Sunday, 5 July 2015

China healthcare's "Sunshine Act" and the journalist who exposed corruption: common cause?

[Banner outside Beijing court says: Support Journalist Chai Huiqun!]

by MICHAEL WOODHEAD 

With China's media often containing significant items of "managed opinion" it's hard to tell whether common themes that emerge in coverage are coincidence or not. Take this week's high profile case of a health journalist involved in legal action over an article in which he exposed corruption in purchasing at a Sichuan hospital. Is this a case of censorship by litigation - or is the government trying to use this case to back its own policy of reforming hospital purchasing?

The legal action in question is between the China Medical Doctor's Association and Southern Weekend journalist Chai Huiqun. The CDMA has lodged an official complaint against Chai to authorities over his reports about corruption in purchasing of medical equipment at the Mianyang Hospital following the major earthquake there in 2008. Chai wrote articles exposing inflated prices claimed for old equipment. The scam was based around the hospital claiming generous funding was spent on expensive ultrasound scanners but actually buying cheap second hand ones.

As reported by RFA, the CMDA put in a complaint to the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA), claiming that the stories were fabricated, and offered as evidence receipts proving that the hospital equipment was genuine. The ACJA accepted the complaint, which was a major blow to Chai's reputation and which effectively blacklisted him.

Now Chai has counterattacked with a legal action in a Beijing court, claiming 20,000 yuan damages and demanding that the statements and articles issued by the CMDA are retracted. In his claim, Chai points out that the receipts are for the wrong kind of scanners, new models which weren't even available in 2008. The court has yet to announce its verdict.

Chai is one of China's leading investigative journalists, working for the relatively liberal Southern Weekend (while it is relatively 'open' its contents cannot be syndicated). He specialises in exposing the dark side of the healthcare industry in China - and has made many enemies. If he is stymied, this will be a major blow for open-ness in the healthcare system in China.

However, Chai may be working in the right direction. Local governments and health departments are being ordered by the central government to clean up their acts and be more transparent and accountable in their purchasing of healthcare supplies.

In Beijing this week the Municipal Health and Family Planning Commission has launched a "Sunshine Program" to reveal the true value and scope of healthcare purchasing. Hospital and health institutions must publish comprehensive 'shopping lists' of all their purchasing and tenders, including all items and prices. This is to encourage and genuine free and open market for hospital supplies and to avoid dodgy backroom deals, the health department says.

If this kind of system had been operating in Mianyang in 2008, perhaps Chai would not have had anything to report.

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