Sisters in pain

Brandon Zatt

A WAFT OF perfume and the jingling of a necklace of tiny bells precedes her as she walks into the cafe of an upscale Dongguan hotel. Dressed in a smart, black satin dress, Fanny Zhu Feiqun is an unlikely heroine. But over the past few months, the wealthy housewife has joined victims of the toxic hydrophilic polyacrylamide gel (PAAG) and become a warrior in their fight for justice.

Her leather notebook is now crammed with the contact information for hundreds of victims from across the mainland; the hospitals, clinics or beauty parlours they visited, and those who injected them with the gel. Uniting fellow victims, Zhu and her friends are taking a two-pronged approach: creating a support network for each other, and fighting to eradicate PAAG and bring those responsible to justice. Zhu, who has since set up a victim's website (, realises theirs is a protracted struggle, but says it gives purpose to her life. A mother of two, the 36-year-old used to have a stereotypical tai-tai lifestyle.

'I never cared about others. I played mahjong, went shopping and threw money around. All I cared about was my looks,' she says. 'This has forced me to change.'

'This' was the breast-enhancement procedure Zhu underwent five years ago, putting her among the many women who suffered from the use PAAG in cosmetic treatment. After the birth of her children, Zhu felt her breasts needed a lift to look good in her favoured spaghetti-strap tops. But she was reluctant to go under the knife and instead took a beautician friend's advice to inject PAAG. The initial results were good, but her breasts then fell, her cleavage hardened and her fingertips went numb. Examinations revealed the gel had migrated into her chest.

Zhu was playing mahjong in mid-April when local television reported the Hong Kong Consumer Council's warning on the gel. The report highlighted how six of 53 women who sought medical help after receiving injections were forced to have their breasts partly or completely removed. The gel blocks mammograms and contains a toxin that can leak into breast milk, cause infections and even cancer.

'[My friends] all started laughing as we watched the news,' Zhu says. 'Nobody knew I did it, but they knew I loved makeovers. They started joking with me. I tried not to cry.'

Her initial disbelief was reinforced when doctors dismissed the scare as media hype. They told her she was the only person suffering adverse reactions - a common tactic used by hospitals and clinics for damage control.

As news of more victims surfaced, denial became impossible. However, Zhu found a source of strength with QQ, a victims' support group founded by accountant Zhang Huiqin, whose jaw became inflamed following a facial-augmentation procedure at Shenzhen Fuhua Cosmetic Surgery Hospital in 2002. Zhang, 45, refused to believe her health problems were an aberration and spent a year looking up cases of complications before she chanced on fellow victim Liu Chen at the complaints desk of the Shenzhen Health Bureau. The pair began staking out clubs and salons, finally locating other victims outside major plastic surgery facilities.

Zhang traced the gel to Jilin Fuhua, the hospital's parent company, which began importing PAAG from a Ukrainian firm nearly 10 years ago. Following a scandal over the use of expired gel in 1998, Jilin Fuhua developed its own version, which was marketed as 'Amazing Gel'. Despite doubts raised about its safety at a National Medical Authority seminar, the gel was approved for trial production the following year.

Three years ago, continued reports of PAAG complications prompted the State Food and Drug Administration to ban its use in all but the country's top (AAA) hospitals. But the Shenzhen Medical Inspection Authority was unable to halt such applications at Fuhua hospital, which insisted it was a 'special case'. By 2004, more than 100,000 women were reported to have received PAAG injections across the country.

More controversy surfaced in a PAAG expose by the state channel, CCTV 5, with the State Adverse Drug Reaction Monitoring Centre announcing in January that it had received 183 cases of mishaps involving Amazing Gel. By March, Shanghai authorities were posting warnings on its website, urging consumers to remove any injected gel and Hong Kong's consumer watchdog raised its alarm soon after.

Zhu was urged to join Zhang and 22 other victims to stage a demonstration in Beijing to press a review board for a PAAG ban. The Dongguan tai-tai spent several sleepless nights before deciding to tell her husband about her bungled cosmetic treatment and seek medical help in Beijing. He couldn't believe his ears at first, she says, but has since been very supportive, she says.

On April 17, PAAG victims from across the country met at the headquarters of the State Food and Drug Administration in Beijing. Many checked into a nearby guesthouse, with up to 16 women packed into a one room with three beds. That was when Zhu first met Deng Meiling, from Guangxi. The 23-year-old had had PAAG injected to enhance her nose, but the gel migrated to her brain, blinding her right eye. She lost her boyfriend and her factory job, and was almost penniless after paying to have the gel removed.

'That changed me,' says Zhu. 'I used to waste money, but those girls were barely surviving. I'd always thought plastic surgery only affected the rich. When I met Deng, I wondered how she could live.'

By April 30, the State Food and Drug Administration banned the production, sale and use of PAAG. But Zhu notes that while many establishments were forced to close after news emerged of PAAG dangers, some continue to administer the gel.

Zhu returned from Beijing incensed at a system that allowed this kind of tragedy, and channelled her anger into action. In mid-May, she invited victims from across Guangdong to gather in Shenzhen, where prominent Beijing lawyer Pu Zhichiang encouraged the women to band together to seek accountability and justice. Although they came with little hope, The women found strength in each other and vowed to take up the cause.

'That was my second turning point,' Zhu says. 'That was when I decided to build the website. That was when I learned that America's civil society was built on cases like ours.'

Their meeting in May was timed to coincide with various cases being heard over the use of the banned gel.

Their meeting in May was timed to coincide with various cases being heard over the use of the banned gel. Some verdicts have yet to be handed down, but the campaigners are taking heart from a Guangzhou ruling that awarded one woman damages against a clinic for a botched breast implant of the gel. The activists have redoubled their efforts to contact victims and pursue victory in the courts.

'I want to stop others from getting hurt,' Deng says, fighting back tears. 'If we don't speak out, who will? It will only get worse. I just want to help others end the pain.'

The women's suffering remains, but they're learning how to deal with it. 'When I work on the website, when I encourage others, I don't feel the pain,' Zhu says. 'I don't think about my body. I actually like my life now; it has meaning. It never did before. I tell other victims that this is the way to get better.'

The women insist their campaign isn't about money. 'We want our health back,' Zhu says. 'We want to galvanise China's medical industry. If the country doesn't admit it was wrong for allowing this to happen and take responsibility, it will happen again.'

Meanwhile, Zhu is preparing to travel to Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to rally victims and local media attention to their cause. She's also considering revamping their website, which had mostly been dedicated to victim's reports.

'Sometimes, suffering can be cyclical. We have to break out of it,' Zhu says. 'We have to give the people hope.'