Authorities in the Chinese capital are silencing parents campaigning for compensation for children harmed by faulty vaccines for contacting foreign media organizations.
More than 100 parents were visited by Beijing police after they scheduled media interviews and meet-the-press sessions on Thursday and Friday, parent campaigners told RFA.
And leading vaccine campaigner He Fangmei, known by her online nickname Shisanmei, said via social media that she had been visited by state security police from her hometown of Xinxiang city in the central province of Henan on Thursday.
She has been incommunicado since. Repeated calls to her cell phone were met by a switched-off message on Thursday.
He Fangmei became a vocal advocate for families hit by substandard vaccines after her daughter developed gray matter spondylitis from a substandard diptheria-tetanus-whooping cough vaccine made by Wuhan Biotechnology at the age of three months.
The parents say they want the government to face up to its responsibilities in the wake of wave upon wave of vaccine scandals in recent years, and give the families hit by faulty vaccines compensation to help with mounting medical bills.
Meanwhile, an internal police document obtained by parents and shown to RFA showed that parents now risk being held in criminal detention on suspicion of “colluding with foreign media.”
“An internal police document was issued saying that any [vaccine] parents who attended the meet-the-media sessions should be held on suspicion of colluding with foreign media,” a parent who asked to remain anonymous told RFA on Thursday.
“[Interceptors] from across China have started arriving in Beijing to detain people, but they won’t be using regular law enforcement methods to do this; they are holding people in illegal detention,” the parent said. “Either that, or they are following people wherever they go and limiting their freedom so as to stop them every time they try meeting with the media.”
Vaccine parent Xu Yaping declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Thursday, hanging up the phone.
“We have had to postpone our press conference,” campaigner Zhang Jiabing said, adding: “It’s not convenient for us to talk about [why] right now.”
“Not convenient” is a euphemism frequently used by Chinese activists to indicate the close presence of the authorities, either in person, or through remote monitoring.
Parent campaigner Ren Jiajia also declined to comment.
“It’s not convenient for me to talk about that right now,” Ren said. “To put it bluntly, my phone is being monitored.”
Campaigner Xu Tong’an reported a similar situation.
“I can’t [talk],” Xu said. Asked if his reluctance was linked to the postponement of the planned press interviews, he said: “Kind of. Yes.”
And Chongqing-based campaigner Cheng Qinling made a similar response.
“It’s not convenient for me to talk about this right now,” Cheng said. “I can’t go [to the press conference] either.”
Parents from more than 30 families of children sickened or disabled by faulty vaccines had expressed interest in giving media interviews at the scheduled events, while nearly 100 campaigners had planned to attend.
However, state media have been warned not to pursue stories linked to waves of recent public health scandals caused by out-of-date, ineffective or incorrectly stored vaccines.
“Regarding the vaccine affair, only official, syndicated copy is to be used on the main pages of websites,” the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s powerful propaganda department said in a directive to editors posted by the China Digital News website earlier this month.
“All other reporting must be pushed into the background,” it said. “No features, or linking to previous news coverage. Comments attacking the system must be comprehensively deleted.”
A second parent campaigner said the parents had hoped to publicize their cause through the media, and get some state assistance for their children, some of whom suffered serious illness or paralysis after receiving vaccines in state-sponsored schemes.
“We are calling for a vaccine law, and to let more people know that vaccines aren’t 100 percent safe,” the second parent campaigner said. “Then we want to know exactly how many people and their children have been affected by negative side-effects, including from fake vaccines.”
“Nobody seems to be taking charge of this, and nobody is asking these questions,” he said.
China fired senior provincial food and drug administration official Jin Yuhui last week, and is investigating a former top drug regulator after a safety scandal at vaccine maker Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology in the northeastern province of Jilin.
More than 40 government officials, including seven at the provincial level, have been held sanctioned over the scandal by various administrative punishments, including removal from their posts, state news agency Xinhua reported.
But campaigners say little has been done to ensure that further scandals won’t continue to emerge in future.
Petitioners and campaigners are generally considered "sensitive persons" under the Communist Party’s “stability maintenance” regime that targets government critics outside of the criminal justice system.
Rights activists say violence and coercion are becoming more and more common in Chinese law enforcement, as the administration of President Xi Jinping seeks to ensure that nobody criticizes the ruling party in any way.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.