China has censored a top health information platform

China has censored DXY, the country’s leading health information platform. On August 9, DXY fell silent across social media, where it boasts over 80 million followers. Five of its Weibo accounts were suddenly suspended with a vague explanation that they had violated “relevant laws and regulations,” while its accounts on WeChat and Douyin (the domestic version of TikTok) stopped publishing. 

Neither these social media platforms nor DXY have released any public statement on what caused the suspension, but Nikkei Asia reported that the order came from regulators and won’t end without official approval.

The suspension has been met with a gleeful social reaction among nationalist bloggers, who accuse DXY of receiving foreign funding, bashing traditional Chinese medicine, and criticizing China’s healthcare system. 

DXY is one of the frontrunners in China’s digital health startup scene. It hosts the largest online community for Chinese doctors to discuss professional topics and socialize. It also provides a medical news service for a general audience, and is widely seen as the most influential popular science publication in healthcare. 

“I think no one, as long as they are somewhat related to the medical profession, doesn’t follow these accounts [of DXY],” says Zhao Yingxi, a Chinese global health workforce researcher and PhD candidate at Oxford University, who says he followed DXY’s accounts on WeChat too. 

But in the increasingly polarized social media environment in China, healthcare is becoming a target for controversy. The fact that people immediately concluded that DXY’s demise was triggered by its foreign ties and critical work illustrates how politicized health topics have become in China. 

Since its launch in 2000 DXY has raised five rounds of funding from prominent companies like Tencent and venture capital firms, and even that commercial success has caused it trouble this week. One of its major investors, Trustbridge Partners, raises funds from sources like Columbia University’s endowments and Singapore’s state holding company Temasek. After DXY’s accounts were suspended, that fact was unearthed by bloggers to retroactively try to back up their claim that DXY has been under foreign influence all along. 

Part of the reason why the suspension is so shocking is that DXY is widely seen as one of the most trusted online sources for health education in China. During the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, it compiled case numbers and published a case map which was updated every day, becoming the go-to source for Chinese people to follow covid trends in the country. DXY also made its name by taking down several high-profile fraudulent health products in China.

It also hasn’t shied away from sensitive issues. For example, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in 2019, it published the accounts of several victims of conversion therapy and argued the practice is not backed by medical consensus. 

“The article put survivors’ voices front and center and didn’t tip toe around the disturbing reality that conversion therapy is still prevalent and even pushed by highly ranked public hospitals and academics,” says Darius Longarino, Senior Fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. 

The sudden suspension of DXY’s social media accounts has caught its followers by surprise. “I don’t think they have done anything improper,” says Zhao. 

But opponents of DXY were quick to find a political explanation. On social media, some defended the suspension on the basis that DXY has questioned the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM.) 

In April 2022, DXY published an article that questioned the effectiveness of Lianhua Qingwen, a modern TCM product that has been distributed by the Chinese government as a treatment for covid-19. In the now-deleted article, the DXY authors cautioned that the medicine has never been properly tested in a clinical trial, and pointed out that some of the ingredients are banned in other countries.

The article, widely read and circulated, caused the value of the pharmaceutical company behind Lianhua Qingwen, Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical, to fall by $1.05 billion on the stock market. To most healthcare professionals, the article was reasonable and uncontroversial. But it made DXY a target for TCM supporters. Since then, DXY has been accused of colluding with western pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, which manufactures the covid-19 treatment Paxlovid, to defame TCM. After DXY’s accounts were suspended across social media platforms on Tuesday, TCM supporters celebrated it as proof of DXY’s wrongdoings. 

Just as in the US, certain public health topics have become heavily politicized in China, including covid-19. To choose a side in scientific debates in China is oftentimes equated to choosing a side in the ideological divide between China and the West.

Although DXY is the most prominent example, it’s not the first popular science publication to fall victim to social media campaigns in China. Several popular digital science publications and video channels, like Elephant Magazine and Paperclip, have been trolled and targeted by nationalist influencers for receiving funding from foreign NGOs, and publishing content that paints China in a bad light. These publications either dissolved or disappeared from social media after they were censored.

DXY’s supporters fear it could go the same way. 

“This is the best domestic health education platform. It has contributed greatly to the popularization of evidence-based medicine,” Wang Zhian, a Chinese journalist whose social media accounts were censored in 2019 before he emigrated to Japan, wrote on Twitter. “I hope it can survive.” 

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