In the middle of a massive eruption of public anger over compromised vaccines, a small group of influential individuals considered themselves immune to what they saw as cheap sentimentalities, and set out to restore “rationality” in the Chinese cyberspace. Their intervention created a deep cleavage in the public debate over the scandal, a consequence that considerably complicates the unfolding of events.
The origin of the story is the Mar 18 revelation by the Paper that 2 million pieces of compromised vaccines (due to improper storage under high temperatures) had entered the market through shady traders all over the country. Two suspects, Pang and her daughter, were caught illegally obtaining and selling Class II vaccines (those that are for voluntary use, as opposed to Class I vaccines that are mandatory for children, whose distribution is controlled by the state). While regulations mandate that vaccines should be kept in a controlled temperature between 2-8 Celsius degrees, the Pangs stored them in a make-shift warehouse with no air conditioning at all. As more details were dug out by the media, the uneasiness among the public, especially young parents, quickly approached boiling point.
As soon as signs of a major public outcry started to appear, a counter-move also began to collect momentum. The Paper’s report immediately met with criticism of “scaremongering”. Ironically, the source of the criticism was a WeChat account targeting young mothers. Declaring that there is little to fear, its main argument is that the vaccine scandal is “old news” (the suspects were actually arrested one year earlier but the police department chose to disclose it to the media now), and there is no reason to believe that the compromised products are still available on the market.
The argument is shaky, as a rebuttal from a veteran Paper journalist points out. Rather than using a piece of old news as click-bait, the fact that the Paper makes a new story out of an arrest a year earlier is a troubling indication of the police’s inability to make progress on the case for over a year and need to overcome interagency barriers by soliciting external support from the press (it was the police that fed the lead to the Paper).
What’s interesting is the man behind that WeChat account. Mai Tian, an Internet executive who made his name in 2012 by venturing the sensational allegation that Han Han, the famous Chinese writer and a sweetheart of the liberal middle class, had hired shadow writers to pen his best known stories, now runs a mobile site focusing on childcare. He is among a vocal group of individuals who have become increasingly vigilant against what they consider misguided populist sentiments. Within this highly heterogeneous group, you find Internet personalities such as him, “science disseminators”, journalists and leftist patriots. Despite their diverse political leaning and professional background, they seem to share one common denominator: a general distrust of popular judgment, bordering on condescension and a contrarian stubbornness.
While this kind of intellectual orientation is not entirely unusual in any society, in China it bumps into a big dilemma: what if that “populist sentiment” is the main driver of progressive change in a country besieged by all kinds of social ills?
An inconvenient truth in recent years is that more often than not, “irrational” concerns from the public outperform “scientific” assurance in terms of their prediction power. A few years after the Xiamen residents were scolded by “science disseminators” for their persistent and “irrational” protest against a planned PX chemical plant in 2007 (as PX is not particularly toxic), a massive explosion at the very facility that was supposed to be built in Xiamen and was relocated to a nearby town due to the protest vindicates the Xiamen protesters in a big way.
The vaccine scandal pitches the two forces against each other once more, this time in the shadow of a media report that is already three years old. On Mar 21, a post named “the tragedy of vaccines” got viral on people’s WeChat walls. In 2013, then Southern Metropolis News journalist Guo Xianzhong completed a three-year investigation into the horrendous side effects of vaccines and the suffering of families all over China. He managed to put a face (or to be accurate, 38 faces) to a problem that was obscured by the country’s general improvement in public health and prevention of contagious diseases. With his camera, he documented 38 kids who suffered severe, debilitating side effects after vaccination and posed serious questions about how the country had been mishandling the recognition and compensation of vaccination victims.
The heartbreaking photos of children are apt ingredients for a new scandal unfolding in front the public’s eyes. The victim of the new scandal is temporarily invisible, as the authority’s investigation has not been thorough enough to uncover those affected by the poorly stored vaccines. When the public is in need of a vehicle to carry their frustration and anger, they pick the most emotionally potent at hand, despite the substantive discrepancy between Guo’s report and the current situation. Side effects happen to proper vaccines too. It is a matter of chance, and when it occurs what’s crucial is expedited recognition and care for those families affected. Compromised vaccines generally pose a different kind of risk, the risk of failure (zero effect), which could be life threatening for those who have to count on their effectiveness, such as potential rabies victims. Angry parents ignored the nuanced differences and aired their discontent using images of crippled or paralyzed kids from three years ago.
The mismatch deeply troubled Hecaitou, a veteran Internet commentator, who penned a sarcastic blogpost insinuating that those retweeting the side-effect story were illiterate and stupid. He maintained that the current scandal concerned only Class II vaccines, and there’s no evidence that these compromised vaccines would be highly toxic. He was particularly harsh on the great number of online media outlets that kept feeding the public with that 2013 story. “Manipulating an ignorant public is like channeling a mindless flash flood. Whoever use it to earn clicks or build up influence is shameless.”
His unnecessarily arrogant tone may have complicated the response to his criticism. Emotional netizens, especially young mothers, were infuriated by his comments. They believe if public pressure can induce positive changes in the management of vaccines in general, then there should be no reason to try to quench that fire. Detailed difference in the numerous facets of the vaccination problem does not matter. Picking bones with public grasping of the issue “is equivalent to defending the evil,” as one popular comment under Hecaitou’s post quipped.
Hecaitou did not back off. Replying to one of the more supportive comments, he revealed his true concern: Chinese parents might be misled into distrusting vaccines totally, a consequence that would be detrimental to the country’s hard won public health gains. A Weibo account fully dedicated to the dissemination of vaccine related scientific information was visibly desperate: “I used to persuade parents that as long as the vaccines are from properly registered producers, they should feel assured of their safety. Now I feel like I am an accomplice in a crime.”
Chinese elites have a natural tendency in worrying about “panic attacks” in the society. One might say that this reflects a deep-seated condescension, seeing the public as incapable of critical thinking and independent judgment in the face of crises. But their wariness is not completely groundless. In 2011, days after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, many Chinese shoppers raided supermarkets to hoard regular sea salt, as they feared that future salts would be polluted by radioactive water. The episode created a temporary shortage of salt in a few towns. The collective fury of young Chinese parents can also be pretty “lethargic.” Last year, a sudden surge of angry calls for the indiscriminating execution of all those who are involved in child trafficking even pressed the nation’s supreme court to formally response, claiming that doing so would be tremendously counter-productive. It turned out that the “call for execution” was the machination of an online outlet to attract clicks. With such recent memories in mind, the concern that a public clenched by fear may turn away from necessary, legitimate vaccines is understandable, even though no evidence is available to show that this is actually happening.
Only this time the pushback against elitist condescension comes strong. Panic, as one commentator puts it, is a society’s natural reflex mechanism to danger. It acts like one’s immune system. Trying to mute such reactions will desensitize the body and make it vulnerable to future threats. “In this country, we need more panic attacks, not less.”
Amid the heated debate, a new term is chauffeured into the Chinese vocabulary: “the right to panic.” (konghuangquan) Supporters uphold the “right” as essentially a freedom of expression, the expression of fear. But others caution that even if the public has the freedom to air whatever they feel, it’s a different thing if media and those with influence choose to intentionally fan the fire of irrational fear. At the bottom of that debate is “opposite assumptions about whether public sentiment is being artificially subdued and whether intervention from the media is warranted.”
This is where the rationalists’ seemingly noble cause meets with intense suspicion. Their call for calmness and reason seems always fall in line with the government’s maneuvers to silence alarm and discontent. This time, while “the tragedy of vaccines” was being attacked for being misleading, reference to the report were quickly deleted all across the Internet.
The government also seemed to have seized the opportunity of this “rationalist backlash” to shift public attention from its responsibility in oversight to the safety of those compromised vaccines. The highly anticipated press conference held by central governmental agencies after the scandal broke dedicated substantial amount of effort to explaining to the public that compromised vaccines were unlikely to lead to toxic side effects. Even the WHO intervened along these same lines, issuing three statements in a roll assuring the Chinese public that the risk of adverse health risk is low. The intervention was so unusual that some on the internet suspected the authenticity of the statements, believing it’s the government’s plot.
The drift of public debate into the territory of risk and science is considered by some as “loosing focus” from the urgent priority of tracking those 2 million pieces of problematic vaccines that are still at large in the market. “Scientific rationalists” were believed to have played a key role in blurring that focus. Whether intentionally or not, they helped reduce the pressure on the shoulder of the authority.
In this clash between righteous public indignation and detached rationalism, a kind of cynicism is discernible on both sides. Agitated parents believe whatever maintains public fury works, even if it could be misinformation. Self-professed defenders of science, on the other hand, have no faith in an increasingly well-informed and well-educated general public, and seem to be more interested in establishing their own intellectual superiority than advancing actual improvement in social conditions. Accept it or not, the Chinese society has to zigzag toward better governance of public goods harnessing those flawed yet powerful forces. To slightly adapt a famous line from the Dark Knight: it is a progressivism that China needs now, but not the one it deserves.
It deserves something much better.