I’ve been avoiding China’s milk scandal because so many other blogs have done such a great job covering it. But today’s story in the NY Times simply must be read to be believed. It’s one of those detailed investigative pieces that remind us great newspapers are absolutely indispensable.
We all remember how the government knowingly suppressed the fact that SARS was a danger in Beijing in 2003 so as not to cast a negative light on their annual National People’s Congress, right? (If not, search through this blog archives from January – April 2003.) Well, as that crisis ended many of us said it heralded a new age of transparency, when the government would never again deliberately hide information from its citizens about health risks that could kill them.
Fast-forward to 2008, and we learn that the same script is replayed. This time its an event even more important than the NPC, it’s the Olympic Games, China’s launchpad, the dawn of a new day for the rising superpower. And so once more the government lied and covered up, and once again innocents were the victims. Just a sample of the intensity of this article:
Fu Jianfeng, an editor at one of China’s leading independent publications, Southern Weekend, recently used a personal blog to describe how his newsweekly discovered cases of sickened children in July — two months before the scandal became public — but could not publish articles so close to the Games.
“As a news editor, I was deeply concerned,” Mr. Fu wrote on Sept. 14. “I had realized that this was a large public health disaster, but I was not able to send reporters to do reporting.”
Even earlier, on June 30, a mother in Hunan Province had written a detailed letter pleading for help from the food quality agency, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. The letter, posted on the agency’s Web site, described rising numbers of infants at a local children’s hospital who were suffering from kidney stones after drinking powdered formula made by Sanlu.
The mother said she had already complained in vain to Sanlu and local officials.
“Urgent! Urgent! Urgent!” she wrote. She called on Beijing authorities to order a product recall, release the news to the Chinese media and provide medical exams for babies who had consumed Sanlu formula. “Please investigate whether the formula does have problems,” she wrote, “or more babies will get sick.”
Reading the article will sicken you. It is apparently “an open secret that milk was adulterated….Some dairies routinely watered down milk to increase profits, then added other cheap ingredients so the milk could pass a protein test.” Sanlu knew, the government knew, the media knew – and still there was silence. Only when New Zealand started to voice concerns and it became a global issue did the government finally respond.
We all know of companies elsewhere selling products they know are harmful. Merck and its painkiller Viox is a classic example. It is rare, however, to have so many people in the know, including government and the media – the supposed watchdogs – while the public is kept in the dark, continuing to poison their own children. I wrote back then, in 2003, words that I regretted later. I don’t think I was right – it is far too simplistic and black/white; however, reading this Times article, I understand again exactly how I felt as I wrote those words:
As I prepare to leave this country, I worry less and less about telling the truth. To say that another way, I have always tried to tell the truth here, but often I felt I had to tone down my rancor, soften the blows. Right now, I just don’t care, and I want whoever happens to stop by this little site to know the truth about China, or at least what I perceive that truth to be: China is the Evil Empire, a tottering, power-drunk, paranoid nation of thugs dressing themselves up as saviors — a bad country. It was for the bastards we saw smiling and waving at the “People’s Congress” that my God made hell.
Knowing full well that this was dramatic in the extreme, with the potential to be misread, I immediately added an addendum. I couldn’t condemn all of China because there was so much here that I loved. (And I don’t apologize for being dramatic – the situation was dramatic, as is the present situation.)
Footnote: I refer only to the Chinese government here. The people I know here are gracious, kind and good. They know, to a large extent, what their “leaders” are all about. Luckily for these good people, the SARS fuck-up has been of such great magnitude that it could end up resulting in long-term change and improvement here. Maybe. It has certainly opened the eyes of the world as to what “the new China” is all about.
This article, like Philip Pan’s book, reaffirms my belief in the goodness of the Chinese people, and the badness of many who govern them. Read it and see. It’s just so terrible that those over-wrought words I wrote about the government then, in 2003, half a decade ago, apply with just as much power and accuracy today. And those men who allow this to happen and tell the media to lie to the people, knowing those lies can result in death – well, let’s just say it was for them that my God, if I believed in one, would have made hell.
China is changing? China is getting better? I see it all the time, I hear it all the time, I say it to myself. I say it so often I get narcotized by it, like a chant. And then I see the closing line of today’s great story:
This week, China Central Television, the government network, has been offering reassurances that the dairy products still on the shelves are safe
And I wonder. And I ask myself how far this country really can go, even if America’s economy disintegrates. Like America, China needs a stable-sweeping on a scale hitherto unimaginable. Can it happen? It has to, at least at some point, if China is to be a true superpower. As in America, the future of the nation depends on it. I see it (the stable-sweeping) coming to America, and it will be painful. I don’t know when it will come to China, but it can’t be a moment too soon. Catastrophes like this can make the whole house of cards fall down.
Nearly 1am. Hope all the different points I wanted to pull together formed a cohesive whole. I’m too tired to tell.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.