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Beyond Heartbreak: Lessons From the Vaccine Scandal

We haven’t seen the Chinese Internet like this for a long time; so much confusion, so much outrage, so much horror and so many broken hearts.

 

On Saturday July 21st, an article titled “the King of Vaccines” flooded our WeChat Moments feeds. The author, Shouye, was a “self-media-er” (“自媒体人”, a term to describe content producers on Chinese social media channels) who previously worked as a financial reporter. Through eloquent researching and story-telling, the piece narrated Changsheng Biotech’s fake vaccine scandal in an extremely emotional tone, shedding light on the juicy, private stories of three executives who built a complex web of corruption that went back decades in the drug industry.

 

“The disease of poverty,” wrote Shouye in the end, “is incurable (in our country).”

On Shouye's WeChat Subscription account, the viral article on vaccine is now censored.

 

What exactly was Changsheng being accused of?

 

ChangSheng Biotech, or the “long live”, is one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in China with over 1.5 billion RMB revenue in 2017.  The company holds 6 licenses for both primary and secondary vaccines; in China, primary vaccines are sponsored by the state which all children are required to inject, and secondary vaccines are voluntary and paid by patients.

 

In November 2017, CFDA (China Food and Drug Administration) found through a sampling inspection that a batch of primary vaccines produced by Changsheng, DPT, failed to meet its potency standard. By the time of the inspection, 252,600 doses from the batch had been already sent to Shandong province for use. Although CFDA required local hospitals to stop using the affected batch and condemned Changsheng publicly, it didn't affect the company significantly since DPT only accounted for a small portion of the company's total revenue. 

 

On July 11th 2018 - not even a year after the DPT scandal - Changsheng was caught again: a former employee reported on the company for fabricating inspection records for its rabies vaccines. A few days after this incident, CFDA finally announced punishment for ChangSheng’s substandard DPT that got exposed last year: to confiscate 186 doses in the inventory and a total fine of 344 million RMB.

 

The whole Chinese internet went on fire after Shouye’s article. From last Saturday to Sunday, everyone, virtually everyone on social media was talking about the vaccine scandal. Although the original piece was censored the next day (after receiving allegedly over 10 million of views), the emotion it triggered lingered across the entire nation. The Chinese people, in particular the parents who were shattered after finding out the vaccines their kids injected might be faulty, went completely furious. According to report from SCMP, by the end of July 22nd, the Chinese word for vaccine appeared in 321 million articles and searches on WeChat, 80 times the number of times it appeared three days ago.

 

"What most Chinese parents are doing today: Checking their kids' injection records, searching for guides on how to get vaccine injections in Hong Kong or Macaw, and finally, searching for oversea immigration plans".

 

Chinese celebrities, who normally zip their mouths over social and political issues, came out to protest on Weibo. 

 

On Monday 23rd, public discussion over vaccine still went strong, so strong that President Xi had to take time out from his trip in Africa to say something. “The nature of this crisis is shockingly terrifying,” said Xi, “the government must order serious and thorough investigations immediately”.

 

President Xi’s speech might had temporarily eased minds of some, for the majority of urban, educated citizens however, it simple wasn’t enough to lift up the spirits. In fact, when Premier Li Keqiang spoke out about this incident a day before Xi, netizens immediately found out that he had made almost identical statement 2 years ago for another faulty vaccine case. If anything, the pledge of actions from the top was a reminder of a pathetically recurring trend in China: every time a public health or security crisis occurs, the officials would vow to take actions and tighten management. That is, until the next crisis hits again.

 

Two years apart, similar vows, identical photos.

 

What was the vaccine scandal (yes, it looks like an annual thing now in China) in 2016 that made Premier Li made his vows?

 

On April 2016, vaccine wholesaler Ms. Pang and her daughter Sun were caught for illegally trading secondary vaccines that valued in total of 570 million RMB. Since 2010, Pang had been using her connections in the industry to purchase secondary vaccines through legal vaccine manufacturers like Changsheng and selling them to local hospitals. According to the Paper, Pang and Sun had sold 25 types of secondary vaccines to 18 Chinese provinces, which all risked of being ineffective for inappropriate storage.

 

The government put out a satisfying action, at least as it seemed at the time. Pang was sentenced for 19 years, her daughter Sun was sentenced for 6, and hundreds of officials were called for punishment. The government also came out with a new policy that restricted vaccine trades to only happen on public, provincial platforms.  

 

No more evil dealers and black markets, our children must be safe now, right? Well, 2 years later we’ve finally found out, no, not if the vaccines weren’t properly produced in the first place.

 

So here we are, 2 years after the national outcry, facing yet another huge scandal that broke millions of Chinese parents’ hearts. No wonder the desperation, and the earth-shattering rage that shadowed the entire country for the past week. if nothing, the Chinese people had so many reasons to stay angry, and to keep mourning.

 

Beneath rage we saw callings for change. Many people, including the two of us, had finally come to term with the harsh reality: in this country, reproving the system would only go as far as a baby step. Instead of wasting energy to fight against censorship cops, it's perhaps more efficient to reflect upon our own behaviors first. What went wrong from the public’s side? What could we do to stay sane and positive, despite a rotten public health system?

 

Individual answers certainly vary, but from our online observations over the course of last week, we know, as a matter of fact, the Chinese people have already started to do what they could within a limited public speech environment: to reflect over their own sources of information, and to hold on to the agenda with persistence

 

The day after Shouye’s “King of Vaccines” article went viral on the Chinese internet, some netizens became aware of an overlooked fact: the scandal, a dark revelation of the authority’s breach of duty, was in fact first exposed by China’s national news outlets. As early as on July 15th, Beijing News, a newspaper affiliated to Beijing’s Party Propaganda Department (市委宣传部) , already broke the story of Changsheng’s faulty rabies vaccines. Soon afterwards, other official news agencies such as CCTVLegal Evening News and Jiemian also reported the issue. Over the course of the week (15th to 20th), news regarding faulty vaccines popped up on almost every prominent domestic media outlet in China.

 

Official media outlets reporting about the faulty vaccine incident on July 15th.

 

Public attention over the scandal did not assemble because of state media. On the contrary, it was the alleged “self-media” - those who run accounts on social platform like Shouye does - that eventually pushed the case to the frontier of public opinion. With millions of subscribers and followers online, they are the ones that hold the real power to bring up matters and to influence people across all social classes nowadays.

 

Chinese netizens came to question the nature of self-media after some influencers openly challenged the credibility of Shouye’s article - one that was so emotionally provocative but with zero references. Meanwhile, people started to demand more thorough facts regarding the scandal itself: who is responsible for the false practices? How many children were affected? Was the local government involved, and how?

 

With the determination to know more truths, people suddenly recalled a famous investigative journalism piece that raised national awareness - the one that revealed false practices in Shanxi's vaccine market in 2010. It took the reporter, Wang Keqin, over six months of field research to produce an original, thorough and insightful report that pictured the interwoven relationship between the local government and vaccine corporates that eventually caused four childrens' death.

 

As soon as people rediscovered Wang's piece and started to call on for more investigative journalisms like it, they were reminded of a chilling reality: after the article was out in 2010, Wang Yueyang,  along with his editor-in-chief Bao Yueyang, were both terminated from their jobs in China Economic Times; the piece's massive public influence, along with tightened speech control, had resulted in a drastically deteriorated condition for China's investigative journalism. In fact, according to domestic source, the number of licensed investigative journalists in China declined from 334 in 2011 to only 175 in 2017, in a country of 1.4 billion populations.

 

Wang Keqin, the heroic reporter that got fired for his in-depth investigation into a vaccine case in 2010, spoke about the recent vaccine scandal on Weibo. His post received over 3,000 comments and 7,000 likes. 

 

Public discussions around investigative journalism and the general media environment proceeded despite aggressive censorship. Like how the 2016 presidential election stirred up general anxieties over fake news among Americans, in China, the vaccine scandal forced the public to become conscious about their source of information and reflect over their own media consumption behaviors,  at least in the time of public crisis.

 

 

 

Last Sunday night, after an exhaustive and depressing day running after online discussions about the scandal, Yan and I had an exchange of conversation.

 

“How long do you think the case will stay on social media?”

 

“I bet it will die down soon. Tomorrow is Monday! New trending topics or celebrity gossips would come out to distract public attention for sure.”

 

But we were wrong this time. Two days into the week, vaccine still stayed as the most popular keyword on Weibo and WeChat, the two most prominent social media platforms in China. Despite constant and often unpredictable censorships, people were still talking, and doing everything they could to make sure their voices stay (talking about strategies such as posting photos instead of texts, using pinyin to substitute sensitive keywords and more).

 

 

On Wednesday July 25th, another big news broke the Chinese Internet: an anonymous female lawyer posted on WeChat about being raped by Zhang Wen, a prominent public intellectual and journalist. The article sent shockwaves through social media; as a number of other victims came out to share their experiences too, a wave of #metoo took force. Sexual assaults quickly climbed to the No.1 trending topic on Weibo, overwhelming those who were still talking about vaccine and Changsheng.

 

The Baidu Search Index for keywords "vaccine" (blue) and "Zhang Wen" (orange).

 

When we looked harder into the comment sections of many #Metoo posts however, we soon noticed a rather cheering trend. Many users were showing support to the victims while reminding each other to not to forget about the vaccine scandal. “#Metoo is important, but we won’t stop talking about vaccine”, “Let’s try our best to keep both topics on trend for the same time!” said some.

 

As ancient wisdom pointed out, no news could stay trending on social media for more seven days (ok, we made this one up…). With important agenda like #metoo and other entertainment gossips popping out, national headlines were no longer dominated by the vaccine scandal after mid-week. However, in more private social circles, both online and offline, the word “vaccine” still lingered and lingered; for the first time in years, we are seeing such a collective, stubborn effort from the people to grasp so tight on a public issue.

 

We are not letting go.

 

How can we let it go?

 

There were so many moments last week that we felt speechless.

 

Yan and I both agreed we must write something about vaccine from day one of the public outcry. We chased after online discussions, looked into sources, and tried to talk with each other about how to frame our own narrative towards the case.

 

Then we felt totally lost.

 

Overwhelmed by anger and despair, we found ourselves clueless about what to write - what's the point anyway, when so much had already been written, yet so little seemed to have changed?

 

Till this day, we still don't know the answer. What we know now though is our writing has meaning, for both ourselves and you, our readers. By sharing our thought process in a (relatively) organized manner, we hope this piece could help us to remember better about the heart-breaking scandal, to get over it, while keeping it in memory forever.

 

We still believe in positive change because really, there's no other choice. 

 

Thank you and see you soon,

Biyi and Yan

 

2 thoughts on “Beyond Heartbreak: Lessons From the Vaccine Scandal

  • August 4, 2018 at 1:19 am
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    This is a powerful and moving article about the latest vaccine scandal. Congratulations to you both for your insight and courage in posting it.
    It also depressingly familiar as I was reminded of the infant milk scandal during the China Olympics that was covered up until the Games
    were over to prevent any negative news about China. Meanwhile, babies were dying. I was working at China Daily then and only heard whispers
    about it from Chinese colleagues who were afraid to say more as they feared for their jobs.
    There were more milk scandals later, though the govt. spokespeople said it was all resolved. Toxic milk, unsafe food, bad vaccines, empty govt promises, etc. the horror cycle never seems to end.

    I later worked at the English edition of Global Times and still have friends there whom I have called about the poison vaccines. Not as a journalist but simply to talk as former colleagues and friends. One is a new mother. None are comfortable talking about it and GT and editor in chief Hu Xijin isn’t leading any vanguard to right the wrongs – no surprise there. I miss the old days when newspapers in Guangdong province were kicking some ass, but their spirits were eventually crushed.
    Thank you for your citizen journalism.

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