Stop. Rewind. Repeat. Why Chinese children are still not safe

 Last Saturday evening, I watched as a news feature story “The Kings of Vaccine made the rounds on my Chinese social media feed, displacing all other conversations – even cat videos.

The 4000-word piece, which sits on the Chinese social media platform WeChat, detailed the rise of three pharmaceutical conglomerates, their ability to escape multiple health scandals unscathed, and how one of the companies was recently found to have produced and sold hundreds of thousands of substandard vaccines.

“These vaccines are injected into the bloodstream of you and your kids, every single day.”

The article enraged many, especially worried parents.

As expected, the piece was quickly censored, “404-ed” as they call it. But people fought back in the way most obvious to them — they reposted it. “The Kings of Vaccines” quickly found its way to multiple social media platforms, into commentary responding to the article, and into parental guides on how to tell bad vaccines from good ones, and where to get vaccinated in nearby Hong Kong.

Many of these articles were short-lived, censors were working around the clock, but the outrage could not be contained.

Déjà vu. This has happened before.

In 2016, reports came out that USD $88 million worth of compromised vaccines had been sold across China for many years. The news led to widespread anger and the government reacted swiftly. Premier Li Keqiang issued an “instruction” within days of the outcry, eventually arresting more than 100 people. However, ongoing protests about the quality of these vaccines and from families seeking compensation have gone unaddressed—or silenced.

In 2010, The China Economic Times published an investigative report highlighting 78 documented cases of children who died or became ill in Shanxi Province after getting vaccinated. The report revealed evidence of how vaccines were deliberately left unrefrigerated. After it was published, editor-in-chief Bao Yueyang was fired and parents involved in the case came under surveillance.

The list could go on.

All these incidents follow a familiar pattern –

  1. Widespread public outrage
  2. Censors jump in to contain public opinion
  3. Government issues public statements
  4. Activists and reporters silenced
  5. Rewind. Repeat.

China has ratified several international agreements that require it to guarantee the right to health. This includes the obligation to ensure health-related goods and services are safe and of good quality; that people have access to health-related information; and that people have access to effective remedies when their right to health is violated.

Yet, instead of delivering justice when things go horribly wrong, the Chinese authorities go after those who look to support the families. In 2010, Zhao Lianhai, who had worked in state media, was sentenced to two and a half years for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after he sought justice for families affected by milk powder tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical used to make plastics and fertilizer.

Early this year, Dr. Tan Qindong was detained for three months after referring to a Chinese medicinal tonic as “poisonous” in a blog post. He was released after his arrest drew public ire.

Lawyers and activists who simply want to use the country’s legal system to deliver justice for victims are systematically detained. Human rights lawyer Tang Jingling, who once represented parents of children harmed by vaccines, is serving a five-year prison sentence for advocating democracy — or, more officially, “inciting subversion of state power”. 

Just after midnight last Sunday, one day after “The Kings of Vaccines” went viral, multiple Mainland Chinese media outlets released yet another “instruction” from the Chinese Premier that made a familiar promise:

“… the vaccine case has crossed a moral line, and the nation deserves a clear explanation.”

The next day, activist Qi Jing who has been campaigning on an earlier case of fake vaccine was taken away for three hours for questioning by the local police. Reacting quickly to mass outrage has never been a problem for the Chinese government, but independent monitoring, with participation from the public, media and non-profit groups is not allowed.

The case of substandard vaccines, according to the state media, involved 252,600 doses, with 215,184 children having received the injection across China.

This highlights how the current regulatory system has failed. Yet for a more effective system compliant with China’s human rights obligations, the government must change its approach.

Without fear of consequence in the form of public outrage, independent reporting, or class-action lawsuits, companies will continue to cut corners — and this collective moment of déjà vu will only happen again.