Xi Jinping goes mask-free at NPC, raising questions over vaccination status
- President Xi Jinping -- appeared without face masks in Beijing Friday, mingling with thousands of delegates from across China at the country’s biggest political gathering of the year.
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 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 US 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 US 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 US 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.
US Vice President Kamala Harris, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indonesia’s leader, Joko 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.
North Korea on Tuesday reported six additional deaths from "fever," days after announcing its first Covid case, and said it was ramping up the military distribution of medicines. Since the country announced its first Covid case last Thursday, leader Kim Jong Un has put himself front and centre of North Korea's disease response, overseeing near-daily emergency Politburo meetings on the outbreak, which he has said is causing "great upheaval" in the country.
Taliban authorities in Afghanistan dissolved five key departments of the former U.S.-backed government, including the country's Human Rights Commission, deeming them unnecessary in the face of a financial crunch, an official said on Monday. Dissolved was the High Council for National Reconciliation, the once high-powered National Security Council, and the commission for overseeing the implementation of the Afghan constitution. After taking over last year, the Taliban assured the world they would be more moderate.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he won't allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO because of their stances on Kurdish militants, throwing a wrench into plans to strengthen the western military alliance after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. At a press conference in Ankara late Monday, Erdogan poured cold water on expectations that Turkish opposition to the enlargement plan could be easily resolved.
Sri Lanka's new prime minister said on Monday the crisis-hit nation was down to its last day of petrol, as the country's power minister told citizens not to join the lengthy fuel queues that have galvanised weeks of anti-government protests. Appointed prime minister on Thursday, Ranil Wickremesinghe, said in an address to the nation the country urgently needed $75 million in foreign exchange to pay for essential imports.
Twitter Parag Agrawal on Monday posted a lengthy thread on spam accounts on the micro-blogging platform – an issue that Twitter's would-be owner and Tesla Elon Musk has been critical of – and tweeted that internal estimates of such accounts on the service for the last four quarters were "well under 5%". Fighting fake accounts has been a cornerstone of Musk bid to reform Twitter, his primary reason to buy out the platform.