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A Whistleblower Goes Public Against China’s FDA

A Whistleblower Goes Public Against China’s FDA

It’s difficult to be a whistleblower anywhere, but it’s particularly rare for one Chinese high-level official to call out another on Weibo, China’s Twitter. Yet on the morning of August 12, thousands of Chinese flocked to a verified Weibo account belonging to Lu Qun, deputy chief of the provincial anti-graft authority in Hunan, a province in southern China, after he publically accused the former and current heads of China’s Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) of corruption. 

In over one dozen Weibo posts, Lu has accused the CFDA’s former head of driving down the price of a Chinese herb called honeysuckle flower by reclassifying it in the 2005 edition of China Pharmacopeia, an industry encyclopedia. Honeysuckle flower is widely used in Chinese traditional medicine, and Lu maintains that the reclassification of southern-grown honeysuckle flower into a different category from its northern counterpart has strained the finances of millions of plant growers in southern China. Lu claimed the change benefited northern sellers, who resold southern-grown honeysuckle as northern-grown honeysuckle. Lu wrote that the damage to the southern flower industry benefited a Shandong-based company that "spent huge sums" to facilitate the change. The former head of the CFDA is from Shandong, a northern province. Lu also called for the current CFDA director to resign for his "indifference" to the infraction. 

This isn’t the first time that Lu has used the power of social media to fight graft. In Oct. 2011, he reportedly took to Weibo to accuse police in one county in Hunan of beating migrant workers who had asked for their salaries, and demanded the local party chief resign. Since then, Chinese social media has become less of a hotbed for anti-corruption efforts, particularly after the Sept. 2013 release of a judicial interpretation providing criminal penalties for the posting of any "rumor" subsequently shared 500 times or more online. Significantly, Lu’s recent combined allegations, and the evidence he says supports them, have been shared over 10,000 times, but Lu wrote on Weibo that he was willing to "shoulder all legal responsibility" for his accusations, adding that censorship wouldn’t stop him from "continuing his exposé." As China’s biggest food and drug regulator, CFDA has taken much recent criticism for what some in China call its inadequate oversight of food security in the wake of an ongoing rotten meat scandal at major fast-food supplier Shanghai Husi. 

In an interview published August 14 in the liberal Beijing Times, Lu said he started paying attention to the honeysuckle flower issue in May 2014 after receiving complaints from officials as well as farmers. According to Lu, the years of 2004 and 2005 were "the most corrupt times" for the CFDA. Perhaps as a signal of high-level support for Lu, his interview was quickly syndicated on the website of Peoples’ Daily, a party mouthpiece. Lu claims online that on July 8, he sent a private message to the CFDA’s official Weibo account but got no reply, leading to his decision to go public with the allegations.

Chinese state media reports that Lu’s accusations are now on the radar of the ruling Communist Party’s powerful Central Committee of Discipline Inspection, which is already probing the CFDA for corruption. Chinese netizens have also voiced wide support for Lu’s efforts. One Weibo user wrote,"What we hope for most is not the downfall of officials" — an apparent reference to high officials like former security czar Zhou Yongkang, news of whose investigation on suspicion of corruption rocked China on July 29 — but rather "the confidence that there are officials who will dare expose corruption" on their own.  Some users wondered whether Lu would lose post after going public with his complaints, but Lu responded, "I don’t worry about it at all." Lu seemed more concerned about exposing corruption online as a disciplinary official in the future, opportunities he cryptically wrote "would probably be few."