Li Baoxiang with his son Li Zhikang  in Beijing Children's 
Hospital. Li Baoxiang with his son Li Zhikang in Beijing Children's Hospital. Photo: Sanghee Liu

ON MARCH 19, Shandong farmer Li Baoxiang consented to his only son being vaccinated for swine flu. That night, eight-year-old Li Zhikang said he felt sick. By the morning his body was trembling all over. Yesterday the father stood with tears streaming down his face at Beijing Children's Hospital as his boy struggled for life inside a crib in the intensive care unit. ''He's my only child,'' Li said. ''My own mother is sick and I cannot bring myself to tell her why we have come to Beijing. I'm such a trivial and ordinary person. I know I can't fight against the government.''

Li's family tragedy has become a conflict with the Chinese government because no official would investigate his claim that a dodgy vaccination had made his child sick. He tried the town, city, provincial and central governments, and various departments within each of them, only to be told each time that his problem should be taken some place else.
The person who did listen was Wang Keqin, chief reporter at the China Economic Times. Wang had earned a reputation as one of China's leading investigative journalists after exposing how mafia groups controlled Beijing's taxi industry, how mafia henchman had gunned down farmers at the village of Dingzhou after being called in by its Communist Party chief to resolve a land dispute, and also how collusion and cover-ups with blood transfusions in Henan province had caused a horrendous AIDS epidemic among the poorest peasants who lived there.

Two days before Li's son's vaccination, on March 17, Wang published his latest expose - this time of how health officials and business interests had colluded to create a monopoly on the province's vaccination system, worth 60 million yuan ($A9.8 million) a year.
He told how vials were left in sweltering conditions in order to stop the government's quality assurance stickers peeling off, while complaints were ignored. Wang linked those grossly mishandled vaccination vials with the deaths of four children and the illnesses of 74 others.
But his story and the victims he interviewed were treated as a threat to China's social stability rather than an urgent heath issue. Complainants were systematically rounded up, detained, and escorted back to their home villages. Wang was warned that his life may be in danger if he returned to Shanxi.
Another renowned Chinese journalist, Qian Gang, who now works at Hong Kong University's China media project after being pushed out of the Southern Weekend newspaper, described the ''chill'' that Wang's report sent through China.
''I first read Wang's report at the web portal at 9.20am on March 17, where it was featured prominently at the top of the news headlines. Just half an hour later, the headline was removed and the report buried deep among run-of-the-mill news stories,'' he said.
At the same time, the government moved to control the agenda. A news release from Xinhua News Agency carried the response from provincial health officials in Shanxi, who denied the allegations in Wang's report, saying, ''Shanxi province has never received any report indicating mass adverse reactions as a result of vaccinations.''

On Wednesday morning, The Age went to the China Economic Times headquarters in Changping, in Beijing's northern suburbs, to learn more. Wang opened his office door looking agitated. ''I have some new information for you,'' he said. ''We've just had a meeting and our chief editor has been removed.'' Bao Yueyang, the chief editor, publisher and Communist Party boss of the newspaper, owned by the State Council's Development Research Centre, had paid the price for commissioning and doggedly defending Wang's report.
Meanwhile, a Shanxi Health Department whistleblower on the story, Chen Tao'an, said he had witnessed the gross mishandling of vaccine vials, even after numerous complaints. He said he knew of about 150 Shanxi families who had complained that their children had been sickened by the vaccinations.

Bloggers likened the tragedy to the recent milk-powder scandal, where hundreds of children died and thousands were made ill due to a similar pattern of government-business collusion and cover-ups. Distraught parents were intimidated against pursuing their complaints and lawyers were punished for representing them. The enormous security and propaganda system that trammels the Chinese media, and society more broadly, is designed to protect the Communist Party. But distinctions between the interests of the party and vested interests of individuals within the party are often hazy.

Sensibly, Wang declined to answer questions about which particular officials or business interests might have been upset by his story. Chen, the whistleblower, said the company involved had a ''complicated government background … I feel the power on the other side is quite strong.''
Wang said there were no signs that health officials had investigated complaints from distraught parents. Rather, they had been systematically harassed, detained and gagged. Our interview did not last long. Wang was interrupted several times by parents anxious about their sick children.
A colleague of Wang's received a text message from the farmer, Li, at Beijing Children's Hospital with his eight-year-old son.

''The doctor just told me he has to use immune protein, which requires about 10,000 yuan,'' Li wrote. He had already spent 170,000 yuan, mostly begged and borrowed from friends and family. ''I'm useless. I can't even save my own child. What am I living for?''

A fortnight before Wang's newspaper report, Premier Wen Jiabao had told the nation: ''Everything we do is to make people's lives happier, more dignified, so that society becomes more just and harmonious.'' He spoke of ''creating the conditions for the people to monitor the government''.
Wen's work report to the National People's Congress had been negotiated and approved by China's leadership group. There remains a chasm between the government's stated aspirations and the realities of power and incentives on the ground. But Wen's words - repeated and strengthened since - provided a signal for Chinese editors like Bao to be more adventurous. Chinese scholars were emboldened to publicly warn their leaders that their approach to ensuring ''social stability'' at all costs was dangerously destabilising.

In April, a team of Tsinghua University sociologists led by Professor Sun Liping submitted a remarkable report, with a lengthy extract published a fortnight ago in the popular Southern Weekend newspaper. ''Without fundamental resolution of the question of mechanisms for social justice and balancing interests, blindly preventing the expression of legitimate interests in the name of stability will only accumulate contradictions and render society even more unstable,'' the report said.

It detailed how ordinary people needed channels to express their grievances and the capacity to negotiate to protect their interests, including collectively. It said institutions of civil society had to be promoted, and government must allow transparency so that members of the public could view their own files and mitigate their suspicions.
And the government must step out of the way where it is not required and step in where it is needed, as the maker and arbiter of law. The failure to provide such channels and institutions fosters more corruption, inequality and worse.
''Stability work tends to become an instrument to maintain the interests of unscrupulous companies and contractors, a tool for maintaining the interests of developers [in carrying out] predatory evictions and relocations,'' the report said.
Government must ''provide institutional channels for venting social discontent … and forming social mechanisms for conflict resolution,'' it said. ''In modern society, the most fundamental rule is law.''
These warnings have taken on a new significance after a 10-week spate of gruesome schoolyard killings. The details of most cases have been tightly suppressed. Most Chinese newspapers failed to mention Wednesday's meat cleaver massacre at a kindergarten in Shanxi province, which reportedly involved a man's frustration at a property dispute.

Judging by comments from the scholars chosen to speak in the party's propaganda outlets, one of the party's main priorities is to make sure people don't talk and think too much about what social or institutional problems may lie beneath.
Professor Yu Jianrong, a lawyer at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has pioneered China's new debate on social stability. ''The constitution should therefore guarantee a fair opportunity to take part in and to influence the political process,'' he wrote last month. And if not? ''Great social upheaval may thus occur, and the existing social and political orders are likely to be destroyed.''
Since then, Yu has penned an opinion article in the Southern Weekend about how to implement democratic reforms. And last week, another famous scholar, Yu Keping from the Communist Party School, gave a lengthy interview to Phoenix Weekly on the same subject.
The fact of these debates is progress, but they remain academic. On Wednesday at China Economic Times headquarters, we were shown a text message received by one of the Shanxi complainants named Wang Mingliang. His nine-month-old son had died during the Beijing Olympics, shortly after being vaccinated.

The SMS message is dated March 19 - two days after the China Economic Times report - and reads as follows: ''Don't guess who I am, my boss told me to contact you. Let me make it clear to you, don't make any more trouble with the vaccine issue. Once you stop, my boss will give you 100,000 yuan. You can give me your bank account number now. If you are determined to make trouble, it's very easy for my boss to find someone to cut off your leg … You are, after all, an ordinary person. But my boss is not.''
Scholars such as Yu Jianrong and Sun Liping, and journalists like Wang Keqin and his editor Bao Yueyang, believe too much is at stake for their country for them to buckle under to these threats.
Wang Mingliang, seeking justice for his deceased baby son, was shadowed by Shanxi police as he travelled to Beijing. Wang Keqin, the journalist, sheltered him in his family home. The next night, editor Bao Yueyang put him up in the newspaper's guesthouse. Wang wrote on his blog at the time that Bao was under enormous pressure ''from many sides'' but showed no fear. ''We will fight till the end for the safety of more Chinese children,'' Wang recalled Bao telling him.
Bao has now been removed, but has no regrets. ''If I hadn't published your report, I wouldn't have been able to feel peace again for as long as I live,'' Bao wrote on his blog after his dismissal. ''Even if I pay a price for this, it will still be worth it.''