Milk powder doctored with the chemical melamine supplied by 22 different Chinese companies has sickened at least 54,000 babies and hospitalized 13,000.
So far, four babies have died in a snowballing scandal that has now crossed China's borders, affecting children across Asia and forcing well-known Western brands like Cadburys, Unilever and Kraft to pull their China-made products off store shelves in more than a dozen countries.
What amplifies the seriousness of the scandal is the fact that the company at the center of the poisoned milk scandal -- Sanlu Group -- began to receive complaints as far back as March. Sick children were turning up in hospitals with kidney stones and two of the infant deaths occurred in May and June.
But the scandal did not come to light in the media until September, after China celebrated the successful conclusion of the Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The communist party's flagship The People's Daily reported that city authorities in Shijiazhuang of Hebei province, where Sanlu is based, covered up the scandal for more than a month from Aug. 2.
Government officials, who turned a blind eye on the problem fearing it might endanger their carriers, prevented Fonterra, the New Zealand company which holds a 43 percent share in Sanlu, from going public with the scandal.
It was not until the New Zealand ambassador in Beijing took up the issue with the central Chinese government that the milk-adulteration scheme was exposed and the public alerted to the dangers.
The Chinese press has reported little on the intervention of the New Zealand government in the exposure of the scandal. But even without this fact the public's trust in its leaders has been badly shaken.
"There has been all this talk about reviving Confucian moral principles in society. They (the leaders) say they want to build a harmonious society where people care about each other. But what example is there in the milk scare for everyone?" wondered Xiao Zhang, a kindergarten teacher.
Government investigators have blamed the contamination on milk-collecting stations across the country, which buy milk from individual farmers and sell it to larger producers with little supervision in the process.
Li Changjiang, the head of the agency that monitors food and product safety, was forced to resign just a year after promising to overhaul China's food supervision system. Agriculture minister Sun Zhengcai admitted that the country's milk-gathering system was "out of control" and "chaotic."
Premier Wen Jiabao hs apologized for the scandal and made a personal pledge to overhaul the system. "We will make the entire 'made in China' brand worry-free and reputable for both the Chinese and the people across the world," Wen said at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in China earlier this week.
But the government has also imposed restrictions on media coverage of the scandal and in recent days put pressure on lawyers acting on behalf of people affected by the crisis to drop their cases. At least 14 lawyers from Henan province trying to aid milk victims were told by provincial officials to cease representing their clients, the Associated Press reported citing one of the lawyers.
The gagging of dissent mirrors the aftermath of the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May when parents alleging their children were killed by shoddy school buildings were told to leave the investigation into deaths and pursuit of justice to the government.
True to the Confucian tradition of leaders patronising their subjects, government officials claimed they were the only ones vested with wisdom in handling the allegations.
This time around though, the public is treating pledges of "full investigation" and "total overhaul" with circumspection. Beijing has announced new standards for melamine levels in milk and published a new survey of a range of dairy products that found no harmful substances. But many are not convinced.
Six-months pregnant and worried, Chen Jiaxian says she planned to do the impossible and breastfeed her baby. "I simply cannot imagine carrying my baby to life and then feeding him something poisonous," she stresses. "If I don't have enough milk, I will try and find a wet nurse. I won't risk feeding him any of the baby milk powder."
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Albion Monitor October
11, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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