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Between Politics and Business
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This book unpacks the political economy of China’s COVID-19 vaccine supplies to the Global South. Examining the political and economic forces at play, the book demonstrates how China’s vaccine provisions have been determined by a complex set of commercial interests, domestic politics, and geopolitical relationships.

The book sheds light on how domestic interests shape China’s role in global governance and its international economic engagement. Its analysis contributes to broader academic debates on the politics and economics of crises, as well as offering new insights on how pre-existing political and market forces shape aid and trade in the context of crisis.

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This concluding chapter summarizes the book’s core arguments and findings, namely that China’s overseas vaccine supplies are driven principally by commercial imperatives, as well as by the party-state’s need to maintain its performance-based legitimacy domestically. It then discusses some broader implications of this analysis. With respect to China’s foreign relations, the findings of this book point to the importance of domestic factors and state-corporate linkages in shaping China’s external interactions. With respect to international political economy, they offer insights into how crises are shaped by existing institutions and patterns, but also provide new opportunities for actors able and willing to seize them. The chapter finishes by looking ahead to the future of Chinese vaccine supplies overseas as production and exchange of COVID-19 vaccines becomes a routine transaction. It outlines both the challenges of increasing competition from other players (in particular, those further ahead in the use of mRNA technologies) and successive variants of the virus, as well as promising opportunities for further development, in particular in vaccine manufacturing collaborations in the Global South.

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This chapter lays out the pre-pandemic initial conditions that shaped China’s overseas COVID-19 vaccine supplies by contextualizing China’s position in global health in recent history. First, it describes China’s domestic health governance and its increasing importance to the party-state’s performance-based legitimacy, in particular following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Next, it charts China’s role in health sector foreign aid and international health governance institutions, highlighting Beijing’s longstanding preference for bilateral cooperation over multilateral engagement through institutions such as the WHO. Finally, it describes China’s position in the global pharmaceutical industry and vaccine markets, which has expanded rapidly in recent years – facilitated in part by state support for technological innovation – but nonetheless pre-pandemic was relatively weak compared to other major industrialized economies.

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This chapter sets the scene for the analysis in the remainder of the book. It describes the developmental and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Global South, as well as the inequities in global vaccine supplies, in particular during the first wave of the vaccine rollout in which vaccine nationalism in the West created a space for China to step in to. It then situates the book in context by reviewing existing understandings of China’s relationship with the Global South, and of the political economy of crises. Next, the chapter summarizes the analytical framework and main argument: that the distribution of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines was shaped by the ‘opportunity management’ of state and corporate actors, with the former seeking to consolidate their performance-based legitimacy and the latter to expand internationally into new products and markets. Finally, the chapter describes the data sources and provides a roadmap of the book.

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This chapter examines commercial vaccine exports from Chinese manufacturers, which were the majority of Chinese vaccine doses administered abroad during the first half of 2021. It first reviews the histories of the companies involved, including Sinopharm (officially known as China National Pharmaceutical Group Corporation), which is an established central state owned enterprise under the State Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), and Sinovac and CanSino, which are both relatively young private firms started by entrepreneurial scientists, and were little known before the pandemic. It then describes how these companies each leveraged state support to quickly develop and bring to market their vaccine candidates. Finally, it maps patterns in Chinese vaccine sales during the initial mass vaccination rollout, which were driven both by standard market forces of supply and demand, and by clinical trial partnerships between manufacturers and host states.

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This chapter examines China’s official donations of COVID-19 vaccines. It first briefly reviews competing narratives on Chinese vaccine supplies outside China (grand strategy of ‘vaccine diplomacy’) and inside the country (‘global public good’), and explains why neither is particularly helpful in explaining patterns in the actual distribution of China’s vaccine donations during the first half of 2021. It then empirically charts those patterns, showing that – in line with the state’s performance-based legitimacy goals – Asian neighbours were prioritized over traditional aid recipients in Africa. The evidence suggests Beijing’s vaccine donations were motivated mainly by a pandemic-induced desire of Chinese officials to avoid ‘imported infections’ at home (and their potentially significant consequences for domestic legitimacy) and maintain regional stability, and relatedly by pre-existing strategic partnerships with the country’s neighbours.

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The Conclusion surveys the issues that have arisen in the book and draws together the consensus and solutions that are emerging after two years of the global pandemic. Key ideas are outlined, and the actions, both domestic and international, that are required to align pandemic mitigation to sustainable development are highlighted.

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COVID-19 poses specific challenges for people living in more remote or relatively inaccessible pockets of rural and urban settlements. This chapter focuses on how the People’s Cultural Centre (PECUC), a nongovernmental organization in Odisha, India, initiated interim relief measures for families of migrant labourers, daily wage labourers, landless, child labourers, disabled, widowed and other vulnerable families in Odisha whose lives were severely affected by the pandemic. It examines and highlights success stories from the field where PECUC has laid down a substantial COVID-19 programming handprint. For over three decades, PECUC has been engaged with children’s rights, education, health, livelihoods, environment protection, women’s empowerment, care of the aged, youth empowerment and disaster management. Having built a presence in these regions, PECUC has been able to work with communities to support alternative livelihoods during the pandemic. More importantly, this chapter shows the importance of working at all levels with all sections of vulnerable communities such as children, youth, disabled and women specifically to create sustainable futures, and to be able to cope with the ongoing pandemic. It brings into focus values of empathy, respect and sharing, which are at the forefront of coping mechanisms.

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Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a mechanism for corporate firms, large and small, to establish their credentials as responsible and conscientious entities. The protracted COVID-19 pandemic has exposed age-old socioeconomic vulnerabilities in India, manifest via indicators like rising inequalities, reduced livelihood and economic opportunities and shrinking of democratic space. The Indian government was unprepared to handle various human crises, such as that of migrant labourers, but on the other hand came up with appropriate legislation for facilitating CSR activism, in direct contrast to the negligent attitude of the colonial government when a similar pandemic had previously hit India. A survey of CSR activism in India suggests that it had positive implications: mainly the social progress accruing from such philanthropic dispositions. Yet, they are not binding or legally enforceable upon the firms. Also, CSR activities are mostly cosmetic and fail to address deep-rooted structural problems. This chapter attempts to explore how the corporate sector may be productively engaged towards addressing various social issues.

Open access

What will be the economic legacy of COVID-19? What are the likely consequences of the pandemic for the future of international development? This chapter reflects on these questions, taking as its starting point the role of the state as an agent of development. In the post-1989 period of rapid globalization, the role of many states in economic decision-making and management was minimized as the financialization of the global economy enhanced the power and wealth of corporations and the private sector. However, the pandemic has seen the return of the state to save jobs and businesses, making a mockery of the decade of austerity that followed the 2008 crash. The chapter argues that the international development sector should assume a more overtly political role post-pandemic to challenge any return to austerity and ensure that state resources are deployed to those who need them most: the poor, marginalized and voiceless in the Global North and South.

Open access