For China, keeping a tight grip on the flow of information is seen as key to maintaining social stability in the world’s most populous nation.
As the scandal unfolded, many on social media initially complained their critical posts were being taken down. Later, however, it seemed China’s censors – who play a constant role regulating the country’s internet – had loosened the reins.
Some people took the opportunity to dig into the firm’s and the chairwoman’s past. There were even fake posts pretending to be U.S. President Donald Trump.
“It is UNFAIR and DISGRACEFUL that our great American pharmaceutical companies are excluded from Chinese market, where dozens of lives could be saved. UNJUST. THIS MUST CHANGE!” said one parody circulating on WeChat.
The tension, however, between allowing a free and unruly discourse and a censorship apparatus that routinely monitors and controls topics, was not far from the surface.
An editorial by the state-run Global Times on Monday warned there were “destructive forces” looking to “stir up havoc” and that if online discourse was left uncontrolled, the country could be led towards chaos.
For Chinese citizens who shed light on scandals, especially on sensitive medical safety issues that could flare up and lead to social unrest, consequences can be harsh
Lawyers Tang Jingling and Yu Wensheng, who represented parents in separate vaccine scandals, are currently in jail. Journalist Wang Keqin was removed from his post in 2011 after writing about a case involving mishandled vaccines.
When criticism is allowed, it is also often vetted, human rights experts said.
“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,” Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in a post.
The rise of self-media, however, has created a new dynamic.
Media researcher Fang said Chinese authorities could now look to make their own use of zi meiti, having seen its impact.
“What people should be alarmed about is that after realising how powerful this medium is, the government might use it as a propaganda tool itself,” he said.
(Reporting by Adam Jourdan in Shanghai and Pei Li in Beijing; Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)
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