Wang Xiangwei
SCMP Columnist
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei

Vaccine scandal highlights public’s lack of trust in the Chinese government

As mind-boggling as it is, how what started as a piece of good news could degenerate into a crisis for the government is another sad reminder of its deep-rooted propensity to withhold information vital to the public interest and its lack of credibility in the eyes of ordinary citizens, writes Wang Xiangwei.

It started as a piece of good news on February 23 when Xinhua reported that police in Shandong had arrested a mother and daughter on suspicion of having illegally sold improperly stored or expired vaccines worth more than 570 million yuan (HK$679 million) across 24 provinces since 2011.

But the news failed to capture the public’s attention until a news website controlled by the Shanghai municipal government published a follow-up report on March 18 with a catchier headline that noted the vaccines could cause death. It was immediately picked up by the social media accounts of mainstream media such as the People’s Daily and China Central Television.

It has since fermented rapidly into the biggest health care scandal of recent years. Premier Li Keqiang ordered a thorough investigation and even the World Health Organisation issued a statement. Local media suggested some mainland mothers planned to bring their children to Hong Kong for vaccinations, raising concerns over whether local facilities could cope with the influx.

Vaccine scandal: China detains 37 suspects as senior official admits to problems in drug system

As mind-boggling as it is, how the good news could degenerate into a crisis for the government is another sad reminder of its deep-rooted propensity to withhold information vital to the public interest and its lack of credibility in the eyes of ordinary citizens.

Subsequent reports have suggested massive corruption and lack of effective supervision by the government authorities in production, transport, storage, and sale of vaccines.

As the official China Daily commented: “The authorities have nobody but themselves to blame for the disbelief and mistrust they face.”

China’s drug watchdog on trail of black market vaccines

The Xinhua report said the arrests were made in April 2015 and the case was then transferred to the supervision of the Ministry of Public Security and the China Food and Drug Administration in Beijing. This suggested the central government regulators had known about the seriousness of the case for nearly one year.

But even with the latest reports focusing public attention and anger on the snowballing scandal, regulators have been slow to react.

Even the WHO acted faster. On Tuesday, it acknowledged the reports and said the improperly or expired vaccines seldom caused any toxic reactions and thus posed minimal health risks.

‘All involved in China’s massive vaccine scandal must be caught’: China’s top prosecutor vows in-depth probe

It was only after Wednesday when state media reported that Li had ordered a thorough probe and a timely response to the public concerns that the regulators shifted into high gear, holding their first press conference on Thursday, nearly a week after the reports began to cause panic among the public.

At the press conference, the officials admitted most of the problematic vaccines had been used and flaws in the supervision of vaccine distribution were to blame.

They tried to reassure the public by echoing the WHO’s statement that the health risk was minimal. But it was too little, too late given the public’s anger and distrust. They have had too many experiences of officials attempting cover-ups or downplaying scandals that are a matter of life and death – such as the melamine-spiked milk powder scandal and the Sars epidemic.

Deadly vaccines: 570 million yuan of medication ‘illegally sold in China poses risk to users’ lives’: authorities

Many have questioned how a mother and a daughter could so easily set up a distribution network that remained undetected and unsupervised for so long, especially as it involved dozens of pharmaceutical firms and hundreds of salesmen and an unknown number of clinics.

Moreover, this came to light after Caixin, a leading investigative publication, published a detailed report in 2013 chronicling the malpractices in production and sales of the vaccines which resulted in the deaths of children.

There is no doubt that, as this case has received attention from the highest level of government, the culprits and those officials found in dereliction of duty will be duly punished. But will the regulators learn a lesson? After all, the first chief of the food and drug administration was executed on corruption charges in 2007. These included charges of approving unsafe drugs that had caused dozens of fatalities.

Vaccine scandal: hundreds involved across 24 provinces in China

Even more importantly, officials’ bad handling of this scandal has put another serious dent in the credibility of the government.