Illustration: Tim McEvenue
Lijia Zhang
Lijia Zhang

Rabies vaccine scandal reveals China’s tattered moral fabric

Lijia Zhang says the Communist Party’s violent discarding of traditional values, suppression of religion and later embrace of cutthroat capitalism has severely damaged social trust. The party has attempted moral campaigns since then but, as the Changsheng scandal shows, they have not worked

A major scandal is gripping China. Changsheng Bio-technology, the country’s second-largest vaccine manufacturer, was found to have fabricated production data and sold more than 250,000 substandard rabies vaccines. This has crossed a “moral bottom line”, Premier Li Keqiang said as he promised to “absolutely crack down” on such practices.
It is the latest public health and safety crisis to plague the country. Two years ago, the sale of expired vaccines came to light; and 10 years ago, China’s biggest-ever food safety scandal hit as millions of parents realised, with horror, that they might be feeding their babies poisonous milk.

Like other issues concerning children’s safety, the defective vaccine incident touched a raw nerve for Chinese parents and led to a public outcry.

Tens of millions expressed their anger and frustration on social media. Some demanded a thorough investigation and called for tougher regulation and more severe punishment. Others asked what kind of a society they were living in – and whether it had no morality at all.

Once again, the Chinese people are forced to ask the uncomfortable question: what has led to the moral decline of China?

The country has experienced a drastic social transformation ever since Deng Xiaoping introduced the reform and opening up policies of 40 years ago. The economy has made great strides and the enriched citizens have been enjoying, and sometimes abusing, their personal freedom.

Deng used to describe the negative impacts of the reforms as “a few flies” that had wedged in through China’s opened door from the decadent West. Such “flies” included the rising crime, rampant corruption, money-worshipping and declining morality.

The market economy brought in cold-hearted, dog-eat-dog capitalism to a society that was already on survival mode. To survive, to get ahead in the competitive market, to gain personal wealth and success, you had to take whatever measures necessary and bend the rules when necessary.

In 2004, veteran Chinese journalist Michael Anti reported cases in central China’s Anhui province where some infants developed abnormally large heads after consuming faulty formula.

This week, as the news of the faulty vaccines broke, he posted a photo of a child harmed in that earlier case, and said: “From that day, I understand that, to make money, some Chinese are even willing to hurt their own children.”

Several high-profile incidents, such as the tainted milk scandal and the notorious “ Little Yueyue Incident” – in which a two-year-old from Foshan, Guangdong, was run over twice by vehicles outside her parents' shop, and 18 passers-by walked past her body on the street without helping – shocked and disgusted people around the world. Some even called China a “material giant and a spiritual dwarf”.

I believe that the lack of a value system and a spiritual vacuum lay at the roots of China’s moral crisis.

We have imported the concept of market economy but not the corresponding ethics. Traditionally, the core values were benevolence, righteousness, proper rites, knowledge and integrity, as mandated by Confucianism.

But all traditional and religious systems were destroyed after the Communist Party took power, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when Chairman Mao Zedong ordered the citizens to destroy the “four olds”: “old customs”, “old culture”, “old habits” and “old ideas”. The basic social fabric was torn to pieces.

This mad political movement marked the beginning of China’s moral decay and lack of trust among the people. At that time, people were encouraged to report and denounce each other – even their teachers, neighbours and parents.

In recent years, Confucianism, condemned by Mao, has gained popularity. Former president Hu Jintao’s call for a “ harmonious society” was perhaps a sign of its rehabilitation.
Today, our top leaders like certain aspects of Confucian values, such as the ruler/subject relationship and respect for authority. But many of its values, such as its attitude towards women, are not in line with modernity.

That’s China’s problem: there isn’t really a united value system that resonates with the modern Chinese society.

A few years ago, Beijing tried to come up with the so-called “Beijing Spirit”: patriotism, innovation, inclusiveness and virtue, campaigning for “ spiritual civilisation”. But this effort has been largely unsuccessful.

And there’s the crisis of a spiritual vacuum. In the era of the reforms and market-economy communism, which had been deployed by the Chinese Communist Party as a religion of sorts, more or less collapsed. It left a spiritual void that has allowed corruption to flourish and crime to rise.

I think the government has realised this problem. President Xi Jinping has tried to promote traditional values and be more tolerant of traditional beliefs, namely Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.
Perhaps this is part of his effort to curb social unrest and fill the spiritual vacuum. He must be aware that his high-profile anti-corruption campaign only addressed the symptom but not the roots of the problem.

In recent years, all religions in China – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism – have witnessed a revival (with Protestantism the fastest-growing) due to a relaxed control and the spiritual void. This revival has filled the vacuum, but only to a certain degree.

The rabies vaccine case must have involved multiple layers of rules violations, corruption and abuses of power by people of different levels and departments.

There’s no easy fix for China’s public moral decline. Law and order are badly needed. But the legal dose alone, no matter how heavy, can’t wipe out the problem all together. The tattered social fabric has to be fixed first.

The flies are now buzzing ever louder.

Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus.