By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 28, 2009
BEIJING -- When Zhao Lianhai created a Web site for parents of children hurt or killed by contaminated milk, he did not set out to challenge the Communist Party. He did it because his son was sick. The 3-year-old had been diagnosed with kidney stones and Zhao was scared. He needed advice.
Within days, more than 4,000 families signed up, and soon the discussion evolved from technical questions and answers about medical care to demands for punishment and compensation. It wasn't long before the 37-year-old former advertising salesman became the de facto spokesman, organizer and lobbyist for thousands of parents across the country whose children had suffered after drinking infant formula or milk that had been illegally doctored with the industrial chemical melamine.
In a country where every leader must be appointed, approved or otherwise sanctioned by the party, the fact that Zhao has been allowed to operate relatively freely is a testament to the government's careful approach to those he represents. It is perhaps out of respect for their concerns -- or fear of them.
Parents groups such as Zhao's -- whose members' children were hurt or killed in various tragedies such as the milk scandal, the Sichuan earthquake and the Tiananmen Square massacre -- have become an emerging political force. They pose a special challenge to the Chinese government, which has not been able to deal with the grieving parents in the same manner it has dealt with others who challenge its authority.
The parents, hugging pictures of their sick or deceased children, have captured the public's empathy. Attempts to bully, bribe, harass or detain them have been met with harsh reprimands from ordinary citizens on Internet bulletin boards.
So the government has chosen, for the most part, to let the parents be -- a significant concession for a government that has always been deeply suspicious of any group that it does not directly control.
While several parents said local officials regularly stop them from mounting public protests, holding large meetings and traveling to the capital to voice concerns, authorities have not jailed the parents on unrelated charges, a common tactic with other protesters. Parents also say government officials have been careful to show more deference and respect, both in public and in private, than they might with others.
Even so, there have been some pressures on them. Since he began coordinating with other parents in late September, Zhao said, he has been "interviewed" by police more than 20 times. His cellphone has been tapped, he said, and he is followed whenever he tries to meet with other parents.
After government officials told at least three corporations that were hosting the group's Web site to shut it down, the parents found a company that would give it a home overseas for free and out of the reach of censors. Parents disseminate the address, which they change regularly, via e-mail or word of mouth. Zhao and other organizers coordinate through disposable phone cards that can't be traced. When holding meetings or news conferences, they gather at safe houses rather than their homes.
Liu Xiaoying, 34, lost her 12-year-old daughter, Bi Yuexing, when a school she was in collapsed during last May's earthquake. A local official fell to his knees, apologized and promised a full investigation into shoddy construction when a group of angry parents confronted him several weeks after the earthquake. Liu now wants the central government to do the same.
In January, she joined nine other sets of parents in traveling for two days and two nights on trains, buses and taxis to evade local police from Sichuan province as the group made its way to Beijing to meet with officials from the Ministries of Education and Construction. The government representatives in Beijing made a show of listening to their concerns, she said. "We have lost our child, and there's nothing left we'd be afraid of now," she said.
That is the same sort of pain that Xu Jue, one of the organizers of Tiananmen Mothers, said motivates her. Xu's group seeks to make Chinese authorities recognize "6/4" -- or June 4, as the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 is known in China -- as a day of tragedy. Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators clashed with security forces in the square that summer day, and the standoff ended only when the government rolled in tanks and began shooting at the protesters.
"The bloodstains of that time have long been washed away and the bullet marks rubbed out and the site of the massacre is now decorated with exotic plants and flowers and has become a scene of peace and prosperity. But can all this conceal the sins of that time?" Xu and other mothers wrote in a letter in February to the country's legislature.
In the initial days of the milk powder scandal, the government seemed to be in denial about the scope of the tragedy. Subsequent investigations revealed that the contamination had spread well beyond one brand of infant formula to nearly every brand of milk produced in China.
When Zhao set up his Web site six months ago, the government moved quickly, shutting down the site repeatedly. The more authorities began to crack down on his group, however, the more the group fought back. It called itself the Melamine Victims' Parents Alliance.
Zhao, the son of a government prison official, said he had become disillusioned with how the problem was being handled.
He blames China's culture rather than a specific government entity, company or individual for the scandal. "In today's Chinese society, too much attention has shifted to material pursuits while social fairness and justice are scarce," he said. "If this situation continues, tragedies like the [milk powder scandal] will happen over and over again."
At every key turn in the investigation into the scandal -- the sentencing of corporate executives, the Ministry of Health's discussions about compensation, the bankruptcy auction of the assets of one of the companies responsible -- Zhao and other parents have been present. They have held posters with slogans such as "Killers should pay with their own lives" and "We want to participate in the prosecution."
Zhao has pushed for a better count of victims. Official figures show that six babies died and 300,000 became ill, but Zhao's group has been in contact with others who say their children died but were not counted.
He and his group are credited with helping push the central government, which had minimized the problem and had been reluctant to do much in the initial days of the scandal, to roll out a national compensation plan that allocated cash to victims based on age and severity of illness. Many have received less than $300, which does not even cover their basic doctors' bills, much less the surgery and long-term care many of the children will need.
Zhou Jin, a 26-year-old migrant worker from Hunan province, met Zhao online after his daughter became seriously ill -- urinating blood and having a high fever -- after months of drinking formula from a company called Sanlu. A subsequent check found a 0.6-by-0.4-inch stone in her kidney.
He said Zhao sheltered him at his home for four nights when he came to see doctors in Beijing and gave him advice about how to seek better medical care. Zhao said people often ask him why he has given up so much of his personal time, given that his son recovered from the kidney stones relatively quickly. He said what motivates him is a hope that he can help promote individual rights in China. "We reached and encouraged some families to act more actively rather than give up easily," Zhao said. "In the long run, these will be beneficial to perfecting China's justice system."
Researchers Wang Juan and Liu Liu contributed to this report.