Sunday, September 28, 2008

China puts the lid on milk scandal during Olympic Game

The Australian: JIAN Guangzhou of the Oriental Morning Post in Shanghai has received widespread applause for being the journalist who first named famous Chinese dairy brand Sanlu as being responsible for the nationwide milk powder poisonings of thousands of babies.

But it is a sorry triumph, because the reporting of China's worst food disaster of recent years -- with at least 53,000 babies suffering from kidney problems and four dying -- has remained constrained by party controls.

The first local media reports on the disaster were published and broadcast in July, but were not followed up. That was because a blackout was imposed.

The central party propaganda department delivered a 21-part instruction to all Chinese media before the Beijing Olympics, preventing any critical reporting to ensure a positive mood during the Games. The eighth clause stated that "all food safety issues are off limits".

So the milk poison stories were not to be reported until after the Games. By then, the crisis was so widespread it was impossible to suppress entirely.

But in the meantime, immense additional damage was done to babies' kidneys. For even though Sanlu's board was told about the disaster shortly before the Olympics, the poisonous products were not recalled until afterwards -- ensuring the Games remained a period of harmony and national pride.

Jian explained that in the Hubei, Hunan and Gansu provinces, doctors had earlier drawn the attention of local journalists to a sudden rush of babies admitted with kidney failure, which the medical staff soon started to associate with the only food most of the babies had been consuming -- milk powder.

So stories appeared in local newspapers and on a cable TV channel in Hunan, and eventually Jian -- looking at their websites -- realised this was developing as a national problem. In each place, he discovered, Sanlu was the main brand being consumed by the sick babies.

He then decided to name it as the guilty party. "I hesitated a lot," he said, "as to whether to use the name.

"And Sanlu is a well-known brand, with a history of half a century, an 18 per cent market share of powdered milk, and advertised as 'the milk chosen by Chinese astronauts'.

"I didn't sleep well the night after I posted the story online, after contacting the company for its response. Sanlu denied any problem with quality, and said the Gansu's quality inspectors had tested its formula and found nothing wrong." Jian added: "In a dream, I saw Sanlu's people accusing me fiercely of irresponsibility, charging me in court. Might I be destroying a good brand wrongly?

"When I got to the office the next morning, a colleague told me that Sanlu had already called several times, insisting I withdraw the story from the website. I didn't aim to be zealously moral, I just wanted to speak the truth."

The story stayed up for a while -- but Jian's own blog, explaining how and why he wrote it, was soon deleted by the internet portal.

Jian has said he is considering suing the portal, He was informed the posting failed to conform to Tianya's rules. "But I don't think I've written one sentence that crossed the line, I've been objective in my writing."

The South China Morning Post editorialised: "In Hong Kong and other developed economies, repeated complaints ... about a food product would have attracted the attention of the media. Public pressure would have compelled the authorities and companies involved to take prompt action. But in the absence of a vibrant civil society on the mainland, such problems often have deadly or tragic consequences."

China's state-owned media strive to place a positive gloss on such stories. Typically, a story by Xinhua news agency revealed that about 15 per cent of all milk powder batches, produced by 20 per cent of all China's producers, were found to contain the poisonous chemical melamine. But the headline said: "Most companies' baby milk powder safe in China, says State Council".

Body: Media around the country have been advised to restrict their coverage of such a controversial issue to the stories produced by the central agencies like Xinhua and China Central TV, and not commission their own investigative writers.

Controversy has also raged about the role of dominant search engine, Baidu and its smaller rivals Sina and Sohu, which have been accused of filtering out negative material. Baidu has rejected this charge.

Popular TV host Liu Yiwei wrote in his Shanghai newspaper column that authorities imposed far stricter controls over media than over food. He said: "Films don't injure people or take their lives. Why can't officials inspect baby formula as strictly as they censor films?"

Yet on Saturday, Premier Wen Jiabao said in in Tianjin: "When this kind of problem of food safety occurs, we do not cover it up. We face it candidly." OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008


Mathew said...

The student protests of 1989 were a bit too early on the national democracy cosmic calendar, and according to Cincotta’s numbers, the People’s Republic passed the democracy threshold in 1998
Mathew Hadley

Internet marketing

MaKina said...

Maybe so. But China's paper laws are just that -- paper laws.