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Vaccine Safety in China Requires Releasing Lawyers, Free Press

Latest Public Health Scandal Ignites Debate Over Government Accountability

A nurse prepares a vaccine to be given to a child in a hospital in Beijing, China on April 13, 2016.    © 2016 Reuters/Damir Sagolj
China’s social media users are in an uproar over a major drug company’s sale of substandard vaccines – most for babies as young as 3-months-old – and the authorities’ persistent failure to regulate the vaccine market properly.

On Sunday, China’s Premier Li Keqiang vowed to “resolutely crack down on … criminal acts that endanger the safety of people’s lives … and severely criticize dereliction of duty in supervision.” The police have since launched an investigation, but for that or any pledge to be meaningful – unlike commitments made following previous vaccine scandals – Li and other leaders should take the following steps:

First, release from incarceration all the lawyers who assisted victims in previous vaccine scandals. From 2006 to 2009, lawyer Tang Jingling represented a group of parents whose children were left permanently disabled after being given problematic meningococcal vaccines. This would require quashing the five-year sentence Tang is currently serving on baseless charges of  “inciting subversion.” Similarly, lawyer Yu Wensheng has languished in a detention center on spurious “subversion” charges. Yu had represented a man who was detained for seeking redress for his daughter, who became seriously ill after being given spoiled vaccine.

Second, stop harassing, detaining, and prosecuting families of victims of faulty vaccines. In July 2015, after being given vaccines at the local government-run epidemic prevention center in Henan province, Wang Nuoyi was diagnosed with a brain injury and other illnesses. In pursuit of justice, her family wrote letters to the government. The authorities responded by detaining Wang’s father for four months in 2017 as well as at least six other members of his family, and prosecuting Wang’s grandmother for “provoking trouble,” which resulted in a two-year prison sentence.

Third, stop punishing journalists for exposing vaccine scandals. In 2010, prominent investigative journalist Wang Keqin was removed from his post at the China Economic Times after the newspaper published his story about mishandled vaccines that led to the deaths of four children in Shanxi province. Amid the current scandal, while netizens are free to condemn the drug company, news articles and social media posts that showed the Chinese government in a critical light continue to be censored.

If Li is serious about transparency and accountability, his government should stop punishing those who endeavor to achieve exactly that.

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