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China’s Health Authorities Launch Anti-corruption Campaign

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures as he meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on June 19, 2023.
FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures as he meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on June 19, 2023.

China's medical and pharmaceutical sectors are the latest focus of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, his hallmark effort since becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in late 2012.

China’s National Health Commission (NHC) said the campaign would focus on people who had used their position to procure kickbacks and other corruption in the pharmaceutical sector, according to the government-affiliated Global Times.

At least 176 hospital presidents and party secretaries have been targeted in 2023, more than twice the number than in 2022, according to the Global Times report. Prestigious specialists, professors and department heads of provincial and municipal hospitals are among those suspected.

"The one-year campaign covers the entire chain of production, circulation, sales, use and reimbursement in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as pharmaceutical administrative departments, industry associations, medical and health institutions, pharmaceutical production and operation enterprises, and medical insurance funds," the Global Times reported, citing the NHC.

Xu Yucai, a senior expert on health care reform, said in an interview with Global Times that compared with previous efforts, the current anti-corruption drive in medicine involves the participation of more governmental agencies. The result has been arrests of high-powered individuals in the medical sector and pharmaceutical firms, according to the article.

He Anquan, a former surgeon who now lives in the United States, said when he worked at the Department of Surgery at the Yangpu District Central Hospital in Shanghai, he had witnessed corruption.

In a phone interview with VOA Mandarin, he outlined corrupt practices he witnessed, such as a hospital president embezzling funds earmarked for infrastructure construction, or staff embezzling money budgeted for the purchase of equipment from overseas suppliers.

"From the director to the attending doctors to the residents, they take kickbacks," he said. Kickbacks are part of doctors' decisions on which stents to use or which drugs to prescribe, he said.

Wu Zuolai, a political commentator and independent scholar living in California, said that Chinese Communist Party authorities are responding to public opinion by targeting corruption in the health care system. Prior to leaving China, he was a magazine editor who worked at China Art Research Institute. He was fired for signing Charter 08, a pro-democracy appeal initiated by Liu Xiaobo, the human rights campaigner and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who died in prison in 2017.

Wu told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview, “The crackdown on corruption seems to be in line with public opinion, and to a certain extent, it does slow down corruption. But it also hides the biggest corruptions, which is the dualistic, or even pluralistic system of the health care system — different groups of people enjoy different health care treatment, bringing difficulties in health care for the whole population.”

Hu Jia, a political dissident and analyst in Beijing, agrees with Wu Zuolai that the root cause of corruption is the very different medical treatment received by Communist Party cadres and ordinary citizens.

"There are probably close to 10 million party and government officials who enjoy privileged medical treatment, including totally free medical care, high-class wards, and guaranteed access to imported medicines," he told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview. "They take up about 80% of the nation's medical resources, and that number is far greater than the corruption volume of doctors and hospital staff."