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China falls back into crisis mode

Officials face suspicion that they hid the infant formula scandal during the Olympic revelry.

September 24, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — How quickly things can change.

Exactly one month ago, China was staging the closing ceremony of the Olympics, basking in a haul of gold medals and wide praise for nearly perfect management of the Summer Games.

Today it is struggling with another crisis in a year that, aside from two weeks in August, has been filled with scandal, natural disasters and ethnic troubles.

The revelation that adulterated infant formula has killed at least four Chinese children and sickened 53,000 has presented rulers not only with the most serious quality-control issue in memory, but a daunting political challenge. Officials face suspicions that they knew about the crisis months ago, but hid it from consumers to avoid damping the Olympic excitement.

This crisis has hit particularly hard, in part because the repercussions are so widespread. The contaminated brands are nationally known and supposedly China's best. The news comes after previous scandals and a massive campaign to improve the quality of Chinese products. And, though any parent would be angry, it also affects the treasured "little emperors" of China's one-child generation.

At the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing on Tuesday, a long line of parents waited for their infants to have blood tests and ultrasound exams at government expense. Impromptu nurses stations were set up in the hallway to help with the crowd.

Particularly disconcerting for many is evidence that so many producers were involved while regulators stood by, that warnings were ignored, and that knowledge of the tampering appeared to be widespread. What started this month as news that a single company, Sanlu Group, was selling powdered milk containing the industrial chemical melamine to boost measurements of its protein content ballooned within days to involve 22 companies.

China's reputation has been tarnished. Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei and even far-off Gabon either banned or recalled Chinese milk products, coffee packets and chocolate. The U.S. doesn't allow the importation of Chinese dairy products, but the Food and Drug Administration has stepped up testing of candies and desserts from Asia.

Tang Zhongjun, father of 18-month-old Fukun, said his family used Sanlu milk products since their son's birth because of their excellent reputation. Several of the companies involved had been considered so safe that they were not subject to inspections.

But four months ago, Fukun started throwing up, suffering from diarrhea and having trouble urinating. His parents took him to four hospitals and eventually discovered that he had three large kidney stones.

"His mother has cried a lot and lost weight," Tang said. "He still suffers from malnutrition and keeps falling."

Tang says he doesn't plan to sue if the government compensates the family adequately.

Melamine also was at the heart of a scandal last year in which North American pets died after eating Chinese-made pet food. The chemical reportedly was added by unscrupulous suppliers to make products appear protein-rich. Ingesting melamine, used in plastics and fertilizer production, can cause malnutrition and kidney damage.

Previous Chinese quality-control scandals have involved toothpaste, seafood, tires, medicine and toys. Analysts say they underscore the downside of a political system in which accountability is limited and conflicts of interest rife.

"The Chinese Communist Party might be able to calm things down this time," said Alfred Chan, a professor at Canada's University of Western Ontario. "The danger is that things accumulate to an eventual breaking point. This is an emotional issue that greatly affects the population, one that has received a great deal of publicity and shows the party in a very unflattering light."

The Chinese people are growing increasingly assertive, and the government can no longer simply stifle bad news. The Internet has been ablaze with comments reflecting parents' fear and anger.

"Where are the concerned parties that are supposed to inspect the quality?" asked user myy8206 on the discussion forum xici.net. "They should be taken out and shot!"

Well-known TV host Liu Yiwei, in a column in a Shanghai newspaper, asked why regulators don't oversee food production as carefully as they oversee the media. Films "don't injure people or take their lives," he wrote. "Why can't officials inspect baby formula as strictly as they censor films?"

The milk scandal is the latest headache for leaders who grappled with a storm in February, Tibet riots in March, the protest-marred Olympic torch relay in April and a massive earthquake in Sichuan in May.

China has become a model for many developing countries as it has elevated millions of people from poverty. But economic and social reforms have raced ahead of political reform.

Powerful individuals often hold both important economic and political posts. For instance, Sanlu's chairwoman, who was sacked, was also an important local Communist Party official.

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