Published January 28, 2013
For a country that likes to keep quiet about bad news, China has been extraordinarily loud in defending its domestic drug industry in the wake of my reporting about counterfeit medications flooding Uganda and Tanzania, potentially endangering lives and setting back the fight against malaria.
In the weeks since the series was first published in The Guardian, China’s state-run media has published an ongoing series of editorials, op-eds and homegrown “investigative reports” on the issue. A journalist friend in Uganda told me local reporters at Xinhua and CCTV in Uganda had been ordered to do “damage control,” and that some had complied while others, out of principle, refused.
The Chinese reporting, so far confined largely to the big, state-run media players, has stuck to a few key points: reiterating that China is not sending fake medications to Africa; that China is a great friend of African nations, and that Western media is suspect in reporting such claims.
What I found on the ground is of course, very different. From patients to government officials and NGO leaders, people in Uganda and Tanzania are deeply concerned about the torrent of bad drugs overwhelming their countries and threatening advances in public health.
Perhaps more politically problematic for China, few ordinary Africans expressed much trust in their new friend and ally in Asia, thanks in large part to what they see as a barrage of shoddy consumer products across every sector.
Unsurprisingly, most of the official Chinese media stories that have appeared in the wake of my investigation come to a strong conclusion that China bears no blame for the situation. A few have gone so far as to accuse me of strange conspiracies I don’t even understand.
My favorite tidbit in the full-court Chinese press aimed at my stories was this anecdote in the People’s Daily. It said:
“Zhou Yong, manager of the Tanzanian branch of the Shanghai-based Hofon Cotec Pharmaceutical Corporation, provided the paper with a story about an alleged attempt by a British media organization to fabricate a story related to the company's medication. One of the organization's reporters modified the packaging of one of the company's products and brought it to one of the company's dealers in Tanzania, asking the dealer if the product was fake, Zhou claimed, adding that the ruse was easily uncovered.”
For the record, I did not contact anyone in Tanzania associated with this company and if the above scene did happen, I wasn’t involved. Perhaps there was another “Western” journalist in town working with British media on the same issue – but I saw the log books while I spent two days in Dar Es Salaam getting media credentials, and there weren’t any registered.
While the Chinese press reports have taken an aggressive, protective stance of a major domestic industry, they do fail to mention that up to 80 percent of all active ingredients in pharmaceuticals – the building blocks of all medicines -- sold worldwide originate in China or India. That means there’s a good chance whatever you’re taking, whether it be in America or in Uganda, may have components that originated in China. Yet there remains very little scientific evidence about where these drugs are made.
More hearteningly, beyond the vitriolic reactions, there does seem to be real discussion happening in China about the seriousness of this issue and a potential search for solutions.
A Chinese academic with whom I appeared on the China in Africa podcast acknowledged that China needs better governance and controls on such a critical area. And the English version of the Global Times newspaper carried an op-ed from a Nairobi-based journalist who said the problem threatens to undo Sino-Africa relations.
“Underneath this ‘barrierless’ trade regime lurks some danger: fake goods,” wrote Mark Kapchanga. “This might undo the hard-won gains made over the past two decades if not dealt with urgently. “