HONG KONG—Chinese lawyers have slammed a government directive banning them from taking on cases related to the contaminated milk powder scandal, which has killed at least four infants and sickened tens of thousands with kidney problems.
Members of the country’s nascent legal profession condemned moves from government legal affairs bureaus to ban attorneys from taking on cases related to the scandal, which surfaced after infant milk formula made by New Zealand-invested Sanlu Group was found to be laced with the industrial chemical melamine.
“The Beijing Lawyers’ Association called a meeting with several of its serving officer members and the justice department to discuss the milk powder cases,” Beijing-based lawyer Li Jinglin said.
“At that meeting, those in charge said they had received a very clear message from the Hebei provincial lawyers’ association that we should not involve ourselves in Sanlu-related cases.”
Just don’t call me. If you do, I’ll be finished."
Animal husbandry official
“At the time I thought this demand was preposterous. Chinese citizens have the right to engage the services of any lawyer within China’s borders that they choose,” Li added.
Sanlu Group is headquartered in Shijiazhuang, in the northern province of Hebei, which surrounds Beijing.
“This is unbelievable,” Zhang Yuanxin, a practicing attorney and serving officer in the Xinjiang Lawyers’ Association said.
“It appears that the actions of certain departments in government have set back the professional development of the legal profession,” he said. “They have stripped ordinary citizens of their right to sue, and they are interfering in the affairs of the judiciary. This should not be tolerated.”
Lawyers said Chinese citizens had the right to file civil lawsuits in cases of wrongdoing or negligence.
“The job of a lawyer is to act as a representative on behalf of citizens, to help them win justice…They have a duty to file lawsuits on behalf of victims, and they have a right to do this under law,” Zhang said.
When the scandal broke in September, lawyers immediately formed voluntary groups to offer legal assistance to distraught and angry parents whose children had drunk the tainted milk, often offering their services free of charge to those on low incomes.
Since then, they have reported being ordered not to touch melamine-related cases, and they have declined to answer any questions on the subject.
“I can’t talk right now. It’s not convenient for me to speak,” said Shaanxi-based lawyer Jiang Hujun, who had previously volunteered his services free to families affected by the melamine scandal.
Hunan-based volunteer lawyer Luo Qiulin had a similar response: “Could you interview another lawyer, please?” Asked if it was “inconvenient” to talk, he replied: “Yes.”
Lawyers say they have been directly banned from milk powder cases by government departments.
“There has been a direct instruction to all Chinese lawyers that they are forbidden from offering legal assistance to families of children who have drunk contaminated milk,” a lawyer who declined to be named said.
“The orders came from the legal affairs bureau in our district. Pressure is being put on them by executive forces from all directions. Really, their hands are tied,” he said.
Former cadre’s comments
Former top Communist Party aide Bao Tong said the worst thing about the food safety scandal was the attempt to cover it up.
“The worst thing is the dark screen which has been thrown over everything, obscuring the real situation,” he said in an essay written from his Beijing home, where he has been under house arrest since the political fallout of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.
“This takes the form of the control of information about the crisis, and has become its main theme tune. Do we have any guarantees that this is legal? In our country, power is concentrated into the hands of a few people, who use the excuse of ‘negative coverage’ to obliterate the right of 1.3 billion people to know what is really going on,” Bao said.
“Is there a rule that allows this in the Constitution?”
Chinese police have detained dozens of suspects in raids on dairy farms, according to official media, which have focused on the raids.
Six people suspected of producing and selling the chemical melamine were detained in Hohhot, capital of northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the country’s key milk production base, a statement from the municipal government said.
It said the arrests were made during a thorough investigation in Yili and Mengniu, two major milk producers there, and further statements about the investigations would be released soon, the official Xinhua news agency said.
But dairy farmers say that they too are victims of the scandal.
“Regardless of the source of the melamine, the important thing is that the milk powder manufacturers must carry out tests of the milk they get from suppliers,” an employee surnamed Wang at the Xinhai Dairy Cattle Breeding Farm in the northern province of Shaanxi said.
“Why didn’t that show up in the tests? They all have the necessary equipment to test the milk. They should be able to detect it. I can guarantee you that most of the people who run dairy farms here don’t know anything about melamine. They had never heard the name before this happened,” she said.
A dairy farmer in the northern province of Hebei said “I knew nothing about the melamine problem until I saw it on the TV news. I don’t know [who added the melamine]. I don’t know the situation. I can’t idly speculate.”
Meanwhile, a director surnamed Cao at the Animal Husbandry Research Base in Liangbaosi township, Jiaxiang county, in eastern China’s Shandong province, said: “Just don’t call me. If you do, I’ll be finished.”
“I have nothing to say to you. No, not even one question."
Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long and in Cantonese by Fung Yat-yiu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.