposal. “Netizens” is the term the Chinese government uses for social media users whose opinions the government agrees with; all others are censored and, sometimes, prosecuted under dubious crimes such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
“In a statement released online on Wednesday evening, the authorities in Wancheng town, South China’s Hainan Province said they would cancel all the possible penalties the notice mentioned,” the Times reported on Friday. “‘We sincerely apologize for the improper way that we mobilized vaccination,’ read the statement.”
The penalties included bans from restaurants and supermarkets.
The propaganda outlet quoted an expert who questioned the apology, not the threat.
“Those who aren’t vaccinated are definitely more susceptible to [Chinese coronavirus],” the expert, identified as Tao Lina, said. “It is selfish and ignorant to reject the vaccine.”
The Global Times lamented that only four percent of Chinese citizens have chosen to be vaccinated.
Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, took a less understanding approach to the original policy, disparaging the threats as “crude” and warning that the approach may lead to even more vaccine distrust, which would hamper the national vaccination drive.
The policy rescinded in Hainan appears to have been so because it caught the attention of the entire nation. Mounting evidence exists that similar threats persist against Chinese citizens who distrust Chinese vaccines elsewhere in the country. In a report published on Monday, Vice magazine quoted anonymous sources within China who said that, in some parts of China, Communist Party officials are going door-to-door threatening families to accept Chinese vaccines.
“Community officers, front-line bureaucrats in China’s vast governance network, have been deployed to convince those reluctant to get vaccinated,” the reported detailed. “In Datai, a community in Beijing, officers made phone calls or paid visits to everyone who was not willing to get vaccinated” to fix “the uncompromising attitude” of some in the area.
In Jiangsu, eastern China, an anonymous source told Vice that government officials do publish a blacklist of “those who have not been vaccinated, as a way to push the workers.”
Other local officials have reportedly opted for less menacing approaches such as bribes in the form of grocery store coupons for those who accept vaccination or, more simply, loudspeakers on street corners encouraging people to schedule a vaccine appointment.
Polling has shown a significant level of disinterest, if not outright distrust, in China’s homemade vaccines. One such survey published in March and conducted by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that less than 74 percent of its own staff in Beijing would choose to voluntarily accept vaccination for coronavirus with a Chinese product. The number was lower than anywhere in the country and “the higher the education level of staff, the less willing they were to get the jab,” the CDC said.
In formerly autonomous Hong Kong, only 46 percent of those surveyed by the University of Hong Kong in January said they would voluntarily take a Chinese coronavirus vaccine, a 20-point drop from November. About 70 percent of people said they would not take the vaccine candidate made by Sinovac, as opposed to over half of respondents who said they would trust the vaccine developed by American company Pfizer. A spate of deaths of elderly residents after receiving Chinese-made vaccines last month have resulted in even higher levels of concern.
Chinese experts have warned that the distrust may lead China down the path of yet more outbreaks at a time in which the rest of the world may be slowly eliminating the virus.
“If China continues with such a low vaccination rate, it will not keep up,” top disease expert Zhong Nanshan warned last month. “There’s a possibility that in the future, other countries will have [herd immunity] but China doesn’t.”
China has been significantly less transparent about the studies surrounding its vaccine candidates than other countries, with the exception of rogue states like Russia and Cuba. Sinovac claimed initially that its vaccine candidate, “Coronavac,” was only 50.38-percent effective in fighting Chinese coronavirus infections, barely above the 50-percent threshold to receive approval. The CEO of Sinovac claimed in an interview last month that the vaccine was “80-90 percent” effective, but did not explain where that figure came from or publish any studies explaining the number.
Sinopharm claims its vaccine candidate is 79 percent effective.
“I really wish that Sinovac and the other companies would simply publish the data,” Keiji Fukuda, the director of the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, told the Atlantic in an interview published on Thursday, referring to Sinovac. Fukuda lamented that the Chinese government in Hong Kong had failed in “building public trust and support,” especially after the violent repression of pro-democracy dissidents that the city has engaged in for over a year.
Dictator Xi Jinping has done little, if anything, to foster that public trust. Unlike other world leaders, he has not received a coronavirus vaccination in public; it remains unclear if he has been vaccinated at all and, if so, with what product. He has made few visits to vaccination facilities or featured in any literature for the vaccination campaign.