Phelim Kine: China’s Public Health Whitewash

In the Guardian, Human Rights Watch researcher Phelim Kine critiques a new book by the Chinese government, the World Health Organization and the International Olympic Committee for whitewashing the censorship of reports about contaminated milk powder during the Olympic Games in Beijing:

An official ban on reporting of “all food safety issues” during the games stifled domestic media coverage of revelations that at least 20 dairy firms were spiking milk products with the chemical melamine. That cover-up contributed to the deaths of six children and illness among 300,000 others.

But there’s not a whisper of melamine – or of the reporting ban – in a May 2010 book jointly issued by the Chinese government, the WHO and IOC, The Health Legacy of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games: Successes and Recommendations.

That publication instead declares that “no major outbreak of food-borne disease occurred during the Beijing Olympics”. The book describes, without irony, the Chinese government’s attention to food safety during the Beijing Olympics as “an instructive example of how mass events can be organised to promote health in a value-added way”.

The book’s introduction features tributes from the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, who praises the Beijing Olympics for providing a “lasting legacy to the benefit of the population in and around Beijing”. The WHO director-general, Margaret Chan, commends the Beijing Games for spurring “innovative measures to protect the health of visitors and the local population”.

The WHO’s and IOC’s parroting of the Chinese government’s rosy assessment of the Beijing Olympics’ health legacy doesn’t just defy the historical record. It adds insult to the injury of China’s child melamine victims by whitewashing the role of official censorship in their misery.