Beijing deals with vaccine scandal through censorship

The government tries to stem the wave of protest by clamping down. The word vaccine is the most censored on social media. In two days in Hong Kong, 30,000 mainland parents called clinics to book a vaccination.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agency) – Protests continue over the vaccine scandal that hit the pharmaceutical company Changsheng Biotech. Even China’s President Xi Jinping waded into the affair, calling it “appalling”. Yet, mainstream and social media have been censored.

According to a project run by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, which monitors censorship on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, the Chinese word for “vaccine” was one of the most restricted on Sunday and Monday.

One post that was removed by the censors said: “People from the drug and vaccine regulator should resign immediately, this is shameful!”

Another that disappeared said: “When everyone in the country is rushing to get milk powder and vaccines elsewhere … more people will understand why Hong Kong and Macau are rejecting the [mainland] system.”

Fu King-wa, an assistant professor who heads Weiboscope, which monitors microblogs with more than a thousand followers, said also that censorship was higher now than in 2016.

Restrictions also appear to have been imposed on print media. A reporter from Shenzhen Media Group told the South China Morning Post that the relevant authorities had issued an order banning the coverage of the vaccine scandal.

Meanwhile, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese tabloid Global Times, accused some social media users of exploiting the scandal to criticise the party and the country.

“Many people feel unrest about the vaccine incident … but there is also a small number who are trying to break down the positive impacts of how the government is trying to deal with it,” he wrote on Weibo.

Meanwhile, parents of vaccinated children continue to worry. And like five years ago, when many went to Hong Kong to buy infant milk formula because what they had a home was tainted, this year they go to the autonomous region to buy vaccines because there they are imported.

For instance, when a Shenzhen mother heard about the latest vaccine scandal over the weekend, the first thing she did was make an appointment for Monday at her clinic over the border.

“I feel a bit ashamed about crossing the border to snap up a vaccine, and I totally understand if Hong Kong people resent us for doing it, but it’s just what I’ve got to do as a mother,” she said.

“The phone at reception was constantly ringing. My doctor said it just wouldn’t stop and they had to switch to a Mandarin-speaking nurse on reception,” she added.

Hong Kong-based WaiKong Health Management Services said that it took more than 30,000 calls from parents over the border between Sunday and Monday evening.

However, a cap on public health clinics is in place in the city since 2016, limiting them to providing vaccinations for a maximum of 120 non-local children per month.

Despite the gravity of the scandal, some observers fear that it will not be enough to change China’s healthcare system.

In this particular case, Changsheng Biotech’s anti-rabies vaccine are deemed substandard. Legally, they are considered “inferior drugs,” not “counterfeit drugs”. Producing the latter can lead to jail sentences of up to three years. Producing the former is not enough for imprisonment under Chinese law.

Yet, if a manufacturer makes more than 50,000 yuan (US$ 7,380) off the sale of substandard drugs, they could face sentences ranging from two years to life imprisonment, depending on the sales value of the drugs sold.

What is more, it remains to be seen if prosecutors will consider substandard rabies vaccines to be dangerous to human health since inadequate protection against rabies could be deadly, even if the vaccine itself is harmless.