Public Anger Over Milk Scandal Forces China's Hand

Children sickened by tainted milk powder receive treatment in Hebei province. Officials have permitted an unusual amount of debate over the scandal.
Children sickened by tainted milk powder receive treatment in Hebei province. Officials have permitted an unusual amount of debate over the scandal. (By Ng Han Guan -- Associated Press)
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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 19, 2008

SHANGHAI, Sept. 18 -- Not long after Che Yanjun's twin sons drank contaminated baby formula and were hospitalized with kidney stones, the vice governor of the province came by bearing a basket of red flowers and an envelope of cash.

In China, such meetings are typically akin to settlement discussions in a victim's compensation lawsuit. Getting the money requires signing a document absolving a particular company or the government of wrongdoing.

Che waited for the catch.

But as the official handed him the gifts, all she said was that her heart went out to him and that she would do everything in her power to take care of the babies.

"We are very shocked the government is being so good to us," said Che, a 30-year-old construction worker from the western province of Gansu who received 2,000 yuan, the equivalent of two months' salary, that day.

The scandal over tainted milk powder, which has killed four people, including at least three infants, and sickened 6,244 more, has fueled such universal outrage that the Chinese government in recent days has thrown out its playbook for how it deals with such incidents.

In previous incidents of mass food poisoning, in mining accidents and even in the May 12 Sichuan earthquake, relatives of victims were silenced through bribes, intimidation or both.

In this case, parents of victims say they have been offered money but are still allowed to speak out freely and even organize grass-roots protest groups online -- a major concession for a government that is deeply suspicious about organizations it does not control. More open protest and debate may be in China's best interest because it keeps the pressure and blame on private companies and diverts attention from the government's own failures to catch the contamination earlier.

Legal advocates have been authorized to assist parents seeking compensation. And on China's network of online bulletin boards, anonymous citizens have been permitted to debate practically every aspect of the scandal with minimal censorship.

China's largest Internet search engine, Baidu, said that in the interest of "revealing the whole truth to all," it had rebuffed a half-million-dollar "public relations" payment from one of the mostly state-owned milk powder producers that had asked the online site to delete negative reports about it.

In an unusual move for a government that itself is routinely accused of online censorship, China utilized its official New China News Agency to help publicize the attempted bribery.

"Things are quite different this time," said Li Fangping, a Beijing-based attorney who has volunteered his services to parents. "Civil society is responding more quickly, which I think is forcing the government to respond differently."

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