“IT SEEMS Beijing does not have this problem,” says a father leaving the Capital Institute of Paediatrics with his two young boys on a sweltering afternoon. The parent, who gives his name as Mr Wu, says Beijing health officials have promised worried local people that they did not purchase any of the medicines involved in China’s latest scandal over defective childhood vaccines—namely some 110,000 doses of rabies vaccine for which production data were allegedly faked by Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences, one of China’s largest vaccine-makers.
Beijing officials also insist that they did not buy any of a batch of 250,000 doses of jabs for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT) sold by the same firm in 2017—which it now emerges were declared “substandard” by regulators, though that finding only became public nine months later, on July 17th. Officials in the eastern province of Shandong, where 215,000 children were given the defective vaccines, told the Dazhong Daily that the medicine is not thought to be harmful. But when asked whether he accepted official assurances, Mr Wu looks stricken: “You have to believe the government, there’s no other way.” A mother fanning a three-month-old baby says she trusts foreign vaccines far more, adding resignedly that such luxuries are for those who can seek treatment abroad.
This mix of helplessness and fear, evident among parents across the country, has prompted China’s rulers to make an unusually direct response to the scandal. President Xi Jinping interrupted a red-carpet tour of Africa to call the vaccine-maker’s actions “vile” and “shocking”. Police detained Changsheng’s chairwoman along with 14 other people.
The scenes at the Beijing hospital gates point to why this affair is so damaging. Many urban Chinese grow up with advantages unknown to previous generations. The Capital Institute of Paediatrics draws families from far outside Beijing: sick children brought by grandparents and parents in anxious huddles, shaded with umbrellas from the July sun or bought ice-creams and balloons. But for parents, modern life also feels fragile. They cannot reliably give children clean air to breathe or safe food to eat or know that medicines prescribed for them are genuine—despite repeated promises from their Communist rulers to fight air and water pollution, clean up the food industry and keep dangerous fake products off the market. To this day families that can afford it buy foreign milk and infant formula, though a decade has passed since six babies died and thousands were made ill by Chinese powdered milk adulterated, for profit, with melamine, an industrial chemical.
In 2007 Zheng Xiaoyu, a former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, was executed for taking bribes to approve untested medicines and equipment. Since taking power in 2012 Mr Xi has led a vast and popular anti-corruption campaign. But that hasn’t stopped the scandals.
Responding to public outrage, state media have been a bit bolder than usual in covering this fresh crisis. China Daily noted that employees of or distributors for Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences and its parent company have been named in at least ten court judgments in the past decade for paying bribes to hospital or health officials. This rarely resulted in prosecutions of bribe-payers, it said, as too many companies were doing the same thing. Global Times, a popular tabloid, called for the government to calm the public with more authoritative information, arguing in an editorial that: “many may believe that it is lax supervision and light punishment that led to multiple scandals created by companies like Changchun Changsheng.” Social-media users noted revelations that at least two batches of DPT vaccines from the firm had been found defective in 2016 and 2017, leading to 3.4m yuan ($500,000) in fines for Changsheng, which reported 566m yuan in net profits last year.
It is not only domestic drug firms that have incentives to cut corners. Chinese hospitals make much of their revenue from selling medicines. Whistle-blowing is a risky pastime: in 2010 an investigative reporter and his editor lost their posts at the China Economic Times for detailing how mishandled vaccines led to the deaths of four children in Shanxi province. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, where a (more or less) free press and independent judiciary hold medical institutions to account, doctors have been told by health officials to brace for an influx of mainlanders seeking safe vaccines for their children.