(New York Times)
By Jim Yardley and David Barboza
In recent days, Prime Minister Wen
Jiabao has apologized for a scandal that has sickened
53,000 children, killed at least three and devastated
But a year ago, Mr. Wen made a
similar pledge to overhaul safety regulations for food, drugs and other
products in response to other safety scandals. His government authorized $1.1
billion and sent 300,000 inspectors to examine food and drug producers, but
regulators could not prevent
The dairy scandal raises the core question of whether the
ruling Communist Party is capable of creating a transparent, accountable
regulatory structure within a one-party system. Party leaders realize that effective
regulation is essential to convince the world that
Officials now acknowledge that
“The system needs to be re-examined, top to bottom,” said
Eliot R. Cutler, an expert on regulation and energy policy at the
Much of the public outrage in
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
The mother said she had already complained in vain to Sanlu and local officials.
“Urgent! Urgent! Urgent!” she wrote. She called on
Hundreds of miles north, the health bureau in
The government also oversaw a four-month crackdown that resembled a nationwide vice sweep: 1,187 criminal investigations opened, 300 drugmakers shuttered, 192,400 unlicensed food shops closed and 1,400 substandard slaughterhouses shut down.
The crackdown in response to the dairy scandal already echoes last year’s campaign. The country’s top food quality official, Li Changjiang, resigned while lower officials were fired or arrested.
But the essential relationship between regulators and
industry seems unchanged. Some dairy farmers interviewed this week in
“Before melamine, the dealers added rice porridge or starch into the milk to artificially boost the protein count, but that method was easily tested as fake, so they switched to melamine,” said Zhao Huibin, a dairy farmer near Shijiazhuang.
Mr. Zhao said quality testers at Sanlu took bribes from farmers and milk dealers in exchange for looking the other way on milk adulterated with melamine. “In this business, bribery keeps everyone silent,” he said.
A company spokesman at Sanlu, after receiving a faxed list of questions, said the company would have no comment on this or any other aspect of the scandal.
Analysts say the lack of a truly independent regulatory system means that high-profile gestures, like executing or firing officials, have limited impact, especially because local industries are so often intertwined with local officials.
“These after-the-fact administrative measures miss the point,” wrote Arthur Kroeber, managing director of the Beijing-based consultancy, Dragonomics, in a recent note to clients. He said the problem was rooted in the Communist Party’s continued involvement in pricing control, company management and the flow of information.
“The party views control of all three as necessary to its rule,” he added. “Further major scandals are thus inevitable.”
The structure of the Sanlu Group,
which keeps its headquarters in this gritty industrial city, is a case in
point. The Hebei Province Communist Party appointed
the company’s chairwoman, who was also a party official. Meanwhile, city
For Sanlu, a pivotal moment came
on Aug. 2 when company officials informed the board about the melamine problem.
Sanlu is a joint venture with the
Sanlu had first received
complaints about its powdered baby formula last December, according to state
media. By March, the company had hired private companies to test its milk
powder for contaminants. Yet Sanlu never issued any
public warnings and never stopped promoting its products. On May 18, days after
the devastating earthquake in
But problems were surfacing. On May 21, a father named Wang Yuanping posted a notice on a popular Internet message board, Tianya, in which he detailed months of frustrating interaction with the company. His infant daughter had been sickened after drinking the powdered formula. “Her urine was viscous and yellow, with granule,” Mr. Wang wrote. “This stopped when she stopped drinking and resumed when she started drinking.”
He had first alerted Sanlu in
February because he feared someone might be counterfeiting the company’s
products. Sanlu asked him to send a sample for
testing and later company officials confirmed that the sample was their
product. But they told Mr. Wang that the results were a “business secret” and
refused to divulge them. By late March, Mr. Wang also complained to local
officials in his hometown in
By midsummer, some Chinese journalists were learning that sick babies were arriving at hospitals.
Mr. Fu, the editor at Southern Weekend, wrote in his blog that Sanlu applied pressure to block reporting and used its political connections to prevent some other newspapers from publishing articles about the problem. But with only weeks before the Olympics’ opening ceremony, the timing made media coverage nearly impossible. “We couldn’t do any investigation on an issue like this, at that time, in order to be harmonious,” Mr. Fu wrote.
For two years, the Central Propaganda Department had been
issuing broad reporting guidelines that were distributed in Internal Digest, a
classified bimonthly Communist Party bulletin. The emphasis was on promoting
good news about the Olympics. But the scandals in 2007 over the safety of
Chinese food and drug exports complicated this agenda. A huge pet-food recall
Propaganda officials responded by issuing rules that required domestic publications to obtain permission before publishing any articles about food safety and other politically delicate subjects.
On July 24, a television station in
Yet the problem remained largely concealed. “I felt very guilty and frustrated then,” Mr. Fu wrote. “The only thing I could do was to call every friend I knew to tell them not to feed their children with Sanlu milk powder.”
The problem was finally exposed in September when the
Chinese leaders have since responded forcefully, even as they have distanced themselves from responsibility for the scandal. The aggressive initial tone of media coverage shifted this week, as state media outlets like Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, emphasized how much the public appreciated the government’s response. And censors were filtering the Internet and removing certain postings, including the blog item by Mr. Fu.
Reached by telephone on Friday, Mr. Fu said he could not answer any questions about his blog.
This week, China Central Television, the government network, has been offering reassurances that the dairy products still on the shelves are safe. 9-27-08
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