It’s become a standard photo op of the pandemic: leaders rolling up their sleeves for COVID-19 shots to trumpet the advent of vaccines. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the first, Joe Biden did it on live television, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inoculation is being credited with reviving a lackluster rollout.
But despite being one of the first countries in the world to authorize vaccines for use, China has said nothing about the vaccination status of its top leaders, who all — including President Xi Jinping — appeared without face masks in Beijing on Friday, mingling with thousands of delegates from across China at the country’s biggest political gathering of the year.
While officials seated in the rows behind them were all masked, Xi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang moved around the Great Hall of the People, where the National People’s Congress is opened every year, mask-free. The exception seemed to apply only to members of the Politburo and a handful of other top Communist Party leaders. Xi also went without a mask at last year’s NPC, seen as a statement on China’s virus success with the Wuhan outbreak largely quelled.
Does Xi’s confidence come from China having all but eliminated COVID-19, or has he received one of the four shots now authorized for general use? Most of the delegates in the Great Hall were probably vaccinated, with state media reporting this week that more than 5,000 of those flocking to Beijing for the so-called twin sessions had been inoculated against the coronavirus.
The mystery around Xi and other top leaders’ vaccination status comes as China struggles to ramp up its inoculation drive. The country pushed back by two months a plan to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year holiday in February, as concerns about supply and hesitancy around the efficacy and safety of locally-produced shots complicated efforts.
While its outbreak is under control, China is way behind the U.S. on vaccinating, according to Bloomberg’s global vaccine tracker. At the current pace it will be more than nine years before 75% of its vast population is immunized, versus six months for the U.S.
Government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan said this week China plans to vaccinate 40% of its 1.4 billion citizens by the end of June, a mammoth undertaking given it’s only now at 3.5%.
Even if they had been vaccinated, a political leader appearing in public without a mask in other parts of the world right now would likely trigger a public outcry. At Biden’s inauguration in January, the incoming president and other senior attendees, including the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and former presidents, all wore masks through hours of festivities. Biden was vaccinated with the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE shot on Dec. 21.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indonesia’s leader, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo — who received a Chinese vaccine by Sinovac Biotech Ltd. — all got shots for the cameras as a way of encouraging people to get vaccinated. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam got the Sinovac shot at a public event in late February.
In January, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had taken the vaccine, a revelation that had yet to be confirmed by authorities in Beijing.
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