Editorial urges more action on vaccine scandal

By David Bandurski — The lead editorial in Saturday’s edition of Southern Metropolis Daily pushed for further investigation into the vaccination scandal in Shanxi Province, a story broken last week by investigative reporter and CMP fellow Wang Keqin. The commentary urged the government not to “sideline” the media, which it said should represent the interests of the people by exposing facts rather than coddle the public with positive stories about how leaders are handling the crisis.

A translation of the Southern Metropolis Daily editorial follows:

Pressing the Media to Pursue the Shanxi Vaccination Scandal to End

The series of China Economic Times reports on the “chaotic situation of vaccinations in Shanxi” has given rise to a very strong reaction. On the one hand, our hearts ache for those children who were harmed; on the other hand, we feel great indignation over the acts of collusion and profiteering by officials and businesses that lie in the background. Naturally, while the emotions of the public are cresting, Shanxi’s Provincial Health Department has categorically denied the “allegations.” Reading the China Economic Times report, people understand the seriousness of the problem. After seeing the “clarification” issued by the Shanxi Provincial Health Department, they might suppose the problem is not so serious. But there is only one version of the truth. So how serious is the problem?

Looking carefully at the two versions, it is clear that the most disputed question is whether the illnesses suffered by the children already recorded on the list [in Wang Keqin's report] were in fact related to vaccinations. On this point, the China Economic Times and the Shanxi Provincial Health Department are not too far apart on their basic facts. It’s just that former holds that “the illnesses are clear, but they cannot be spoken of, no one dares speak [the truth], and in no area of Shanxi are the doctors willing to tell you the true cause of the illnesses.” The latter, meanwhile, resorts again and again to provincial medical experts who insist the illnesses are not connected to vaccinations.

The point here is that the core question has now become whether the opinions of health experts in Shanxi Province can be seen as reliable. Will is be possible for doctors from other areas to conduct their own investigations, or for those [doctors] in Shanxi who don’t dare speak the truth about the cause of the illnesses to stand up and come clean about the pressures they have faced [to keep quiet]? If we really hope to learn the truth, this will require the disclosure of more facts, and more investigation will be
needed.

Another important focus of the case concerns the relationship between the Huawei company [which controlled the local market for vaccines], the Shanxi Provincial Center for Disease Control and the Shanxi Provincial Health Department. It is clear from the China Economic Times report that a large number of facts support the conclusion that Huawei is a shell company melding business and politics for monopoly control of the industry to generate windfall profits. But the explanation given by the Shanxi Provincial Health Department for the “exposure of vaccines to high temperatures” is to say that the Ministry of Health has already looked into the problem and found nothing. As for the tagging of [Huawei] monopoly vaccines [with a provincial standard], the explanation given is that only in this way could they take responsibility for their own vaccines . . .

All this beating around the bush gives people cause for skepticism. Moreover, when it is the Shanxi Provincial Center for Disease Control that steps out to answer these questions that concern the center itself, when there are no statements from third parties — how can this sort of “clarification” be seen as credible?

Perhaps that report from China Economic Times on the “chaotic situation of vaccinations in Shanxi” is not 100 percent perfect, because the full facts no doubt have yet to be revealed. For example, we still need medical experts from outside Shanxi to make a determination about whether the illnesses from which these children suffer are related to vaccinations. And we need to know from what direction the pressure on doctors within Shanxi has come. We need also to know what relationship Li Wenyuan (栗文元), the head of the Shanxi Provincial Center for Disease Control, has to the company Huawei. We need to know why Li Shukai (李书凯), deputy head of the Provincial Health Department, would say publicly that a shell company with no business qualifications is “a company of the Ministry of Health, a large company that specializes in the distribution of vaccines.”

The report leaves many questions unanswered, which relevant departments in Shanxi Province must come out and address. And other media need to continue to follow-up and make further discoveries, until the full truth has been revealed. This is not the time for the media to “make light of matters.” This is the time to get to the bottom of things.

If the government wishes to deal with a major issue, and to set the public at ease, the only way is to step out and address their questions, to offer up the truth and hold those responsible to account. These matters concern the safety of the public, and particularly the safety our our children — it is not something that can simply be glossed over with vague explanations.

Many people have compared this vaccination incident to the poisoned milk scandal [of 2008 and 2010]. Only when poisoned milk emerged [as a problem] again this year did people realize that the problem was never really dealt with properly. Looking back on that shocking tragedy, we in the media feel a deep sense of guilt that matters were never fully dealt with at the time, that the people and chains of interest behind the affair were never fully held to account, and that the media was unable to pursue the issue of compensation for the victims [of the milk scandal].

To a certain degree, the reason the poisoned milk scandal could not be cleaned up all at once was because the media were unable to pursue it to the end — and the sidelining of the media meant the sidelining of the public. When we look back on other “major incidents” we find without difficulty that every time an ugly case causes broad public concern and mass anger, the media’s investigations come to a screeching halt. All we have then are reports about how “the situation is being handled,” so that the full facts behind the case are never discovered.

It’s as though the media only responsibility is to discover problems, after which the people cry out, drawing the attention of the government. And then [we are to suppose] the problem is solved!

Quelling the situation is the government’s responsibility. But the media must learn to push ahead and get to the bottom of the situation. Because the media’s obligation is to the truth. Because only when eyes are present to question the truth can we ensure that the handling of this situation has been clean and adequate. Because only when the full truth has been laid before the public can the public feel safe and secure. We press the media to push ahead and get to the bottom of the matter, because this is the best and surest way to calm the situation down.

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