China Milk Parents’ Complaints Quashed

Parents and lawyers accuse Chinese authorities of hushing up a scandal over tainted milk.

china-milk-305.jpg Babies hospitalized after drinking tainted milk formula in China's central Gansu province, Sept. 10, 2008.

HONG KONG—Parents whose children became ill or died after they drank melamine-tainted milk products say their bid to pursue complaints against those responsible is being suppressed by the Chinese authorities.

As the wider political implications of the melamine scare are emerging, China’s ruling Communist Party has effectively banned all forms of public advocacy on behalf of affected parents, prompting calls for a nationwide alliance of victims.

“Of course the government will have a problem [with us forming an alliance], but I really don’t see any other way forward,” a parent of a child sickened by tainted milk powder in eastern China’s Shandong province said.

“I think the best thing I can do now is to get together with other people who are in the same situation as me, and form an alliance with them.”

Now we aren’t allowed to talk about these issues. It has all been suppressed."

Shenzhen writer Zhao Dagong

He said such a move was essential, unless parents wanted to see the entire affair suppressed by the authorities.

“If they aren’t willing to stick their necks out, then I will stick my neck out,” he said. “I am willing to pay a price for this, because I have no other option. The only solution is for the victims to band together. Otherwise, there’s nothing more to be done.”

Scandal suppressed

But parents now say the authorities are using the hotlines they set up for parents of children affected by the milk scandal to monitor their activities, and to ensure that they don’t get access either to lawyers or to journalists.

A parent surnamed Wu from Daqing city in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang declined to speak freely on the subject.

“My phone is being monitored now,” he said. “Please don’t speak carelessly.”

A government official who declined to be named said he thought the government had largely succeeded in putting a lid on the scandal.

“It looks as if they’ve now succeeded in containing it. A lot of countries enforced bans and boycotts on Chinese milk and milk products. It was very serious. It seems as if confidence is slowly beginning to return, now, however,” he said. “The authorities are taking measures to protect dairy farmers and the milk products industry.”

Detentions, media curbs

The authorities detained around a dozen people in the immediate wake of the scandal.

But since then there has been no public announcement by the government about the results of investigations into why melamine appeared in milk powder products in the first place.

Instead, officials appear to have taken the approach of controlling news about the unfolding crisis, rather than releasing it. To date, no Chinese official has been punished or publicy investigated in connection with the milk scandal.

Ma Xiaoming, former state television journalist in the northern province of Shaanxi, said that the decisions to fire Li Changjiang, head of the food safety bureau, and Wu Xianguo, Party secretary for Shijiazhuang, the home base of Sanlu Group—the company at the heart of the scandal—were simply a form of damage control.

“They have kicked out a few people, as if to placate the huge anger that was felt over the scandal by ordinary people, to calm the situation and to stop them demanding that they pursue those responsible,” Ma said. “Really it’s just a way of preserving the status quo.”

Shenzhen-based independent writer Zhao Dagong said the pattern was familiar.

“Now we aren’t allowed to talk about these issues. It has all been suppressed. And it’s not just this issue—who is pursuing those responsible for the shoddily constructed buildings that collapsed in the Wenzhou earthquake? This is very common. There are many problems, but if the government refuses to pursue those responsible, then what can we do? There is no rule of law in China.”

Ruling awaited

A lawyer surnamed Ma based in the remote northwestern province of Gansu said they were still waiting for a ruling on what constituted legal levels of melamine in milk products.

“They haven’t yet published details of the judgment on the Food Safety Law. If it is decided in law at some point in the future that the addition of melamine to foodstuffs is banned from all processed foods, then this will invalidate any announcement on the part of the Health Ministry.”

According to official figures, 5,824 people remain affected by melamine-tainted milk products across China, with six of them in a serious condition.

Still on shelves

Meanwhile, parents said tins from recalled batches of milk were still finding their way onto shelves.

“There are some tins of Shengyuan Youbo on the shelves,” a parent from the central city of Wuhan surnamed Zhang said. “We are extremely angry. It’s being sold here in Wuhan.”

“This is a batch produced in June [and ordered for recall]. I think it’s very strange, that we are still seeing this stuff in the shops. I told the shop assistant that my child had got kidney stones from drinking Shengyuan Youbo. I looked at the production date. It was June 2.”

An official who answered the phone at the State Bureau of Industry and Commerce expressed surprise. “Are they selling it still? Over here in Beijing it was all removed from the shelves by Sept. 14,” the official said.

An official who answered the phone at the Wuhan municipal bureau of industry and commerce said: “All of it was removed from shelves by Sept. 14 and is undergoing laboratory tests.”

Zhang said parents trying to complain were subjected to stonewalling by the authorities.

“We tried to complain to the commercial bureau but they said it wasn’t under their area of responsibility, and that we should lodge a complaint with the food safety bureau,” she said.

“Then, nothing happened. We posted some details on the Internet, including some hospital test results for some of the affected children, but they were all removed. I can’t get into the site now.”

Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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