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Deadly milk shows China’s rules of political survival

Posted by Author on September 30, 2008

By Chris Buckley – Analysis, via Reuters, Sun Sep 28, 2008-

BEIJING (Reuters) – “We worked real hard for half a year, now we’re suddenly back to before the Games were here,” goes the translation of a rhyme doing the rounds in China.

And so it is.

Mass poisonings from toxic milk powder, official claims of a cover-up, and other deadly incidents involving official mendacity have shown the stagecraft of the Beijing Olympics did not much alter the backstage workings of China’s one-Party state.

Premier Wen Jiabao has vowed an overhaul of food safety after some 13,000 children crowded into hospitals, ill from an industrial chemical in the milk. Four have died.

Managers have already been arrested, officials dumped.

Yet after similar scandals, similar sackings and arrests, and similar vows last year, many Chinese are reluctant to invest high hopes that such worries will soon be behind them.

“Consumers have been given one chemistry class after another by the food industry,” wrote a commentator in the latest issue of the Chinese magazine Southern Breeze, listing past scares over rice, eggs and seafood.

“Although after the fact the government applies its fire-fighting style to resolving them, over time the public has easily evolved into treating government action as a game.”

That game often involves central leaders pleading ignorance and punishing local and junior officials blamed for hiding or underplaying problems. The milk scare has been no different.

But a closer look at how the contamination bloomed into a national crisis suggests the problems run deeper in a political system that has before also treated health threats as, foremost, political and economic threats.

“Many central policies and rules are hijacked by officials at the local level, but the center has so many different demands that local officials do this to survive,” said Zhou Shifeng, a Beijing lawyer who has volunteered to help milk powder victims.

“Local officials are where problems emerge, but they’re not the only problem.”


In China, even when alarming information amasses, official warning bells can be muffled by other priorities.

Parents began reporting outbreaks of kidney stones in babies months before the scandal became public, health and quality control officials have said.

Gansu, a poor northwest province, told the Ministry of Health about an outbreak linked to milk powder soon after investigating it in July, local health spokesman Yang Jingke told media earlier this month.

But the emerging nationwide pattern of poisonings was obscured in a top-down system adept at giving orders but ill-suited to heeding citizens, said Guan Anping, a former trade official and lawyer who has dealt with dairies.

“Local governments focus on economic growth and preventing mass unrest as the sole measures of political success,” he said. “That’s what happened with milk powder … telling ordinary people was too much trouble, because of this gulf of distrust between the government and people.”

That problem is by no means new.

In 2003, officials kept quiet the spreading peril of SARS until rumors flared into panic. In 2004, at least 13 babies died from milk powder with no nutrition before authorities acted on parents’ long-running complaints. And in the 1990s, many thousands of farmers in central China died from AIDS before officials acknowledged an epidemic and began to supply medicine.

Commercial and political worries also appear to have discouraged officials at the geographic heart of the scandal from acting sooner, said several analysts.

In the northern province of Hebei, officials for months kept to themselves mounting documentation of infants ill from milk powder made by Sanlu, a pillar of the economy in the provincial capital, Shijiazhuang, a senior health official and state media have said.

Sanlu is part owned by New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra.

Shijiazhuang and Fonterra were formally told of Sanlu’s toxic milk problem on Aug 2. But the city waited 38 days to officially tell provincial officials, who told the central government on September 8, according to the Xinhua news agency.

That was the same day that the New Zealand prime minister said her government, frustrated at the lack of public action, contacted Beijing about the poisonings.

Shijiazhuang has not explained the delay over the Beijing Olympics period. A senior Ministry of Health official, Gao Qiang, has said there was “no necessary connection” with the Games.

But for many Chinese people there is little doubt.

“The Olympics provided a political excuse to cover this up, and when that excuse disappeared, the problem kept growing and had to come out,” said Zhang Ming, a historian and political commentator at Renmin University in Beijing who has written on the scandal.

But while Shijiazhuang officials now face condemnation for their actions, they also shouldered other massive pressures from central leaders.

Sited next to Beijing, Hebei province was a focus of intense efforts to ensure a trouble-free Games. The nation’s top domestic security official, Zhou Yongkang, told Hebei to be a “protective moat,” defending the capital from potential unrest.

Echoing central demands, Hebei officials also vowed there would be no tainted food from there blighting the Games. In late 2007, the province introduced new rules on milk hygiene.

Disclosing the milk poisoning would have drawn anguished parents to Hebei and Beijing, threatening to disgrace the Chinese government under a limelight of Olympics attention, said Zhang, the Beijing professor.

“At a time when stability was an absolute priority, they made a choice,” he said. “Food safety is important, but stability concerns the survival of the Party. Officials naturally assumed their own survival came first.”


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