Chinese people protest the faulty vaccines outside China's National Health Commission in Beijing in July 2018 (Picture Credit: CNN)
On July 21, a public WeChat account broke a story that exposed how three individuals through mergers and acquisitions came to dominate China’s vaccine market and, eventually, to produce hundreds of thousands of faulty vaccines. The story, which exposed one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in China, Changchun Changsheng Bio-technology, for producing more than 500,000 doses of substandard vaccines for children, went viral in a few hours and was deleted when its views reached around two million.
Various copied versions and screenshots of the piece continued to circulate widely on social media. Mainstream media, ranging from Beijing News to The Paper, and state-owned media including the People’s Daily, all commented on the story, denouncing the vaccine manufacturer and calling for tighter supervision of the healthcare sector. A People’s Daily commentary read, “there must be 100% transparency in investigating faulty vaccines, and supervision must not be loose.” It even cited a line in the censored piece, which said, “producing a fake vaccine is the same as murder.”
Three days after the vaccine scandal, another piece of news broke that raised the ire of Chinese intellectuals and elites. An anonymous young female posted an open letter that circulated widely on WeChat accusing Lei Chuang, the founder of an NGO, of sexually assaulting her in 2015. The post triggered a Me Too movement in China. As of this moment, around 20 prominent individuals, including journalists, professors, founders of NGOs, a former Olympic champion and even a top Buddhist leader have been accused of sexual assault.
There is nothing new about social media igniting a social movement in China. In 2009, a single Weibo post asking for help during the Wenzhou train collision triggered a national outcry for government accountability. What is unprecedented this time is the scale – the number of people involved and the degree of anger and frustration that the public have exhibited, which is rarely seen in an Internet environment inundated with hyped “positive energy.”
Where Does the Outrage Come From?
The vaccine scandal touches upon a particularly sensitive nerve in China because children are involved. Chinese may find a reason to close their eyes towards certain human rights movements which do not risk their immediate interests, yet they cannot be silent on an issue which concerns every household. The substandard DPT vaccine at the center of the scandal is compulsory for all children between the age of three and six. More than 650,000 doses of this vaccine have turned out to be faulty. Moreover, just a year ago, 400,000 doses of the same vaccine produced by another vaccine manufacturer in China were also reported to be substandard. Both vaccine manufacturers were reported to have in the past received government subsidies.
The timing of the scandal also played an important role in the public outcry: 2018 marks the 10 year anniversary of the baby milk powder scandal, which shattered public trust in food security in China. This July, rumors began to spread on the Internet that Sun Xian Ze, the government official responsible for the milk scandal 10 years ago, was also involved in the vaccine scandal. A popular line circulating on Weibo and WeChat stated: “let me tell you a joke: the government official originally penalized for the milk scandal was later promoted to head the China Drug Administration, taking charge of all vaccines.” Though some pointed out that the line was factually dubious — Sun stepped down before the vaccine scandal broke out – the rumor went viral as the scandal grew.
On social media, members of the public began to state their concern that despite the reoccurrence of food and drug safety scandals, there was no real accountability and reform. As the outrage grew, so did the work of censors. The hashtag “Changsheng bio-tech vaccine incident” was quickly deleted on Weibo and relevant stories on public WeChat accounts became unavailable. People began to suspect that corruption and abuse of power were behind the series of scandals. Many Weibo users joked sarcastically, “the government says they will give us an answer, instead they give us tape [to silence us].” In Chinese, the words “answer” and “tape” are homophones.
Unprecedented National Public Debate
The Me Too movement began at this sensitive moment, and although it is currently largely limited to the urban and intellectual elite, the movement has sparked a public debate in China.
Chinese intellectual Liu Yu, venerated as China's de Toqueville, posted her opinion on the Me Too Movement in China on WeChat. Though she applauded the movement, she said that the more extreme cases of the movement reminded her of “cultural-revolution-era big-character poster,” citing the movement’s call for consequence beyond procedural justice. She argues that the movement is likely to lead to false claims of rape and argues that victims should seek justice via the legal system as opposed to social media.
Yet Liu’s post immediately led to backlash from overseas Chinese students and intellectuals. Critics argued that Liu’s faith in the court as a viable option for rape victims was misplaced. Quite a few young intellectuals have recently argued that the Me Too movement, unlike a top-down campaign, is probably the first people-centered, grassroots-oriented social movement in China.
The Me Too debate has thus turned out to be a soul-searching moment for Chinese intellectuals. While the older generation has questioned whether they are constrained by the historic examples of Chinese social movements and are thus unable to imagine other forms, the young generation has reflected upon the fact that they might not be aware of the cultural connotations of social movements in China. In a society where social movements have largely been stigmatized as “foreign infiltration,” an honest discussion about the tactics of social movements at this scale is truly unprecedented.
Will this Moral Awakening Last?
It is important to point out that while the vaccine scandal produced collective outrage, the Me Too movement is still very much an urban-centric movement. Most individuals accused of sexual misconduct work for NGOs or in media-related fields, and the threshold for entering the Me Too debate is relatively high. What is alarming is that because the two incidents involve people from different social classes, rumors began to spread on social media that the government encouraged the spread of the Me Too movement to divert attention from the vaccine scandal to sporadic sexual harassment cases.
Late last year, the Beijing kindergarten abuse scandal coincided with the eviction of the migrant population in Beijing, yet the twin scandals in the end did not bring about substantive results. The government’s swift response to contain the outrage meant that public discussion quieted down quickly. On July 21, according to WeChat Index, the keyword “vaccine” appeared in more than 300 million WeChat posts; that figure on July 31 dropped to 40 million.
On July 22, aside from the WeChat post that exposed the vaccine scandal, another Weibo post began to make rounds. It was written by the editor-in-chief of the China Economic Times, Bao Yueyang, who was fired after his paper published an investigative journalism piece eight years ago exposing – again – faulty vaccines. The post said, “sometimes time will heal; sometimes time will not change anything.”
Many Chinese felt the same.