Chinese leader Xi Jinping is unwilling to accept western vaccines despite the challenges China is facing with Covid-19, and while recent protests there are not a threat to Communist party rule, they could affect his personal standing, US director of national intelligence Avril Haines said.
Although China’s daily Covid cases are near all-time highs, some cities are taking steps to loosen testing and quarantine rules after Xi’s zero-Covid policy triggered a sharp economic slowdown and public unrest opposing Covid-19 lockdowns.
Haines, speaking at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in California, said on Saturday that despite the social and economic impact of the virus, Xi “is unwilling to take a better vaccine from the West, and is instead relying on a vaccine in China that’s just not nearly as effective against Omicron”.
“Seeing protests and the response to it is countering the narrative that he likes to put forward, which is that China is so much more effective at government,” Haines said.
“It’s, again, not something we see as being a threat to stability at this moment, or regime change or anything like that,” she said, while adding: “How it develops will be important to Xi’s standing.”
Last week authorities abruptly lifted Covid restrictionsin the Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Chongqing, where protesters scuffled with police.
On Saturday, the southern city of Shenzhen announced it would no longer require people to show a negative Covid test result to use public transport or enter parks, after similar moves by Chengdu and Tianjin, among China’s biggest cities.
Many testing booths in Beijing were shut as the capital stopped demanding negative test results as a condition to enter places such as supermarkets.
In an apparent effort to tackle anger at the zero-Covid policies that originally sparked the protests, authorities also announced plans to step up vaccination of older people.
China has not approved any foreign Covid vaccines, opting for those produced domestically, which some studies have suggested are not as effective as some foreign ones. That means easing virus prevention measures could come with big risks, according to experts.
The White House said earlier in the week that China had not asked the United States for vaccines.
One US official told Reuters there was “no expectation at present” that China would approve western vaccines.
“It seems fairly far-fetched that China would greenlight western vaccines at this point. It’s a matter of national pride, and they’d have to swallow quite a bit of it if they went this route,” the official said.