China’s Poisoned-Milk Scandal: Is Sorry Enough?

From Time Magazine:

Even by Chinese standards, this month’s carnage has been extraordinary. First came a mudslide that obliterated much of a mining village in the province of Shanxi on September 8. The official death toll was 265, but some Chinese media reports — soon suppressed — said it may have been much higher. The incident was blamed on corruption and failed regulatory oversight and resulted in the resignations of the province’s governor and his deputy (they resigned without being charged with a specific crime). Soon after, three accidents in coal mines killed another 79 people, and a disco fire — once again blamed on lax regulation — killed an estimated 43 revelers in the southern city of Shenzhen. But citizens’ furor over poisonous infant formula and the seemingly blatant failure of regulation in the milk industry overshadowed all those tragedies. One reason was its sheer scale: over 50,000 children sickened, some 12,000 hospitalized and four dead.

The central government’s response to the string of calamities betrayed the contradiction that lies at the heart of Beijing’s dilemma: to preserve “stability” — and the rule of the Communist Party — the authorities had to been seen to be taking action. The public was thus informed of arrests of businessmen and resignations by top officials including a provincial governor and the head of the state food quality inspectorate. But ‘stability’ also means not letting the blame game allow its focus to center too squarely on the Party. Within days of the story breaking, the state media was commanded by the Propaganda Department to tone down its coverage of the milk powder scandal. Lawyers looking to file suits on behalf of aggrieved parents were ordered in no uncertain terms to drop their plans. Internet discussions of this and other recent disasters were swiftly deleted.

… Increasing evidence of a cover-up that prevented news of the tainted formula from being made public for a month or more (during which the Olympic games were held, Chinese netizens noted) further stoked the public’s ire. Even the World health Organization’s China representative Hans Troedsson said the issue of who knew what and when was critical. “It is important to know if information was withheld, where and why it was withheld,” he told the Associated Press. “Was it ignorance by provincial authorities or was it that they neglected to report it? Because if it was ignorance there is a need to have much better training and education … if it is neglect then it is of course more serious.”

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