China vaccine scandal shows, once again, why HK is different

August 16, 2018 09:00
A nurse looks for vaccines at a children's clinic in Hong Kong. Reports of substandard Chinese products have prompted many mainland parents to rush to Hong Kong for vaccinations for their kids. Photo: Reuters

In mid-July, China's state drug administration ordered Changsheng Bio-technology, a company headquartered in Changchun in northeastern China, to stop production of rabies vaccines after it uncovered evidence of forged data. At about the same time, the company was fined 3.4 million yuan (US$502,000) for production of inferior DPT vaccines last year.

As soon as the news got out, mothers on the mainland reacted. One Shenzhen resident, 33-year-old Emily Liu, made an urgent appointment in Hong Kong for her 5-year-old son to be vaccinated. Within 48 hours, he had received a booster shot of a four-in-one vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio.

"I feel a bit ashamed about crossing the border to snap up a vaccine,” the South China Morning Post quoted Liu as saying. "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.” If Hong Kong were to impose restrictions on non-residents, she said, she was prepared to travel to Japan or Taiwan to have her son vaccinated.

She said the Hong Kong clinic was inundated with calls from mainland China while she was there. In all likelihood, the callers were mothers like her, who wanted protection for their children.

The vaccine crisis was the latest product safety scandal in China. The Chinese government promised quick action.

Premier Li Keqiang pledged in a statement on July 22 that the government “will resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that endanger the safety of peoples’ lives, resolutely punish lawbreakers according to the law, and resolutely and severely criticize dereliction of duty in supervision.”

Unfortunately, the statement reminded many people of a similar pledge made in 2016 during another vaccine scandal. At that time, it was found that US$90 million worth of expired or improperly stored vaccines were sold by a mother-and-daughter team to 24 provinces from their base in Shandong over a five-year period.

While promising to crack down on the current perpetrators, Chinese authorities have at the same time issued a directive forbidding any reporting on the issue. This is not likely to increase public confidence. After all, letting independent journalists do their job is the best way of keeping officials honest, unless there is something someone high up doesn’t want the public to know.

One of the biggest problems is a lack of political will. The Communist Party seems to have just one top priority, which is to ensure that it not only remains in power but cannot be questioned. To ensure this priority, the propaganda organs politicize every issue and make it difficult for professionals to do their work.

That means the health needs of the Chinese people suffer. Product scandals, like those this year and in 2016, will continue to occur.

In 2016, too, mainland mothers flooded across the border seeking vaccinations for their children. Hong Kong imposed on public health clinics a maximum of 120 vaccinations for non-local children per month. Private clinics were not affected.

Not only do scandals recur, some of the players remain the same too. Thus, during the milk scandal of 2008--when infant formula was adulterated with the chemical melamine to give the impression of a higher protein level, resulting in six deaths and thousands hospitalized--one of the food safety officials penalized was Sun Xianze. He was issued a demerit, the lightest punishment of a group of officials.

Sun was soon climbing up the bureaucratic ladder again and, in 2012, he was appointed deputy director of the State Food and Drug Administration. He was given the job of overseeing drug safety and it was during his watch that the Shandong-based mother-daughter team, which involved more than 200 accomplices, was operating.

Even the Changsheng Bio-Technology case occurred on his watch. It was discovered last November, though not announced until last month, that Changsheng Bio-Technology had produced and sold more than 250,000 inferior DPT vaccines, and that another company, Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, had produced and distributed 400,520 inferior DPT vaccines, most of which were administered to children as young as three months old.

But in March 2018, before the latest crisis, Sun retired, seemingly untainted by any whiff of scandal.

If there is a silver lining behind China’s latest product safety scandal, it is that Hong Kong is again shown as far from being "just another Chinese city." And, it would seem, people on the mainland know this well. They may not trust their own government, but they trust Hong Kong. And they know where to go if they want safe food, milk powder and medicine.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.