This article is part of the series on “COVID-19 in the Middle East and Asia: Impacts and Responses”. Read more ...

The coronavirus pandemic was as much a big soft power nightmare as it was a health crisis for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during the winter of 2019-2020. But a few months after this little-known virus had put entire Chinese cities in quarantine, Beijing was already trying to repair the country’s reputation by sending medical teams, test kits and booklets to countries in need.[1] To launch China’s health diplomacy in full gear, however, one needed the coronavirus vaccine, which Beijing was able to deliver towards the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Turkey was among the first countries to purchase CoronaVac ─ an inactivated coronavirus vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech pharmaceutical company[2]. Although this gave Turkey an important place in China’s health diplomacy and gained a great deal of notoriety, the local ramifications of the “Chinese vaccine” in Turkey did not receive much scholarly attention.[3] This piece focuses on the Turkish public debate on Sinovac during the winter of 2020-21, with the aim of shedding light on the local reception of China’s global health diplomacy in the post-COVID era.

A close look at the Turkish case demonstrates the complexities presented by the local context, which is of utmost importance in any discussion of soft power. Since Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced the official decision to purchase CoronaVac in October 2020,[4] propagating the “Chinese vaccine” in Turkey has been an uphill battle. This was a surprising choice for many and a big “why” lingered in the Turkish media.[5] Most of Turkey’s neighbors, after all, had opted for Euro-American brands such as Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca. Although Turkish consumers had grown accustomed to Chinese products during the past two decades alongside the exponential growth in Sino-Turkish trade, many were skeptical of the unfamiliar Chinese vaccine brand.[6] This skepticism was also related to the Turkish public’s unfavorable views of China at large.[7] But more importantly, Turkey’s highly polarized ideological environment turned the COVID pandemic and the vaccine debate into a battle of wills between the Turkish government and the country’s opposition circles. As the Turkish language versions of Xinhua News Agency and China Radio International (CRI) reached only a tiny local audience, the public debate surrounding the “Chinese vaccine” was largely driven by the domestic media. Beijing’s inability to shape the media discourse was a major weakness in the Turkish context, along with Sinovac’s belated reporting and delivery problems.

The Turkish Public Debate on the “Chinese Vaccine”

Turkey’s preference for a “Chinese vaccine” over Western brands was a surprising success for Beijing, which initially had promised great soft power prospects in the country. Turkey’s solid ties with the West (i.e., NATO membership and EU candidacy) had substantial propaganda value for China, whose English-language media published many positive stories on the coronavirus vaccines.[8] The Chinese official press praised Turkey’s “independent foreign policy”[9] and hailed Turkey’s domestic vaccination drive along with pictures of President Erdoğan and Health Minister Koca getting their Sinovac shots in rolled-up sleeves.[10] Although such stories had global appeal, they had very little impact in Turkey. Since the PRC propaganda apparatus in Turkey claimed a miniscule audience, it was the local media that acted as an intermediary between China and the Turkish public during this debate. With few explicitly pro-China voices in Turkey, except for Doğu Perinçek and his Patriotic Party (Vatan Partisi), Ankara had to take it upon itself to promote the “Chinese vaccine” at home.

The Turkish government, which planned to inoculate millions with the CoronaVac vaccine, threw in its lot with Beijing during the pandemic. China’s best friends in Turkey during the vaccine debate were the pro-government media and mainstream news outlets under the government’s editorial guidance.[11] In Turkey’s deeply polarized political environment, this placed opposition circles at the other end of the debate, where they embraced various lines of criticism against China and its vaccines.[12] First controversy was about the price tag of CoronaVac. Assuming it was “cheap”, an opposition MP from the People’s Democratic Party (Halkın Demokrasi Partisi), claimed that the government would inoculate Turkey’s poor with the Chinese vaccine while providing the high-quality German vaccine for those who can buy it.[13] Contrary to the general expectation, however, CoronaVac was more expensive than some Euro-American brands.[14] This did not, however, end the speculations. In later days, one Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) MP claimed that CoronaVac jabs were smuggled into Turkey to inoculate the members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), implying that the expensive “Chinese vaccine” was spared for the privileged few.[15]

In such a climate, there was little room for a technical discussion on CoronaVac’s medical uses or potential benefits. Instead, the “Chinese vaccine” turned into a metaphor for the Turkish government’s own Eurasian (Avrasyacı) foreign policy and authoritarian leanings. To attack the official decision to buy the Sinovac vaccine, the Turkish opposition embraced a unique kind of “Occidentalism,” which was helpful in establishing the superiority of the Western brands (if not Western democracies at large). Reinforcing the conviction that Western vaccines were superior to their Chinese counterparts was the larger “New Cold War” environment. American and European news organizations, some of which have local branches in Turkey (i.e., Euronews and Deutsche Welle), pursued an editorial line that was overly skeptical of the Russian and Chinese vaccines. Turkish media outlets were also quick to translate news items from prominent American newspapers, Washington Post and New York Times, including the highly influential piece concerning Sinovac’s past bribery charges in China.[16] Although the accusations had nothing to do with the production of CoronaVac, and similar corruption charges hung over all major Western pharmaceutical companies, this item was explosive in Turkey.

From its inception onwards, some in the Turkish opposition media saw the vaccine deal as an attempt to “teach a lesson to the West.”[17] Others questioned its causal relationship to Turkey’s growing financial dependence on China, including its recent swap agreements and loans.[18] Frustration with the “Chinese vaccine” was often expressed in strong language and cultural stereotyping. After elaborating on how cancer-causing and low-quality Chinese products are, Yılmaz Özdil of Sözcü concluded that the “Chinese vaccine” is bought only by a bunch of “useless” countries like Brazil, Indonesia, and Philippines.[19] Other critics were sour because the government did not pick the vaccine developed by a Turkish immigrant couple in Germany. The BioNTech brand became popular in Turkey, therefore, not only because it got better efficacy ratings, but also because it struck a nationalist chord.[20] Other polemics included practical issues such as travel restrictions. As the Sinovac vaccine was not approved by the relevant EU health authorities, many were worried that Turkish citizens may have to face hurdles as they visit European countries in the future.[21]

Despite these setbacks, Beijing still had the opportunity to turn the “Chinese vaccine” into a soft power asset in the Turkish context. The easiest way to do it would have been to establish the superiority of China-made vaccines over their Western counterparts and change the long-held perception of Chinese goods in Turkey as “fake, cheap and low quality.” If Sinovac Biotech solved the issues surrounding the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, it could have elevated the company’s image, along with China’s country brand. But the pharmaceutical company encountered many hardships in its data management and public relations at its headquarters in Beijing.

As China already contained the disease at home, and Sinovac had to run third-phase trials in an infectious environment, these tests were carried out in Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, and Turkey. By November 2020, Sinovac was still not able to gather its data although Western brands began publishing their early trial findings ─ often with quite impressive results.[22] In Turkey, this delay raised questions over the possibility of data manipulation, triggering a series of conspiracy theories. This was followed by an even more problematic phase whereby individual countries started announcing their own results. Indonesia, for instance, declared CoronaVac’s efficacy to be 97% in December 2020, but the country soon revoked this official announcement[23] and dropped the efficacy rating to 65.3% by January 2021.[24] Turkey’s own 91,25% was fiercely disputed by the country’s opposition media, reflecting a distrust of the Turkish government alongside the little-known Chinese company.[25] But the biggest blow in soft power terms came from Brazil. In January, Brazil announced Sinovac trial results first as 78% but then lowered it to a very disappointing 50.4%.[26] Chinese vaccine’s 50% efficacy vs. Western brands’ 90-something % protection was a death knell for Sinovac’s soft power appeal. The number of corrections and changes, as well as the large disparity between different country results created big question marks in Turkey.

The “Chinese vaccine” also had issues with timely delivery. In December 2020, when Turkish public was expecting the first CoronaVac batch, the delivery was delayed a few days because new coronavirus cases were spotted at the Beijing Airport.[27] In the meantime, the images posted by the Beijing correspondent of the state-owned Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) on social media created a controversy by disclosing the name of an importer company. The questions over a possible intermediary, whose existence was previously denied by the Health Ministry, led into accusations of profiteering and corruption in the Turkish left-wing press.[28] Whereas such headlines targeted the Turkish government rather than the Chinese company, the controversy took another toll on CoronaVac’s popularity in Turkey.

A more important theme surrounding the delivery issue was its possible link to Turkey’s Uyghur population. In late December 2020, Chinese government ratified the Sino-Turkish extradition treaty that had been agreed by both governments back in 2017. Promoted in China as a deal for “counter-terrorism cooperation”, the treaty primarily aimed at the extradition of Uyghur immigrants from Turkey to face possible terrorism charges in the People’s Republic. In this context, many saw the vaccine deal as a tool used by China to exert pressure on Turkey over this sensitive issue. There was already some discomfort in the opposition circles regarding the government’s silence on the Uyghurs’ human rights grievances.[29] During the winter months, any delay or disruption in the vaccine delivery was wrapped up in the “blackmail” narrative, decreasing the credibility of Sinovac as a private company and China as a partner in health diplomacy.[30] The delivery issues continued well into the spring of 2021, when Turkish Health Minister Koca confessed that Sinovac will not be able to deliver the agreed amount of vaccines because of its production problems at home.[31] As China prioritized its domestic vaccination program, Turkey had to opt for other alternatives, including Pfizer-BioNTech, Sputnik V,while also developing its own vaccine brand, Turkovac.


In the winter of 2020-2021, there was a fleeting opportunity for the PRC regime to turn the “Chinese vaccine” into a soft power asset in Turkey, one of the initial countries to purchase Sinovac Biotech’s inactivated coronavirus vaccine. Partly to blame for the failure is the Chinese company’s own weaknesses in the public relations realm, and particularly its inability to gather data in a timely and organized manner. The incoherent percentages relating to the vaccine’s efficacy created a vacuum in Turkey, which was filled by lots of speculations regarding data manipulation and secrecy. As the Brazilian figure of 50.4% killed the optimism about the “Chinese vaccine”, which now gave the impression that it offered protection for only one out of two people, the vaccine ended up confirming the stereotypes about “Made in China” goods in Turkey, rather than shattering them.

In Turkey’s highly polarized ideological environment, assisted by the global media backlash on the Chinese vaccines during the COVID pandemic, the local debate was hardly ever about Sinovac itself. As the public wandered into a discussion of China’s inhumane Uyghur policy and Turkey’s own Eurasian leanings, little room was left for Beijing’s soft power appeal. Although the “Chinese vaccine” arrived in Turkey at a very critical juncture and used to inoculate the country’s health professionals and its vulnerable elderly population, it did very little to elevate China’s country image in the end.


[1]Anna Kobierecka and Michał Marcin Kobierecki, “Coronavirus diplomacy: Chinese medical assistance and its diplomatic implications,” International Politics (2021): 945–946.

[2] “Turkey inks contract for 50 million doses of Chinese vaccine,” Hürriyet Daily News, November 26, 2020,

[3]A recent piece on Sino-Turkish relations mentions the COVID-era vaccine cooperation only in passing. See Ziya Öniş and Maimaiti Yalikun, “Emerging partnership in a post-Western world? The political economy of China-Turkey relations,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 21, 4 (2021): 507-529, DOI: 10.1080/14683857.2021.1981624. Also See  Emre Demir, “China’s wavering COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy in Turkey,” Global Voices, August 13, 2021. I have also written about the rise and fall of the Chinese vaccine in Turkey in journalistic pieces: Çağdaş Üngör, “Kuşak, yol ve aşı” (Belt, Road and Vaccine), Serbestiyet, November 24, 2020;ükselen bir değer olarak Çin aşısı” (Chinese Vaccine as a Rising Value), Serbestiyet, December 13, 2020,; “Çin aşısı: Sürpriz Final” (Chinese Vaccine: Surprising End), Serbestiyet, January 21, 2021.

[4]Son dakika: Bakan Koca corona virus aşısını müjdeledi! Aralık ayında…,” Sabah, October 26, 2020,

[5] Minister Koca explained this choice with the long-established, and therefore, safer practice behind the production of the inactivated vaccines as opposed to the uncharted mRNA technologies. See Ahmet Hakan, “Bakan Koca’ya Çin aşısıyla ilgili her şeyi sordum,” Hürriyet, December 4, 2020,; “Sağlık Bakanı Fahrettin Koca Sözcü’nün aşı sorularını yanıtladı: Çin aşısını ucuz diye değil, güvenilir diye aldık,” Sözcü, December 8, 2020,

[6] The distrust over the Chinese vaccines was different from the more widespread sentiment of vaccine hesitancy across the globe during the pandemic. Turkish public had more confidence, for instance, in vaccines produced in Germany. See Ceyhun Elgin, Alison Galvani, and Hatime Kamilçelebi, “Country-of-origin Bias Towards COVID-19 Vaccination: Evidence from Turkey.” OSF Preprints. April 20, 2021. doi: 10.31219/osfio/j57c8.

[7] Turkey’s anti-China sentiment emanates from the country’s nationalist historiography, Cold War ideological legacy, and racial stereotypes. See Çağdaş Üngör, “Türkiye’de Çin Karşıtlığının Dinamikleri Üzerine Bazı Düşünceler” (A Few Thoughts on the Dynamics of Anti-Chinese Sentiment in Turkey), Türkiye 2, Çin Çalışmaları Konferansı, Ankara, April 27, 2017.

[8] Xie Wenting, “Turkey values enhanced vaccine cooperation with China: Ambassador,” Global Times, January 27, 2021,; “Over 3 mln Turkish people receive China’s COVID-19 vaccines,” Global Times, February 13, 2021,; “Turkey’s confidence in China-developed COVID-19 vaccine strengthens,” People’s Daily, March 5, 2021,

[9] Zhang Hui and Liu Xin, “Turkey shows ‘independent diplomacy’ by purchasing Chinese vaccine, opposing politicizing counterterrorism,” Global Times, December 15, 2020,

[10] Leng Shumei, “Turkey vaccinates 1 million residents with Chinese vaccines,” Global Times, January 22, 2021,;; “Erdoğan says 2nd batch of Chinese vaccines to arrive by weekend,” China Daily, January 22, 2021,; “Turkish Health Minister receives dose of China’s Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine,” Xinhua, January 14, 2021,

[11] Official outlets such as Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) and Anadolu Agency (AA), as well as private media organs with an explicitly pro-government leaning (Sabah, NTV, Yeni Şafak, etc) played a key role in this endeavor. The official line was often supported, at least not strongly challenged, by more mainstream news organizations (i.e., Habertürk, Hürriyet, CNN Türk) that also receive editorial guidance from Ankara.

[12] The opposition media is composed of relatively new print and digital outlets often run by former (laid off) employees of conventional media outlets in Turkey and includes a wide spectrum of newspapers from left (Sözcü, Cumhuriyet) to right (Karar, etc.) and various digital platforms.

[13] “Garo Paylan Bakanın Sözlerini Hatırlattı: Çin aşısı yoksullara dağıtılacak, Pfizer’inki satılacak,” Bianet, November 30, 2020,

[14] Turkish Health Minister FahrettinKoca explained numerous times that the inactivated vaccines (such as CoronaVac) were indeed more difficult to produce, and hence, more expensive. If money was the real issue, according to the Minister, Turkey would have preferred Astrazeneca instead. See “Bakan Koca’dan Çin aşısıyla ilgili eleştirilere yanıt: Türkiye bu kadar zavallı mı?”, Sputnik, December 8, 2020,

[15]CHP’li vekilin iddiası: Çin aşısı Türkiye’ye geldi, AKP’lilere uygulanıyor,” Diken, December 9, 2020,

[16] Eva Dou, “As China nears a coronavirus vaccine, bribery cloud hangs over drugmaker Sinovac,” Washington Post, December 4, 2020,

[17] Mustafa Karaalioğlu, “Anlaması zor kararlar,” Karar, December 7, 2020,

[18] Mühdam Sağlam, “Çin’in aşı diplomasisi ve Türkiye’nin aşı tercihi,” Gazete Duvar, January 20, 2020,

[19] Yılmaz Özdil, “Çin aşısı,” Sözcü, December 4, 2020,

[20] See Yıldıray Oğur, “Neden onlarla yeterince gurur duymadık?”, Karar, December 19, 2020, The mounting public pressure on this issue resulted in a deal with Pfize-BioNTech by the end of December. See “Türkiye Biontech-Pfizer ile anlaştı,” Deutsche Welle, December 26, 2020,

[21] Ali Gülen, “Corona virüsü aşısındaTürkiye’ye kötü haber: ‘Çin aşısı olana AB vizesi yok’ iddiası,” Sözcü, February 26, 2021.

[22] “Pfizer’s early data shows vaccine is more than 90% effective,” New York Times, November 9, 2020,; “Early data show Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine is 94.5% effective,” New York Times, November 16, 2020,; Sarah Boseley and Ian Sample, “Oxford Astrazeneca Covid vaccine has up to 90% efficacy, data reveals,” The Guardian, November 23, 2020, In the meantime, it was clear that the Sinovac vaccine produced some immunity, but the percentage was unclear. See “Early trial results show Sinovac vaccine triggers immune response,” Al Jazzeera, November 18, 2020,

[23] “Indonesia’s Bio Farma says not yet able to determine Sinovac vaccine efficacy,” Reuters, December 8, 2020,

[24] Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, “Indonesia grants emergency use approval to Sinovac’s vaccine, local trials show 65% efficacy,” The StraitsTimes, January 12, 2021,

[25] “Bakan Koca: Çin aşısı Pazar gecesi yola çıkıyor,” NTV, December 24, 2020,,Auiiabte7UepmRQOJJIBJw; İsmail Saymaz, “Çin aşısı için 1322 denek yeter mi?”, Sözcü, December 27, 2020,

[26] Eduardo Simoes, “Sinovac vaccine 78% effective in Brazil trial, experts call for more details,” Reuters, January 7, 2021;; “Sinovac: Brazil results show Chinese vaccine 50.4% effective,” BBC, January 13, 2021,

[27]Türkiye’ye Çin’den aşıların gönderilmesi ertelendi,” Deutsche Welle Türkçe, December 28, 2020,; Faruk Zorlu, “Chinese vaccine delivery to Turkey postponed,” Anadolu Agency, December 27, 2020,

[28]CHP’den aşı açıklaması: Birileri zengin mi ediliyor?”, Cumhuriyet, December 25, 2020,; “Çin aşısından aracı firma çıktı; TRT muhabirinin fotoğrafı Bakan Koca’yı yalanladı,” Birgün, December 28, 2020,; “Sağlık Bakanı Koca ‘aracı firma yok’ demişti; Çin aşısının Keymen ilaç firması tarafından getirildiği ortaya çıktı,” T24, December 28, 2020,,923383.

[29] The People’s Republican Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi), for instance, accused the Turkish government of prioritizing Sino-Turkish economic ties over the suffering of the Uyghur community. The party prepared a report under the title “East Turkistan-Uyghur Turks: History, Identity, and Politics” (Doğu Türkistan-Uygur Türkleri; Tarih, Kimlik ve Siyaset), which was disseminated in Turkey shortly before the vaccine debate. See “CHP’nin Uygur Türkleri raporu 2009 yılında Çin’in yaptıklarına soykırım diyen Erdoğan söylemini son yıllarda yumuşattı,” T24, October 9, 2020.,908268;

[30] Sertaç Aktan, “Uygurlar Türkiye ile Çin arasında pazarlık konusu olmaktan endişeli,” Euronews Türkçe, February 5, 2021,; “Bu anlaşmaTürkiye’ye yakışmaz,” Karar, December 29, 2020,; “Galip Dalay: Çin aşı üzerinden Türkiye’ye Uygur şantajı yapıyor,” TV5, March 28, 2021,; “CHP grup başkanvekili Özel, Covid-19 ile mücadeleyi ve aşı tartışmalarını değerlendirdi: Siyasi söylemaşıyı etkiliyor,” Cumhuriyet, February 14, 2021,; Yaşar Özer, “Türkiye’deki Uygur Türklerinde Çin’e iade korkusu büyüyor,” Sözcü, February 7, 2021,

[31]Sağlık Bakanı Koca Çin aşısının neden geciktiğini açıkladı,” TRT Haber, March 27, 2021,


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