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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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On Thursday, China announced that its investigation had led to the arrest of 12 more people -- all suppliers who allegedly sold milk containing the industrial chemical melamine. Hong Kong announced a recall of all milk, yogurt, ice cream and other products made by China's Yili Industrial Group. Multinational companies operating in China, from Wal-Mart to Starbucks, were scrambling to ensure that the dairy products they sell are safe.

Of course, the government could clamp down on open debate suddenly, as it has done in the past. Allowing the debate to rage relatively unchecked so soon after last year's recalls may be hurting the country's reputation abroad, further undermining confidence in Chinese exports. But it may be a good way to provide an outlet for the growing anger of the middle class at home.

Much of the discussion so far casts the Sanlu Group -- the first dairy company found to have problems with its milk powder -- as the villain in the case. That perspective has been supported by orders from propaganda officials in a bid to preclude criticism of official actions.

The government has sent notices to domestic media outlets telling them they should use only official stories from the New China News Agency, prompting accusations of censorship, but many outlets have defied the ban.

On Thursday, state-run newspapers contained stories about panicked parents flooding hospitals with their babies in tow begging doctors to check for kidney stones and mothers crossing the border into Hong Kong to buy baby formula.

On the Internet, parents' groups calling themselves things like the "Sanlu Victims Union" or "Condemning Sanlu Milk Powder" are proliferating. The Sanlu Victims Union says its goal is to gather 1,000 parents and march on Beijing to demand monetary compensation from the guilty companies.

"In the past, when facing a public incident, people tended to wait for the government to respond. But now they are learning to act to protect themselves," said Li, who is part of a network of 73 lawyers from 23 provinces who are assisting the parents.

Xia Yuanhan, from Hunan province, is a member of the victims union and said he wants to ensure that the affected children's medical care will be covered for life in case they develop complications as they grow older.

"I suggest the central government buy medical insurance for the victims and set up a special medical organization for those victims," said Xia, whose 7-month-old son, Yangyang, had been drinking Sanlu milk since he was born.

There's reason to worry, say parents such as Zhang Sanguan, because of the extreme medical procedures some of the babies have had to endure. Zhang's 5-month-old son, Wanxin, underwent surgery Sept. 6, but doctors say he will need two more operations.

"During the operation, my son's whole body is anaesthetized. I am so worried that this will affect his head," Zhang said.

The latest trend among the country's millions of instant-messenger users is to use the short messages friends see when they log on to comment on the milk powder scandal.

Many of the lines are biting: "One cup of milk a day wipes out a nation." "Give the good milk to foreigners, leave the sadness for us." "Foreign milk powder demands money, domestic milk powder demands your life."

Online or offline, there's one subject that's off limits, however: speculation about links between the milk powder scandal and the Olympics.

Posts about whether a public warning concerning the milk powder was delayed because the contamination was confirmed Aug. 6, two days before the 2008 Beijing Olympics were scheduled to begin, have been deleted. So have posts analyzing government assertions that the dairy products served at the Olympic Village were not tainted.

The headline for one of the very few deleted posts on the state-run People's Daily's Internet discussion board was still visible: "Really strange -- why doesn't the Olympics milk have melamine?"

Researchers Liu Songjie and Crissie Ding contributed to this report.

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