China Uses Censorship and Propaganda to Quell Outrage over Vaccine Scandal

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Public outrage over the distribution of substandard child vaccines in China has grown to the point where heavy-handed censorship is being mixed with the government’s appeals for calm.

People are venting their fury at officials of President Xi Jinping’s government instead of the designated fall guys from the board of Changsheng Biotechnology, the company that distributed the vaccines.

Officials keep insisting the suspicious doses of vaccine are “safe” — even though they did not pass quality testing — without offering any evidence of their safety. They also refuse to provide firm information about how many children received the vaccines.

The Chinese public responded by challenging the messages of calm and questioning the honesty of Xi’s administration, so the censors were unleashed, as CNN reported:

On Monday evening, State Drug Administration Deputy Director Xu Jinghe appeared on state-owned CCTV in an attempt to calm public concerns, but the footage provoked scorn, with social media users mocking Xu’s expensive, blue Burberry polo shirt and stilted answers.

One Weibo user reprimanded Xu for his choice of clothes: “Improper dressing for such an occasion.”

“The people are fed up with you!” another user posted.

Government censors had initially allowed public discussion. However, by Wednesday, attempts were underway to control the flow of information, with the word “vaccine” among the most restricted on China’s social media platform Weibo, according to the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

Numerous essays and top rated comments were scrubbed from online platforms, including a widely shared article titled “King of Vaccine,” which accused the owner of Changsheng of corruption and unethical behavior.

The South China Morning Post noted that Weibo messages related to the vaccine scandal were aggressively blocked, such as one that declared: “People from the drug and vaccine regulator should resign immediately, this is shameful!”

Another banned post said the scandal demonstrates why semi-autonomous regions like Hong Kong and Macau are reluctant to embrace the mainland Chinese system. The person who wrote that fireball of a post should probably expect a significant dip in his or her “social credit score.”

Researchers who spoke to the SCMP said the volume of public outrage was simply too overwhelming for even China’s million-man censorship army to block it all, but they are nevertheless mounting one of the most vigorous speech-control campaigns China has seen to date.

Chinese news media was flatly instructed to tone down its coverage of the scandal. Journalists were told to expect punishment for violating “public safety standards” if they publish heated criticism. The more cooperative state-owned media outlets, like the Global Times, pitched in to help the Communist bureaucracy by suggesting the loudest complainers are subversives trying to undermine faith in President Xi’s glorious government.

One reason for the Chinese government’s apprehension is that pharmaceuticals were supposed to become a major export industry under Xi’s ambitious “Made in China 2025” plan for global economic dominance. Xi is acutely aware that “Made in China” is not always seen as a mark of high quality in global markets.

“The latest in a litany of food and drug safety scares, the Changsheng case has sparked both intense criticisms of the Chinese government’s ability to regulate the space at home, and concerns about China’s recent push to market pharmaceuticals abroad,” Viola Rothschild of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote on Tuesday.

Rothschild found plenty of heated social media posts for China’s speech police to delete:

In the days after the scandal broke, #ChangchunChangshengFakeVaccines (#长春长生造假疫苗) was trending on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, and quickly racked up over 120 million views.

In the most “liked” comments on the thread, one netizen remarked that “China has no rule of law. Only party governance.”

Another pointed out that “it’s clear that the Chinese market is monopolized by four major vaccine manufacturers. As long as they can get in with the director of the provincial CDC, they have massive financial resources. How can we say that it is the vaccines that are the problem?”

Yet another lamented that “we already have to drink imported milk powder. Now we have to import vaccines? What’s next?”

Adding to the perfect storm of public outrage is the astonishing success of a low-budget film called Dying to Survive, which tells the true story of a Chinese cancer survivor who smuggles in drugs from India to help patients in China.

The story is presented as something of a black comedy, along the lines of Dallas Buyers Club in the U.S., but it struck a raw nerve with Chinese society and quickly became the sixth highest-grossing film in Chinese box office history. Meanwhile, the super-expensive multi-studio epic fantasy film Asura, which was supposed to demonstrate the sophistication and blockbuster appeal of China’s film industry, was dismissed by audiences as a Game of Thrones ripoff and bombed so hard that it was yanked from theaters in embarrassment.

CNBC noted that Zhejiang Huahai Pharmaceutical of China was recently obliged to withdraw a heart medicine sold in the United States because it was found to be “tainted with a substance linked to cancer.”

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