TIANJIN, China -- Chinese Premier WenJiabao defended his government's handling of a
scandal over tainted milk products and promised to fix the country's dairy
industry as lawyers advising some of the scandal's victims said they have been
cautioned by local officials to limit their activities.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in the Chinese port
city of Tianjin,
Mr. Wen said the dairy crisis "exposed the fact
that there are still many problems in our supervision of production, and the
government has responsibility." He said the incident served as an
"alert" for the whole country.
Mr. Wen also said there had been
no effort to conceal the problem, despite evidence that the company at the
center of the scandal worked with local government officials to keep it from
becoming public for weeks or even months.
discovered this problem, there wasn't the slightest coverup,"
Mr. Wen said in response to a question from the
forum's leader after his speech. "We faced this frankly, and moreover
bravely handled its resolution."
Mr. Wen may have been referring to
the response of China's
central government, which has said that it moved quickly to deal with the
problem after first learning of it on Sept. 8. The Ministry of Health announced
a recall of Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co.'s milk
powder three days later.
But the government's own reconstruction of events shows that
officials at Sanlu had already received reports late
last year that its milk powder was making infants sick, and knew by early
August that the product was tainted with the industrial chemical melamine,
which can cause kidney problems. Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd., the New Zealand dairy company that owns 43% of Sanlu, has said that it pushed for a public recall
immediately after being informed of the problem Aug. 2, but that officials in Shijiazhuang, the
provincial capital where Sanlu is based, rebuffed it.
Melamine has since been found in a wide range of Chinese
dairy products, although Sanlu's products have had
the highest levels. At least three infants have died after consuming tainted
formula and more than 54,000 have been sickened with kidney disease, according
to the government.
Lawyers across China have been advising victims'
families on possible lawsuits against Sanlu, and some
of the lawyers said they are being pressured by local officials to curtail or
end their work.
"I heard many lawyers have faced this pressure to
abandon their efforts," Li Fangping, a
Beijing-based lawyer who has consulted with affected families, said Sunday. Mr.
Li said he was contacted by Beijing's
municipal justice department Sunday and told "you should trust the
[Communist] party and the government will solve this problem well."
Officials at the justice department couldn't be reached for comment.
Lawyers involved in the case in two other cities in the
central province of Henan and the western province of Gansu
reported receiving similar pressure from local officials. A fourth lawyer said
he hadn't received any official pressure, and one other lawyer declined to
comment, saying "it is not convenient to tell you anything about this
The melamine scare has prompted recalls and bans in several
countries of Chinese dairy imports or goods made with Chinese ingredients that
could be contaminated. During the weekend, Indonesia's Ministry of Health said
its tests had found melamine in 12 types of products sold there, including
Oreo-brand wafer sticks, M&M's and Snickers candy bars. The Oreo snacks
were made by an Indonesian unit of Nabisco Food (Suzhou)
Co., and the candies were made by Mars Food Co. Ltd., Beijing.
Nabisco parent company Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield,
Ill., said Sunday that it "supports the
Indonesian government's cautionary measure" but that the milk ingredients
in the Oreo wafer products sold in Indonesia
don't come from China.
"It is a very unusual finding," said Nancy Daigler, Kraft senior vice president of corporate affairs.
"We are trying to understand the facts."
Mars Inc. officials in the U.S. couldn't immediately be
reached for comment. A statement on the company's Web site didn't mention Indonesia's
action but said independent tests of milk powders from businesses that supply
ingredients to its Mars China factory didn't detect any melamine. The statement
also said testing by Hong Kong, Thailand and South Korea had cleared its
In his speech Saturday, Mr. Wen
said the scandal also shows the need for strengthened "corporate
morality" in China,
as well as tighter government regulation. "We will put forward a plan to
rapidly revitalize the dairy industry," he said, adding that the
government intends to make all Chinese manufactured goods products "that
Chinese people can trust, and that the people of the world can trust."
Mr. Wen also reassured the
assembled business leaders and others attending the economic forum that China will
continue its three-decade-old program of economic overhauls and opening. And he
predicted China would be
able to maintain rapid growth despite the U.S. financial crisis and a global
Many foreign executives in China
have expressed concern in recent months about China's
attitude toward foreign business, after an antiforeign
backlash over criticism of China's
Tibet policies and a severe
tightening of visa approvals by Beijing
in the run-up to the Olympics this summer.
Mr. Wen didn't address those
issues specifically but said China
"will deepen foreign-related economic structural reform; improve
foreign-related economic laws, regulations and policies; expand market access;
strengthen the protection of intellectual property rights and provide a better
environment for foreign businesses in China."
While Mr. Wen's pledges weren't
new, they served to assure investors the government remains committed to these