This Week in Asia

Expect life-or-death rush to Hong Kong after China vaccine scare

And of course, it is where students retreated in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Sun Yat-sen. Photo: Simon Song

Now under Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong has become a different kind of safe haven, this time for mainland parents seeking safety for their infants. In March 2013, after several years of mainland food scandals that included milk powder tainted to deadly levels, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region restricted the sale of infant formula after panic buying by mainland parents.The city is now anticipating a similar inflow of mainland parents seeking safe inoculations for their children after two manufacturers were found to have sold large quantities of ineffective DPT (diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus) vaccines.

Hong Kong clinics have been inundated with calls from the mainland. One local medical service agency, Waikong Health, said on Tuesday it had received nearly 30,000 inquiries in two days.

A woman carries a child past powdered milk products at a supermarket in Beijing. Photo: AP

It is just the latest in a long-running series of vaccine scandals for China, a country notorious for its substandard pharmaceutical and food products.

The news has rattled public confidence in the government and rekindled fears that corruption and abuse in its vast pharmaceutical industry are once again risking lives. Many people remain suspicious over the quality of baby products that are "made in China".

A string of scandals has deepened grievances about the country's public health and safety supervision system and resurrected complaints about government secrecy under its current authoritarian system.

While a few scandals were found to be related to officials' dereliction of duty, many of them also involved corruption, with officials colluding with avaricious and insatiable businessmen to seek super profits.

A baby receives a vaccine at a hospital in Handan in north China's Hebei province. Photo: AP

In Hong Kong, all vaccines for children are imported from safe foreign brands under the supervision of an effective and clean civil service. Hong Kong has been largely free of such scandals.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang immediately pledged to clean up the scandal-ridden industry, just as all their predecessors did.

But all such efforts have so far proved to be in vain. Under the former administration of Hu Jintao in 2007, Zheng Xiaoyu, China's former drug and food watchdog chief, was executed for corruption and approving possibly tainted products.

Despite a decades-long government crackdown, such scandals continue to mount on the mainland, leading one to ask: why is Hong Kong so different?

A woman holds an infant as a nurse administers a vaccination at a Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention station in Jiujiang in southern China's Jiangxi province. Photo: AP

China's vaccination system, much like other industries, has been tainted by rampant corruption. It is an epidemic that cannot be cured under its one-party political system - it lacks transparency, and an effective mechanism to check and balance the ruling power.

That is what distinguishes Hong Kong from the mainland - we have had a totally different system, a well-established rule of law that guarantees individual liberties and rights, a free press and an independent judiciary to supervise and check the governing power. Any country that refuses to grant its people rights cannot ensure their physical safety.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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