He Fangmei was seven months pregnant when she, her husband, and their two young children were taken from their home in Henan province by authorities last October.
They have not been heard from since.
A 2018 scandal involving the Chinese vaccine manufacturer Changsheng Bio Company claimed hundreds of victims, including He’s 20-month old baby, who became paralyzed from a spinal fluid infection after receiving a vaccine against hepatitis A, measles, and tetanus/diphtheria/ pertussis (TDAP). He eventually became the most prominent voice for Chinese parents with children allegedly sickened or disabled by made-in-China faulty vaccines. She and other affected families have spent the last two years demanding that the government disclose information about the vaccines and investigate the manufacturers, government inspectors, and the state hospitals that administered the vaccines.
He Fangmei’s last tweet (@hefangmei2020), dated September 29, shared a video of herself with a dozen families protesting at China’s National Health Commission in Beijing.
Police have refused to disclose He and her family’s whereabouts to her lawyers.
Timing is key to understanding why He was detained in October 2020 – and why she remains hidden away. Her disappearance coincides with China’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. In October 2020, there were four Chinese COVID-19 vaccines in development, and for the Chinese government, the political stakes were high for controlling the narrative about government management of the COVID-19 virus and boosting impressions of Chinese vaccine efficacy.
As Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD has documented, the Chinese government has not hesitated to use censorship, intimidation, arrests, and disappearances to suppress negative information related to its COVID-19 response and Chinese citizens voicing concerns or criticism.
However, as the Chinese government poises to become a major world player in global health, its standard operating procedure for suppressing information, refusing to investigate, and silencing critics — the “He Fangmei approach” — is simply untenable. It has serious human rights consequences. And it has negative repercussions for public health, in undermining the global fight to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
Silencing Critics Feeds Vaccine Doubts
Most experts on vaccine hesitancy stress the importance of understanding the facts about a vaccine and assessing the risks relative to the benefits, confronting misinformation, as well as strategies to increase people’s acceptance through trusted messengers.
The Chinese government’s “He Fangmei approach” epitomizes its dangerous tactics for dealing with vaccine hesitancy. It fuels distrust and feeds growing concerns about potential hidden risks with “made in China” vaccines.
What happened to these outspoken parents is chilling yet painfully familiar for those of us monitoring human rights in today’s China. The parents took their stories to social media, only to find themselves censored and their messages quickly scrubbed. They travelled to Beijing to seek better treatment for their kids and to appeal to national authorities, only to find themselves monitored by surveillance, harassed, intimidated, and some of them detained.
Meet the retired Shanghai librarian, Hua Xiuzhen (@Tanhua1980). Her daughter, Tan Hua, an MBA graduate from Fudan University, had suffered severe brain damage after receiving a rabies shot in 2014 that left her unable to work or take care of herself. Tan’s mother joined other families to seek redress and was jailed for “picking quarrels and instigating trouble” in 2018 for 14 months. Since her release, she has lived in poverty as authorities halted her pension payments as a means of punishment.
Tan Hua and He Fangmei’s baby were sickened by vaccines produced by the same manufacturer, Changsheng Biotechnology. The company sold 250,000 allegedly faulty vaccines including rabies shots that claimed many victims like Tan. Regulators nonetheless cleared the company to produce other vaccines, including the TDAP vaccine that is believed to have harmed He’s baby and many others. No one involved in the Changsheng scandal was known to have faced criminal prosecution.
The government could perhaps have protected many children like He’s if it had adopted heightened safety measures after any one of numerous vaccine industry scandals since 2007, when several incidents involving the sudden death or severe disability of nearly 100 children were possibly linked to vaccines administered in Shanxi province. The health ministry denied any such link. Vaccine scandals have since occurred in other provinces, drastically eroding public trust. The state-owned Wuhan Institute of Biological Products, a major COVID vaccine producer today, has also faced accusations of producing faulty inoculations for infants.
As China’s vaccine makers went on to make more allegedly faulty vaccines, He Fangmei persisted in her efforts to hold these companies and the government accountable. She has faced repeated detentions, including from March 2019 and January 2020.
A Chinese Vaccine Law Empowers Suppression of Critics
Ironically, as He Fangmei was locked up, her efforts and those of many others appeared to have triggered a policy response: Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered officials to “improve the supervision of vaccines” in order to “safeguard…security.” The national legislature adopted the Vaccine Administration Law in June 2019.
But it turns out that this law grants the police broad powers to prosecute anyone who questions or criticizes government policies and exposes misconduct in vaccine manufacture and safety inspection. He, while in detention, faced prosecution under the new law.
Additionally, the law authorizes only minor administrative penalties for developers, manufacturers, distributors, official inspectors, and health workers involved in the making, monitoring, and use of faulty, fake, or substandard vaccines (Article 93). The same article also penalizes media that “fabricate [and/or] spread false vaccine safety information.”
Armed with this new legal tool, police indicted He Fangmei in July 2019, one month after the law’s adoption, but before the law took effect (on December 1), charging her with the crime stipulated in Article 93 – “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” In November 2019, the Hui County court put her on trial. Then, on January 10, 2020, the prosecutors abruptly dropped the charges against He. By then, authorities had a coronavirus outbreak on their hands.
Ten days earlier, on January 1, police in Wuhan had summoned eight doctors, including Li Wenliang, and reprimanded them for alarming the public about a new SARS-like virus. On December 31, 2019, the Chinese government had told the World Health Organization, but kept its own people in the dark, about cases of a mysterious pneumonia-like disease.
At a time when vaccine safety would soon gain an outsized new urgency in China and worldwide, Chinese authorities may have hoped that He Fangmei’s 10-month detention had taught her a lesson: to keep quiet.
Yet, upon her release, she immediately resumed her campaign, drawing public attention to the country’s spotty records of vaccine safety. Authorities silenced her again by forcibly disappearing her and her family in October 2020, and they have not been heard from since.
How to Win Public Trust in a Global Health Crisis?
In early 2021, as Western countries prioritized vaccinating their populations, the vaccine shortage in many low and middle income countries opened a space for the Chinese government to score geopolitical points by shipping out its vaccines. The safety data of these Chinese vaccines haa not been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
The World Health Organization approved China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines for emergency use to ease the dire need in many countries. Up to 80 countries have used Chinese vaccines. But there are now concerns about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines as some of the countries that have achieved high vaccination rates with primarily China-made vaccines are seeing spikes in COVID-19.
As the Delta variant rages throughout the world – having been recorded in at least 98 countries and causing new spikes of infection – making data of any large-scale trials of the Sinophram and Sinovac vaccines publicly available, especially regarding their effectiveness against the Delta variant, will be important for public health policymakers worldwide in the global fight to control the pandemic. The Chinese state-owned vaccine manufacturing companies have not yet made data public and are reportedly working on studies.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is digging in its heels by rejecting a new WHO call for more “transparency” and “cooperation” from Beijing in the next phase investigation of the virus’ origin. On July 19, a government spokesman made it clear that such transparency and cooperation in independent scientific investigation “is at odds with the position of China.”
“The position of China” is epitomized in the government’s “He Fangmei approach” – suppressing information, silencing critics, and rejecting victims’ demands for investigation, in blatant violation of China’s international human rights commitment. It is counterproductive to a “vaccine diplomacy” campaign abroad and to China’s mass vaccination drive at home. The “He Fangmei approach” – fortified by the police state and censorship in China – is not replicable in the many countries where China is shipping its vaccines. The sledgehammer tactics to silence legitimate doubts about vaccines and reject requests for information transparency will not work in many of these countries either. “The position of China” is doing a disservice to the global health policy and science communities.
What the Chinese government must do, as a first step, to win over public trust, both at home and abroad, is clear: conduct credible investigations, prosecute companies responsible for faulty vaccines, lift censorship, stop silencing its critics like He Fangmei.