Since SARS, no lessons learned?

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.

The Discussion: 24 Comments

Simply put. The political system now in place in China is not up to the task of governing and advance modern society.

No transparency: Hard to know what is going on. Reporters restrained to uncover facts (national or foreign), information censorship, “harmonization” and killing the messengers.

No accountability: Well.. short off. Only if you do something real real bad or embarrassing for someone upstairs you may..ahem….might be held accountable. The Penalty may vary. From being quietly put aside to get… “terminated”.

No Democra…: Ooops. Sorry. Bad word. What was I thinking?

With the current situation, more gaffes will occur in the future.

Hard to know what is really going on.
Hard to know who is responsible for it.
Hard to correct it if ever or before significant damage is done
If I were in a nuclear power station with such problems, I would get out as fast as I could. Tchernobil anyone?

Yes, it is nice to have high officials apologizing, but an apology is only as worthy as the intention to prevent the event to happen again.

But to really prevent such things from happening again, the system has be changed. The problem is that the needed changes imply that “party” have to relinquish a significant share if is control and power over politics, economy and society.

It seems we have a conflict here.

September 28, 2008 @ 1:13 am | Comment

@Richard

It is not that they didn’t learn the lesson, but that they will not, are unable to or cannot change the system.

September 28, 2008 @ 1:24 am | Comment

Most tap water in America is in worse quality than China’s. That is because the number of filtering stages is less than in China. Most filtering techniques are several generations behind than China’s. Around the New Jersey region, the groundwater has been polluted numerous times by the various nuclear power stations, since the early 90’s. THe heavy metal pollution near the great lakes area is about several times more severe than most areas in China. How dares to drink those water?

The tap water in California still has excessive arcenic levels. The smaller cities in America has even worse tap water. At least in China the big cities have safety guarantees on the tap water. The Algae incident in the Wuxi lake happens about once a month in the American city I live in. Yet most American newspapers don’t even report those.

China has different types battery recycling, started about 10 years ago. No such thing in America. America is a country on wheels, the amount of acucumlated battery pollution and motor oil pollution would take China several decades to reach.

Just look at what rich American eat and drink, and you know what I mean. Rich Americans all buy organic foods, whole foods, rare do they visit regular supermarkets. Because they are not stupid.

Average life span of Americans is lower than Hong Kong, lower than Japan, lower than several provinces in China. Cancer incident rates is higher than several provinces in China. Healthcare costs are several hundred times the cost of China, several times the cost of Japan.

Another thing is corn syrup, used in all bakeries, sweets, coca cola. This type of ingredient can only be ingested in the liver, causing obesity. For example HFCS lead to Diabetes, popcorns contain carcinogens. And I won’t even mention the amount of antibiotics in milk, eggs, beef, salmon sold in regular supermarkets. “Sudan Red” is illegal in China, yet completed approved by the FDA to be used in food. The amount of influence and lobbying by American food industry over FDA is beyond your imagination. Just watch “Fast Food Nation” documentary.

My favorite fruits, Liu Lian, Yang Tao, Lichee, Shiu Mi Peach, Shiu Jing Pear, I cannot find any of those in American supermarkets. In China, just water mellon alone I can find 10+ different types on the market. In America, how many types? In China, I can find 100+ types of different fresh vegetables on the market. In America, you walk into a supermarket, and you can count the amount of fresh vegetables with your fingers. And the vegetable counter is like 1/10 the size of the counter of canned goods…. What happend to vegetables in America? What about fresh fish, fresh seafood? When in American supermarkets have you seen live fish being sold?

At least food safety problems in China are exposed by the meida. In Americ, they are completed accepted by FDA, by the society. Why? Food Industry lobbying.

Just answer this question, why is America’s life expectancy lower than most industrial nations????

September 28, 2008 @ 4:14 am | Comment

Red Star,

You are a plain, unadulterated liar. Your “facts,” all of them, are unsupported, refuted or just plain false and yet you persist in blasting your nonsense over and over again. You are nothing but a Chinese propagandist screaming as loud as possible believing that that alone will convince people. Guess what? No one believes you or the other Chinese liars (100% of the CCP, police, provincial and municipal “officials”) who constantly try to convince the Chinese people and the rest of the world. Why don’t you just your ignorant mouth? Better yet, since you obviously haven’t learned anything from your stay in the US, why don’t just go back to the foul place from which you came?

September 28, 2008 @ 5:06 am | Comment

Personal attacks is the level of you? Also, these are not from me, they are told to me by many sources, many of them are public.

Just search for heavy metal pollution near great lakes. Search for corn syrup. Search for RBGH in cows (banned in Japan and Europe, totally legal in the US). This entire generation of Americans’ body shape, rate of diabetes, heart disease, is already absolutely abnormal. The American food industry completely altered the genetic and body shapes of an entire generation of Americans.

The milk powder thing, compared to this, is almost not even worthy of news.

Americans saying how bad food is in China, give me a break.

September 28, 2008 @ 5:26 am | Comment

What HongXing said may be a sad truth.

September 28, 2008 @ 6:12 am | Comment

Hong, even when staying in Shanghai my friends (in their nice apartments) have said they don’t drink the tap water because it’s not safe. Are you saying the American equivalent of Shanghai, New York or Washington DC, also does not have safe tap drinking water?

September 28, 2008 @ 6:44 am | Comment

I never drink tap water in America. I did it once, tasted very very strongly of bleach. Always boil or use a filter.

September 28, 2008 @ 6:53 am | Comment

Chinese people are not as good as you think, Chinese goverment is not as bad as you think either, they actually kinda deserve each other.

Call me cold blooded I feel the same way about Germany 32 to 45 and USA 00 to 08.

September 28, 2008 @ 7:21 am | Comment

The food quality in USA is big concerns to average people. (Rich guys have organic foods .)The prostate and breast cancer rate of American people is almost 100 time higher rate than china. The American cancer, diabetes rate is 3 to 5 times higher than china. Considerateing the medicare cost of American is 10 times higher than China, I can say the life span of American normal ppl is lower than most chinese ppl. If you count the facts that American ppl spend 10 times more money on exercise and gym etc, your only conclusion is food in American is much more dangerous.
The danger comes from the monopolized industrialization process of food for supermarket which deprive the average people to get access to differentfresh organic foods.
In china, you can choose 50 different banana, but here you have only one type banana.

September 28, 2008 @ 7:53 am | Comment

http://www.mindfully.org/Health/ … y-Livestock-UCS.htm
  
  WASHINGTON – Every year in the United States 25 million pounds of
valuable antibiotics — roughly 70 percent of total US antibiotic production
– are fed to chickens, pigs, and cows for nontherapeutic purposes like
growth promotion, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned
Scientists. This finding — 40 percent greater than the estimate of the
livestock industry for all animal uses — is the first transparent estimate
of the quantities of antibiotics used in meat production.

September 28, 2008 @ 8:09 am | Comment

Stop cheating the world by financial crimes in Wall Street.

You sucks!

September 28, 2008 @ 8:16 am | Comment

Silly people.

China is a one-party police state. It censors all news. It controls all information. It punishes all dissent.

The Chinese Communist Party has only one principle – stay in power by any means.

Now, people, please stop criticizing China.

September 28, 2008 @ 8:23 am | Comment

At least much better than the idiot President of the US.
Bush is shit.

September 28, 2008 @ 8:30 am | Comment

you can’t really say most of the tapwater in america is worse than china. the fact that so many people in america drink it and so few in china do should be enough evidence. when i was living in the states we always drank it from the tap regardless of what city it was. i’ve yet to find a place in china where people tell me i can drink the water without boiling it.

your unwillingness to drink it in the states is probably just an aversion to the taste of potable water. hate america. that’s fine. just do it on better grounds than ‘chinese water is better than american water’.

September 28, 2008 @ 8:34 am | Comment

China has tons of problems. I cursed the CCP everyday when I was in China. But after I came to the States, I found that all the problems –hypocrisy, stupidity, stubbornness, short-sightness…-that exist in the Chinese government can also be found here. Now I stop complaining.

September 28, 2008 @ 8:51 am | Comment

I’m sad to see while USA are falling is many aspects, some of her people still try not to face their problems, but only point their finger at others’. What a group of pathetic losers!

September 28, 2008 @ 8:58 am | Comment

For everyone’s information, Red Star is simply cutting and pasting old comments. His comment above appears here.

I also just noticed that several of his recent comments have the same IP address of one other commenter here, Math. SO interesting.

About US food – everyone who can read knows we put antibiotics and all sorts of things in food for the chickens and cows we eat, that fast-food companies lard their products with corn syrup, excessive salt, saturated fats and other goodies. Everyone can find out the details at the touch of a key – it is all public knowledge. The US government, for all its warts, has never commanded the US media to keep this a secret, and it is reported all the time. There are major motion pictures made about the topic, and books and countless articles. The government recently enacted legislation in the US forcing outlets to give the consumers a better picture of what’s in that latter or Bib Mac they’re buying.

So I will acknowledge that we eat an awful lot of crap in America and there is a high level of obesity. But no one is fooled about it, the data and the warnings are there, just as with cigarettes. And to my knowledge, there has never, ever been an orchestrated government-media conspiracy to create a total blackout on the subject, resulting in widespread illness and death. We’ve done lots of bad things, but nothing comparable to the milk scandal we’re seeing in China.

September 28, 2008 @ 10:25 am | Comment

I’m a newbie on this blog. Seems very interesting. I’m usually on Fool’s Mountain but this blog keeps getting referenced, so I thought I’d check it out.
I agree with you that the Chinese government and Chinese people are two very different things. I often say that I’m anti-CCP but wish the best for Chinese people, but it’s not a message oft-accepted by pro-China voices.
I see that some people seem to post here with multiple monikers from identical IP addresses. No different from other blogs, unfortunately. Too bad some people feel the need to stoop so low.
I’m no prude, but sometimes I don’t see why profanity is required to make a point. Though I appreciate that you don’t want to censor.
I think Chinese people deserve a system with more transparency and accountability. I don’t think the CCP will ever provide such a system. But I do wonder how the CCP would be replaced, since there’s no real precedent for effective transparent governance of 1.3 billion people.

September 28, 2008 @ 1:48 pm | Comment

“China’s increasing wealth has brought with it many of the trappings of the developed world.”

“Cancer has become China’s top killer, causing 1.5 million deaths annually, said Kong Lingzhi, director of the Division of Non-communicable Diseases Control and Management of the Ministry of Health.”

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-04/16/content_434747.htm

This must be true information, since I read it on the internet… ;)

Btw Richard you can delete my previous outburst about HongXing (HongShit), and I want to apologize to everyone for the profanity. I don’t usually post this kind of hateful comment online, but this morning his propaganda-bot auto-reply to sensitive subject made me mad. When the cup is full, as we say…

September 28, 2008 @ 2:48 pm | Comment

SKC,

We all get the government we deserve.

My impression is that the Chinese want to be relieved of responsibility or accountability, and more often than not (99%) have blind faith in their government. They embrace the pollyanism. They don’t ask questions. They don’t want to know. Or if some did, they wouldn’t want to talk about it. I’ve noticed a disturbingly laissez-faire attitude among the general Shanghai populace regarding the milk scandal – but this could be attributed to that other Chinese quality of not noticing the traffic light until your directly under it.

Starbucks says they have switched from Chinese milk, but I know for a fact that at least the ones I frequent(ed) were using Chinese milk from Nanjing even today. Sorry, the barista’s thumbs-up party line isn’t quite the reassurance I was hoping for. I’m off that stuff now.

September 28, 2008 @ 11:08 pm | Comment

@skc
“I think Chinese people deserve a system with more transparency and accountability. I don’t think the CCP will ever provide such a system. …. But I do wonder how the CCP would be replaced, since there’s no real precedent for effective transparent governance of 1.3 billion people.”

That is a good point.

September 29, 2008 @ 3:26 am | Comment

@HongXin
“I never drink tap water in America. I did it once, tasted very very strongly of bleach. Always boil or use a filter.”

Yeah, potable water tastes real funny. Polluted water has more substance and a greater taste…. and can make you feel warm and tingly inside. ;-)

Now. Seriously. That bleach taste comes from Chlorine. Guaranty that there are no bacteria on it. No need to boil it, just let it rest for sometime a it will lost a good part of that taste. Would be surprised Chlorine is not used in tap water on CH cities. At least the new urbanized ones.

You can filter it if you want. Active carbon filter for example. I will be interesting to know how long would a filter last in US and how long in CH.

September 29, 2008 @ 3:39 am | Comment

Companies and governments will tend to do whatever they can get away with. It is not so much a moral problem because there is immorality everywhere, it is a system problem.

October 3, 2008 @ 4:15 pm | Comment

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