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."
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.