Milk Dad Breaks Silence

An activist speaks out as authorities curb efforts to honor China's fallen dissidents.

zhaolianhai_crop-305.jpg Zhao Lianhai, in an undated photo.
Photo sent by Home for the Kidney Stone Babies

Chinese tainted-milk campaigner and father Zhao Lianhai, who had been incommunicado since his release from jail on medical parole, broke his silence on Tuesday to call for the release of detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei amid a continuing crackdown on political activists.

Chinese netizens braved official censorship to launch a campaign on Monday in support of Ai, who is also an active campaigner for social justice, amid international calls for his release.

"A lot of people are very sad and angry about Ai Weiwei," said Zhao, who was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail by Beijing's Daxing District People's Court on Nov. 11 and released on "medical parole" at the end of December.

"They are very angry and in deep grief about it," said Zhao, whose child was one of 300,000 made ill by infant formula milk laced with the industrial chemical melamine.

"Such a good person, who moved so many people deeply, stands for justice and fairness," he said. "He frequently stood up for the least privileged in society and spoke out frequently about a lot of injustices."

"And now such a person has become the target of such oppression," Zhao said. "I hope the Chinese Communist Party will stop this in the nick of time."

Targeted activists

Zhao, 38, had been silent and has remained under house arrest at his Beijing home since being released by the court. He had fired his legal team, prompting many to speculate that his release was conditional on his silence.

Fellow activists and online commentators expressed deep and widespread anger at the sentence handed down to Zhao, who had campaigned for redress for parents of children sickened by melamine-tainted milk.

Analysts said at the time that the sentence indicated authorities feared Zhao Lianhai could be a rallying point for opposition to the ruling Communist Party.

A total of 21 people were convicted for their roles in the scandal, and two were executed.

The government said after the 2008 scandal that it had destroyed all tainted milk powder, but reports of melamine-laced products have regularly re-emerged.

Ai, 57, is a top artist who helped design Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium for the 2008 Olympics, and is currently exhibiting his "Sunflower Seeds" installation at London's Tate Modern gallery.

An inveterate Twitter user himself, Ai has taken part in a number of campaigns to protect the most vulnerable in Chinese society, including an online memorial installation which recorded the names of thousands of children killed in the collapse of school buildings during the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Qing Ming festival

Meanwhile, Chinese marked the traditional grave-sweeping festival of Qing Ming on Tuesday amid a harsh crackdown on political activists sparked by online, anonymous calls for a "Jasmine revolution" inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.

Police also tightened security around petitioners and dissidents at what is typically a sensitive time of year, when activists seek to remember those the ruling Communist Party would rather forget.

Plainclothes national security police swooped down on dozens of petitioners who tried to travel to Beijing's Babaoshan crematorium on Tuesday to visit the graves of former Party leaders, and even of convicted cop-killer Yang Jia.

One petitioner, Hu Guang, said she had been detained with a group of other petitioners in recent days.

"We didn't get there, because we have been shut up in the police station for the past three days," Hu said. "They are watching us and feeding us, but they are letting us go home to sleep every night."

She said any text message or e-mail she tried to send containing the words "Jasmine" were blocked by her mobile service provider.

"They are very frightened," Hu said. "You can't say those words; nothing 'perfumed.' If you try to send it, it will get bounced back."

Paying respects

Petitioners in Beijing said around five busloads of petitioners had been taken to Jiujingzhuang reception center after they gathered near the city's southern railway station to travel to Babaoshan to pay respects at the grave of a man executed for killing police.

Authorities in Shanghai executed Yang Jia, a man convicted of killing six police officers in the city after attempting to sue police for beating him up, in November 2008.

Yang, 28, an unemployed resident of Beijing, launched an attack on a Shanghai police station on July 1, 2008 and began stabbing people, killing six police officers. Another three policemen and one security guard were injured, according to the official version of events.

He was sentenced to death on Sept. 1 in the first verdict by the Shanghai No. 2 Intermediate People's Court. He later appealed. On Oct.
20, the Shanghai Higher People's Court upheld the sentence.

The case raised questions, even in official media, about police harassment, with many ordinary Chinese regarding Yang as a victim who stood up to abuse commonly suffered by people on the wrong side of the rich-poor divide in China.

Petitioners were told by police they would be taken to the cemetery, but were instead taken to the detention center to be returned to their hometowns.

Yang's mother Wang Jingmei said she had already paid her respects to her son at the Futian cemetery.

"I took along some of the things he used to like to eat," said Wang, who was herself incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital following her son's arrest.

"Then I left the flowers there and performed the traditional customs. There were a lot [of petitioners] there, and a lot of people who had traveled from outside Beijing," she said.

Reported by Qiao Long and Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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