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Bribes? Hand them over, no questions asked

Xi Jinping speaks to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 28, 2017. (Ma Zhancheng/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)
August 20, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Little more than two weeks since news broke that China’s medical sector was facing an unprecedented anti-corruption drive, Chinese-language headlines have celebrated the whisking away of health officials, amid online rumors of raids on hospitals and pharmaceutical firms.

But a purported notice from the Beijing Municipal Health Commission has raised eyebrows online by demanding that healthcare institutions surrender bribes they have received.

Radio Free Asia was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the notice.

The document reportedly states that contributions can be made anonymously or with real names, using a “Beijing Bank Cash Deposit Form,” RFA Mandarin reported.

If submitted with a real name, the form allegedly claims it must include details such as name, affiliated institution, and the discounted value. “Units that receive funds from relevant personnel shall promptly deposit the full amount into the clean account without withholding or misappropriating any portion.”

According to state nationalist tabloid Global Times, at least 176 hospital heads are under investigation – more than double the number in 2022 – in what is being called the “most vigorous” crackdown ever seen in the healthcare industry.

At a National Health Commission press conference on Tuesday, according to the Global Times, the NHC reiterated six key focus areas for the crackdown – including medical institutions engaging in “kickback sales” of drugs and devices, as well as the improper use of medical insurance funds.

The pharmaceutical field is the “main battleground” for safeguarding the health of the people, the commission said.

Chinese media have already taken to describing it as a “shock and awe” anti-corruption campaign.

China’s health-care stocks are down 13% year-to-date, reported Bloomberg, with the CSI 300 Health Care Index falling 0.5% on Tuesday “as sentiment took a hit from the anti-graft crackdown.”

Hand in your bribes

According to various state media, including the Guangming Daily, besides Beijing, health commissions in various provinces including Fujian, Hainan, and Shanxi have released hotline numbers for reporting issues related to corruption in the medical and pharmaceutical sectors as part of efforts to address these problems.

Attempts by RFA Mandarin reporters to reach the hotline numbers were unsuccessful.

Shen Liangqing, a former prosecutor from Anhui, told RFA Mandarin that anti-corruption campaigns like the current healthcare one are a disguised form of “spoils distribution.”

“Corruption is present in every sector of China. Systemic corruption resulting from the monopoly of power by the party cannot be resolved through sporadic attempts to combat it,” said Shen.

“The so-called ‘anti-corruption’ movement’s practical purpose is to make corrupt officials and vested interest groups in various industries hand over their money. Essentially, it’s a form of redistributing spoils,” he said. “Relying on these sporadic campaigns to combat corruption is a manifestation of the rigidity and ineffectiveness caused by the corruption of power under one-party rule.”

Shen argued that the approach of “anti-hospitals, anti-doctors, anti-pharmaceutical companies” will not only fail to solve the problem but also lead to the collapse of the industry, leaving people unable to receive medical treatment or access medication.

“The most important issue to address in anti-pharmaceutical industry corruption is the party’s monopoly on the healthcare market,” Shen added.

Netizens: ‘No consequences?’

Chinese netizens have publicly wondered whether wrongdoers could really expect to hand money back and replenish the national treasure without consequences, with rhetorical questions such as, “When funds run low, everyone just pays back their bribes with no charges?”

Other questions include, “Why not investigate issues related to COVID-19 testing? Is everyone turning a blind eye?” and “Why isn’t it [the money] returned to the people?”

A user under the pseudonym “Defender of Justice” wrote in a post on Zhihu, a Chinese online platform similar to Quora, that if the Beijing Health Commission has the authority to pardon its own personnel, then do other institutions and units have the same right?

Asked whether returning bribes using your real name could lead to amnesty, or no repercussions, current affairs commentator Guo Baosheng told RFA Mandarin, “no.”

 “The policies of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] are hard to grasp,” Guo said. “If you pay under your real name, it means your incriminating evidence is also in their hands. They might not arrest you today, but they could arrest you the day after tomorrow.”

“This is just the first step – they ask you to voluntarily confess within a set period. If that deadline passes, they will formally arrest you, and then it’s a direct grab for your money,” Guo explained. 

Guo added that China is experiencing significant outflows of foreign capital and amid the current squeeze on the entire economy it was no surprise that the government was seeking revenue sources wherever it could – even if that meant throwing the healthcare sector into chaos.  

“Before, they were grabbing money from private enterprises. Now, they’ve shifted to public institutions, mainly in the education and medical sectors. You can’t grab money without some sort of cover – there has to be a pretext – and this time it’s medical corruption.”

The South China Morning Post editorialized more positively that the China’s leadership is concerned about the weak momentum of economic growth, and clamping down on corruption in the medical sector could alleviate some of the burden on China’s consumers, who are currently tightening their wallets rather than spending freely and invigorating the economy.

The CCP needs to lift consumer confidence among the 400-million-strong middle class – “the backbone of domestic consumption” – which means reducing their daily cost burdens, wrote the Post.

But, in China, questions are being asked as to whether the damage being done to the health sector in the name of rooting out corruption will really be a boon to ordinary consumers.

China’s Upstream News reported that according to incomplete statistics, over 160 hospital presidents and secretaries at all levels have been ousted nationwide since the beginning of the year. The current purge has only been underway since late July.

In the face of this storm, 3 million pharmaceutical representatives in the country are fraught with anxiety, fearing imminent job loss, the media outlet reported.

The representatives have been deleting chat records with doctors overnight and avoiding discussing any matters related to their profession while medical and pharmaceutical academic conferences are being postponed or canceled under suspicion that they are a sophisticated front for corruption, reported Upstream News.