A few months ago I wrote about the damning revelations surrounding one of China’s most trusted vaccines providers. Changsheng Biotech had been profiteering from the creation and distribution of useless vaccines for children. First, they mixed old vaccines with new ones when selling jabs meant to immunise against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus (all three diseases are potentially fatal to infants); then, a year later, they faked the production dates and batch numbers of rabies vaccines. The punishment for the first drugs transgression was a mere 3.4 million yuan – less than £400,000, and only 0.0003 per cent of the company’s annual turnover. It was no more than a slap on the wrist. The rumours are that the company had friends in high places, (a former Chinese President, no less). It was a depressing but all too classic tale of corruption.
But since then, it seems like the authorities mean business. At the time, Beijing trotted out premier Li Keqiang to state that Changsheng had ‘violated an ethical bottom line’. But attitudes really have hardened beyond rhetoric. This week, Changsheng was fined $1.3bn (£988 million). Its crimes – ranging from blending different batches of vaccines, to fabricating production records and using those to obtain certification from authorities, and even destroying evidence when investigations began – have been widely reported in Chinese media.
It’s not yet clear what will happen to the fifteen Changsheng executives who were arrested in the summer. But if you had any doubts over the popularity of punishing the company harshly, just take a look on social media. Here, the normal ambivalence towards government announcements is replaced by hearty praise:
‘Changsheng vaccines case, fined 91 billion yuan! Fantastic news.’
‘Truly fined to bankruptcy – great’
‘91 billion yuan? I’ve not read this wrong? This is such a relief! We can’t tolerate your playing around with so many lives!’
This was an issue of public trust. As I wrote in the summer, the Chinese are willing to sacrifice political freedom if it means they get their bread and milk. The Changsheng case angered a politically easygoing nation as the basic welfare of the most vulnerable in society was at risk. This week’s harsh punishment is a shrewd move by Beijing.