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The dilemma of life-saving medicines in China – by Xinyuan Wang

By Xinyuan Wang, on 20 September 2018

Author: Xinyuan Wang

Last summer, a film about illness and medicine achieved phenomenal success among Chinese audiences. Some friends of mine who had watched the film suggested that I take some tissues or even towels along to the cinema, assuming, , half-jokingly, that many would cry during the film. But they were quite right, in the cinema there were people sitting all around me wiping tears during the film, and talking highly of it with tears in their eyes after the cinema was over.

The film, Dying to Survive,  tells the tale of a health supplements peddler Yong who smuggles illegal medicine from India to sell to leukaemia patients in China at more affordable prices. Why are Chinese people all so touched by a film about an illegal medicine smuggler?

In the film, even though the protagonist Yong initially goes into the trade by chance and was purely motivated by making money – “I don’t want to become a saver, I just want to make money” as he claimed, Yong started to become more altruistic as he gradually realizes how many lives he could save by the cheaper medicine. The film was inspired by a real-life incident in China: in 2015, a man called Lu Yong was charged for importing and selling a cheaper, knockoff version of Gleevec, a leukaemia medication. Lu himself suffered from leukaemia and began purchasing Gleevec tablets produced by an Indian pharmaceutical company for other patients who couldn’t afford the “real” drug. The indictment was later quashed after the patients that had benefited from Lu’s actions petitioned the court to lessen the sentence and release him. In recent years, the Chinese government had realized this problem and had make some effort to reduce the price of ‘life-saving’ medicines. So, the film is also in line with the state policy.

As shown in the film, an old lady said: “one bottle of genuine medicine cost me 40,000 CNY (around 4,500 pound), I have been sick for 3 years, and I have been eating these pills for 3 years. In order to buy this medicine, my family had to sell the house, my family has been totally dragged down. Which family does not have a patient? Can you guarantee that you will not get sick for a lifetime? I don’t want to die, I want to live.”

A 45-year-old woman whose mum died two years ago because of cancer, told me: “I just can’t stop crying, when the old lady in the film said ‘Can you guarantee that you will not get sick for a lifetime? I don’t want to die, I want to live’,” she adds, “everybody who has experienced a major illness themselves, or of their family member or good friends can feel for the film. You would never imagine the desperate feelings about losing somebody you love dearly just because you can’t afford the saving-life medicine.”  Indeed, even though there is life-saving medicine, there is no life-saving money. In the film, the only sincere line a deceitful drug dealer uttered was “there is one illness in the world which you can never cure – poverty.”

Satirical films such as this unveil and spotlight the social concern that no Chinese would not bear to ignore – that for normal people, a major disease can potentially tear a family down both mentally and financially. Dying to survive has sparked and leveraged tremendous discussion over many topics nationwide, which is unprecedentedly in China’s film history. Without a doubt, the film has touched a few sour points of Chinese medical care from the high price of imported medicine to major illness insurance policy (da bing yi bao). Each aspect requires thorough investigation in order to understand the situation.  If you are interested in the film, here is the trailer with English subtitles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=on82VId28l4

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