China Vaccine
A child cries as he receives a measles vaccination at a health center in Hefei, Anhui province, Sept. 11, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer

SHANGHAI -- Some 70 parents whose children were injected with illegally traded vaccines have staged a protest outside China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) calling for justice and more information.

It’s the latest fallout from a scandal, which has already led to the sacking or demotion of more than 300 officials – including from the commission and China's food and drug administration -- and the arrests of 202 people. A black-market gang based in eastern Shandong province is believed to have sold vaccines -- worth at least some $88 million -- for illnesses, including meningitis and rabies, which had not been stored or transported in temperature-controlled conditions, or were close to their expiry date.

The scandal, which is reported to have lasted more than six years, has raised questions about the ability of officials to protect the public from food and health safety scams, which have become a major concern for many Chinese citizens. Such concerns have been reinforced by a separate controversy over state media reports that almost 500 children became ill after a local government in eastern China failed to clean up a toxic former chemical factory site near a newly built high school.

At Tuesday’s protest outside the NHFPC headquarters in Beijing, protesters held up slogans saying compulsory vaccines lead to disabilities in children, and criticized the commission for “turning a blind eye to poor monitoring of China’s vaccines”, according to Radio Free Asia. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) said the protesters included one man whose 3-year-old son been in a vegetative state since receiving a vaccine in August last year. After nearly three hours of peaceful protest, amid a heavy police presence, the parents were “told to address their grievances to the commission’s petition office” and left, the paper said.

The Chinese government has pledged to tighten and centralize controls on procurement of vaccines for use in local public health programs in future, and to set up a database to monitor their transport. But the World Health Organization, while welcoming the new rules, said they would be complex to implement in some cases, according to the SCMP.

And the protests are a reminder of continuing public suspicion on the issue. There have also been reports of parents from mainland China flooding clinics in Hong Kong to have their children vaccinated, or buying vaccines abroad to bring home.

The vaccine case is one of the first major health safety scandals since President Xi Jinping took office some three years ago and pledged to improve safety standards in China. Observers say it has raised questions about the government’s ability or willingness to provide the open flow of information -- and permit the public scrutiny -- that many believe is necessary in an increasingly complex society. The official Global Times newspaper has said the vaccine scandal shows the need for a media that dares to challenge officialdom: it said the “poor performance” of China’s media in providing timely information on the scandal had undermined its credibility, and encouraged people to put their faith in social media sources that may not always be reliable.

“In the Internet era, publishing accurate information online is the best way to prevent inaccurate and exaggerated messages. Governments could have done a better job in guiding the media to quell the sweeping panic, but they choose the convenient way of putting harsh restrictions on media instead of seeking efficient interactions,” it said.

Public fears over health, and mistrust of official information, have also been highlighted by a controversy involving citizens, official media and local government that has dominated China's media this week. It centers on a school in Changzhou, in eastern Jiangsu province, where parents say proximity to a toxic former chemical plant site has made some 500 children sick.

At least one pupil at the Changzhou Foreign Language School was reported to have developed leukemia, with others suffering from thyroid problems or lymphoma, state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported at the weekend. The report followed repeated complaints from parents after the school, one of the city’s best, moved into expensive new premises -- at a cost of some $48 million -- last September.

The school was opposite a site that had been home to three chemical plants until 2010. The local authorities were reported to have planned to incinerate the soil from the site and turn the remains into cement before the school moved in, but a lack of market demand for cement meant the site was not fully cleaned up by the time it opened. As a result, the SCMP said, the authorities eventually decided simply to seal up the site with a layer of clay instead of treating the soil properly. Reports said the partial clean-up may have released toxins, while one of the factories previously also discharged waste into a canal close to the school.

The school itself acknowledged that tests showed the groundwater in the area was not safe to use –- but insisted the campus was safe for students. However, parents and students alike are reported to have complained of a foul stench from the site. And CCTV said that the level of carcinogenic chlorobenzene was almost 95,000 times safe limits, while 493 of 641 children who underwent medical checks had abnormal blood indicators, thyroid problems or bronchitis, among other health problems.

This week, the school accused CCTV of exaggeration, and the local government Tuesday issued a statement saying that 597 students had been given medical tests but “only” 133 were found to have health problems. It denied that any student had suffered from leukemia, and while it acknowledged one case of lymphoma, it said this was diagnosed before the school’s relocation. And it said that while 71 students had thyroid nodules this was a normal ratio among teenagers, and could “not be clearly linked to pollution,” according to Chinese media.

Yet such words appear to have done little to reassure the parents – some of whom are reported to have become so suspicious that they do not trust local hospitals and have taken their children to other cities for checkups.

Mistrust of the local authorities is reported to have been heightened after 1,000 parents who staged a protest in January calling for the school to relocate were dispersed by police, and, in some cases, warned that they risked losing their jobs if they continued to protest.

One state media commentator Wednesday criticized “the emptiness of the government response so far."

"The local government seems to remain obsessed with maintaining social stability, which it cares about far more than the wellbeing of the people,” Xu Qinduo of China Radio International wrote in the Global Times.

Xu said the case highlighted a common problem, which he described as “build first and assess later,” or “pollute first and treat second,” in China’s rapid urbanization process. And he said the incident should “serve as a wake up call” to the need to “constructively engage the public” as well as industry and government over such issues.

Ma Jun, head of Beijing-based NGO Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the SCMP the scandal revealed “loopholes in almost every link of environmental supervision”, not least in the fact that the area had originally been allowed to become so polluted in the first place.

Ma said excessive land reclamation and damage to ground vegetation, plus use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides had also contributed to water pollution in China’s cities.

A lack of controls on the chemical industry, which has become an influential sector of the economy in many of China's fastest developing provinces, like Jiangsu and neighboring Zhejiang, has also contributed to such problems. China’s Ministry of Water Resources said last week that 80 percent of underground water in more than 2,000 wells it monitored around the country was unfit for human consumption. And NGO the Nature Conservancy also said this week that 73 percent of water catchment in 30 of China’s big cities is “severely polluted.”

China has promised massive investment to clean up its water resources. But environmentalists have complained that the government has been slow to implement planned legislation to deal with soil pollution. An official report in 2014 said that 16 percent of China’s soil was polluted, and some 20 percent of its arable land. However, the authorities have refused to give further details, saying these are a state secret. And rapid urbanization has led to increasing construction on former industrial “brownfield” sites in Chinese cities.

Yet attempts to scrutinize such problems by China’s state-controlled media remain relatively rare – not least since President Jinping's recent call for the media to follow the party line loyally on key issues. One prominent academic, sociologist Sun Liping, has said the media’s failure to offer independent criticism has led to a failure of credibility: “Our society's ability to present truth to itself is gradually disappearing,” Sun wrote several years ago.

And while CCTV’s expose of health problems at the Changzhou school has been praised by some observers, one parent’s response to the rejection of its report by the local government highlighted a public sense of a lack of reliable information. She said simply, “We’re very scared and don’t know which side we should believe,” the SCMP reported.