A crisis rooted in two Chinas

Bill Schiller – The Star

Copyright The Star
Milk scare stems from problematic ‘normal’ China, while the ‘abnormal’ China is a show-time success
Sep 21, 2008 04:30 AM
BEIJING–They can win 51 gold medals.
They can stage the best opening ceremonies in the history of the Olympic Games. And this week they’ll even catapult astronauts into space to conduct the country’s first-ever spacewalk.
So why can’t the Chinese government safeguard baby formula for the nation’s infants?
“Because there are actually two Chinas,” explains Li Datong, a leading commentator and one of China’s most incisive social critics.
The first is a kind of show-time China, a totalitarian state that can mobilize the nation’s might and money to execute time-limited events for national prestige: the Olympics for example – or this week’s spacewalk.
Li calls it, “the abnormal China.”
“Then there is the other China,” he says, “the one the majority of us live in.
“Call it ‘the normal China.’ This one is full of problems and is a more complicated matter …”
“Normal” China was on sad display last week, as the government grappled with an ever-exploding milk crisis. It started with one company’s baby formula contaminated with melamine – a chemical used to make plastics and glue – and by week’s end had spread to the nation’s overall milk supply.
When the government’s quality inspection chief Li Changjiang went out of his way to assure the world the milk served to athletes at the Olympics and Paralympics was safe, and even passed through “special scanning procedures,” Chinese netizens exploded with rage.
“Give melamine to ourselves, but give safety to our guests,” cried one.
“Send the good milk abroad, leave ourselves tragedy,” wrote another.
Beijing lawyer Zhou Ze even publicly called for Li Changjiang’s resignation.
If Li were to be removed, he wouldn’t be the first high-profile official to fall. Last year, former Food and Drug Administration chief Zheng Xiaoyu was executed after taking bribes from pharmaceutical companies to allow them to market untested, deadly medicines.
Christopher Hughes, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, says he believes Chinese officials “spared no cost” in ensuring foreigners’ food and milk were safe during the Olympics.
“And the conclusion being drawn by many (Chinese) on the Internet, is that their government cares more about protecting foreigners and their own international image than it does about saving the lives of Chinese babies.”
Why can’t China guarantee safe milk for its babies?
There is a complex of reasons, says Hughes: “systemic corruption, bureaucratic inefficiencies and the lack of a strong civil society of non-governmental organizations and a free press.”
The government that we have assumed to be in total control – controlling the media, organized worship, even grey-haired grannies wanting to demonstrate – might not be in as much control as we thought.
From the outset, in what seemed like some bizarre parallel universe, rather than alert Chinese parents as soon as possible to potentially life-saving information about the melamine contamination, baby formula producer Sanlu and various levels of government tried to shut down information.
The initial information blackout was a scandal of its own.
One Chinese journalist, however, dared to challenge it, and that made a difference.
Jiang Guangzhou, writing a blog on the Chinese website Tianya.cn, was frustrated by reports citing babies with kidney stones thought to be caused by a baby formula from “a certain company.”
On Sept. 11, after investigating the matter, Jiang named Sanlu – a company with 50 years in the business and 18 per cent of China’s baby formula market. Sanlu started the day with outraged denials. By midnight it issued a recall.
And the news started to circulate.
Chinese journalists say the government’s Central Propaganda Department, however, issued orders that Chinese media not send their own reporters to further investigate the story; early reports of the scandal – including Jiang Guangzhou’s – were deleted from websites; and editors were told to only use reports from the state’s tightly controlled Xinhua News Agency.
The government wanted what it always has on what it deems to be a “sensitive” story, one that might trigger upheaval: total control.
Shockingly, on a day last week when the number of babies suffering kidney stones after drinking the tainted formula rocketed from 1,250 to nearly 6,250, state broadcaster CCTV reported on it – but only as the fourth item on the main evening newscast.
Since then the government has stopped releasing figures.
Exactly how many children are now ill as a result of bad baby formula is unknown.
And the embarrassing fact that New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark also emerged as a key whistle-blower in the Chinese tragedy has been kept out of China’s mainstream media.
Clark had ordered her ambassador in Beijing around Sept. 9 to contact China’s central government with news she had learned from Sanlu’s minority New Zealand partner that the baby formula was contaminated.
Most Chinese still know nothing of her role.
In the past 48 hours, however, the central government has shifted into action. The Ministry of Health ordered all provinces and major cities to set up 24-hour hot lines for anxious consumers.
And government agencies have been told to monitor markets for supply disruptions and price-gouging in the sales of powdered milk – a staple in rural China.
State-run newspapers and state-controlled TV also ran lists of milk products that have been cleared of violations and deemed to be safe.
Those measures should help the government gain back some of the credibility it lost in its early bungling of the crisis.
But the lack of a broadly vigorous, independent media remains a key part of China’s current problems, says Hughes. So is the lack of pressure groups.
An independent media has a key watchdog role to play in revealing shortcomings in any system.
“No matter how many regulations are put in place and organizations created to monitor food safety,” says Hughes, “it’s impossible to effectively monitor a large and complex modern society without the scrutiny of pressure groups and the media.
“A centralized, authoritarian system is simply not able to do all the work,” he says.
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