Milk scandal sours China's 'soft power'
By Willy Lam, Asia Times
October 10, 2008
China's formidable state machinery was able to stage the
largest Olympics in history and to have a "Taikonaut" perform a 20-minute
spacewalk last week. Yet the world-scale scandal emanating from contaminated
milk products has exposed the worsening malaise in the country's political and
As of early October, four children died and
more than 60,000 children were sickened after having consumed milk powder
tainted with melamine, an illegal chemical used by farmers to fake the protein
content of their milk. Not only rich countries such as the United States and
Britain, but also Asian and African nations ranging from Singapore and Vietnam
to Gabon and Ghana, have banned Chinese-made dairy goods and a wide range of
biscuits and candies made with Chinese ingredients.
More than a dozen
big-name manufacturers within China's $20 billion dairy industry - as well as
the country's food safety regulatory system - have been found guilty of either
conniving in the use of the chemical or failing to spot the malpractice,
according to reports.
The milk powder scandal has dealt a severe blow to
the "made in China" brand even as the growth of China's exports - the most
important driver of the Chinese economy - has been slowed by economic downturn
in its major markets.
More significantly, China's export of tainted milk
products - which has come on the heels of contaminated cosmetics and pet food as
well as dangerous toys and furniture - has severely damaged the goodwill and
"soft power" that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tried to gain through
multi-billion dollar "prestige-engineering projects" such as the 2008 Beijing
Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.
In an emotional meeting with
the parents of children who had fallen sick after imbibing tainted milk, Premier
Wen Jiabao said he felt "very guilty" about the poisoned milk, adding "I
sincerely apologize to all of you."
While appearing at the United
Nations General Assembly as well as the World Economic Forum (WEF), Wen assured
the international community of Beijing's ability to fix the problem. Referring
to the milk disaster, Wen said at the WEF last weekend: "This issue is not over
yet, but please be assured that we will soon unveil plans to boost the food
industry. My government and I will lead our people through this hard journey."
While Wen has a well-deserved reputation as a "premier who puts people
first", his words may not sound that convincing. Only weeks after the Beijing
Olympics, China has witnessed man-made disasters of gargantuan proportions.
More than 250 residents in Xiangfen County, Shanxi province, perished in
a mudslide in early September. The accident was triggered by the collapse of the
retaining wall of an illegal mining dump containing tons of liquid iron ore
waste. In nearby Henan province, 37 miners were killed in an accident in
Dengfeng County. The cause of the disaster was again lax regulations and poor
inspection. Then came the fire in Wu Wang Nightclub, an illegal, unlicensed
outfit in Shenzhen, the boomtown just across the border from Hong Kong.
Forty-three revelers, including five day-trippers from Hong Kong, perished.
Even assuming that party and government authorities are really serious
this time, they face an uphill battle in eradicating unscrupulous and malfeasant
manufacturers and businessmen in China. A key reason behind the recent spate of
scandals is that particularly in the provinces and cities, entrepreneurs and
regional officials enjoy cozy relationships. And this is not solely because
large corporations are major tax contributors.
Sanlu Dairy Co, the
epicenter of the milk scandal, contributed 330 million yuan (US$48.5 million) of
taxes to the municipal government of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, last year.
Many companies invite local officials to become "silent partners" in their
corporations - in return for "protection" rendered by the powers-that-be.
Former Sanlu chairman Tian Wenhua, for example, is said to be on
"comradely terms" with Shijiazhuang officials. It is perhaps for this reason
that Tian was given the honorary position of deputy to the provincial people's
congress. Similarly, the Wu Wang Nightclub in Shenzhen has been operating
without a license for more than a year. This could only have been possible due
to what Chinese call a "protective umbrella" proffered by well-placed officials
in the city.
Despite the "serve the people" credo of the Hu-Wen
administration, supervision over food and industrial safety remains lax and
ridden with loopholes. Last year, the former director of the State Food and Drug
Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed for taking bribes from pharmaceutical
firms whose shady products were responsible for the deaths of at least 10
The issue of fake or tainted milk powder is not new. In 2004,
at least 12 infants died after taking in baby formula with no nutritional value.
The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine
(GAQSIQ), which is responsible for checking milk and related merchandise, has
been aware of the illegal use of melamine for a long time. Just last year,
Chinese-made pet food was banned in the United States because it contained high
dosages of melamine.
Inexplicably, the GAQSIQ has in the past couple of
years awarded dairy giants Sanlu, Meng Niu, and Yili - whose products were found
to be tainted with the chemical - the coveted "famous brand" designation. This
status meant their products were exempted from routine inspection by
The muddleheaded nature of the Chinese
bureaucracy is also evident from rescue operations mounted by the State Council
(or cabinet) in the wake of major disasters. The modus operandi of choice is
setting up a multi-departmental "emergency leading group" to find out the causes
of the mishaps and to recommend remedial measures. Thus, soon after the milk
powder fiasco broke in early September, Beijing established a leading group
consisting of cadre from seven state units - the Health Ministry, the GAQSIQ,
State Administration of Industry and Commerce, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry
of Public Security, the State Food and Drug Administration, and the provincial
government of Hebei.
This so-called inter-departmental approach to
problem-solving has also been used by the Wen cabinet to tackle illegal
land-zoning practices, real-estate speculation and other malpractices in the
regions. For example, the State Council in early September sent a work group
consisting of cadre from several ministries to check on illegal education
charges levied by different provinces. These units included the National
Development and Reform Commission, the Education Ministry, the Ministry of
Supervision, the Ministry of Finance, the National Audit Administration and the
National Press and Publication Administration.
involvement of several departments reflects the fact that the line of
responsibility is not clear; no one single ministry seems to be in charge of
matters ranging from food safety and education to housing and land use.
Quite a number of observers believe that the root of bureaucratic
malaise lies in an outdated, non-transparent political structure.
Xingdou, a reformist professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, thinks
that Beijing must take bold steps to overhaul governance. "Every time there is
an incident, the relevant department takes medicine to cure the headache. That
only fixes the problem, not the system," he indicated. "Now is the time to
transform the way of thinking, to repair the system."
structural shortcoming is excessive concentration of power in the party. Thanks
to the CCP's near-monopoly of most political and economic resources, there are
no meaningful checks and balances within the system. Institutions that could
provide some oversight over party and government authorities - for example, the
legislature, the courts or the media - are tightly controlled by CCP
Compounding this endemic malaise is the long-standing
tradition - subscribed to by leaders from Chairman Mao to President Hu - of
regarding "upright rulers" as more important than good systems. For generations,
the CCP has been trying to nurture "virtuous and competent" cadre for leadership
posts rather than designing systems with built-in checks and balances.
The imperative about propagating saintly fumuguan ("parents-like
officials") harks back to the Confucian ideal of a benevolent mandarin. Mao
wanted all cadres to emulate the legendary Lei Feng, the incorruptible,
ultra-altruistic model proletariat. Speaking on the recent spate of horrendous
industrial and food-safety incidents, Hu said late last month in the People's
Daily that this was due to the fact that "some cadres lack a consciousness about
their [proper] goals, knowledge about the overall political requirements, a
[proper] estimation of future dangers, and a sense of responsibility." The party
chief urged senior officials nationwide to "resolutely uphold [the ideal] that
the CCP is based on public service, that administration is for the sake of the
people ... and that cadres must always bear in mind the safety and well-being of
An important achievement in personnel reform under the
Hu-Wen leadership is the concept of "cadre responsibility", whereby senior
officials have to take political responsibility for serious "mass incidents".
Thus, a number of cadre either resigned or were fired in the wake of the milk
powder scandal. They included the GAQSIQ director Li Changjiang and the Party
Secretary and the Mayor of Shijiazhuang, respectively Wu Xianguo and Ji
Chuntang. In mid-September, Shanxi Governor Meng Xuenong and Vice-Governor Zhang
Jianmin were sacked due to the mudslide incident. In Henan, the Party Secretary
of Dengfeng County, Zhang Xuejun, received a severe reprimand while Mayor Wu
Fumin was forced to step down.
However, the fate of these disgraced
cadre has raised a number of questions about whether the CCP leadership has
followed fair and judicious principles in meting out punishment. If the governor
of Shanxi was sacked for the sorry state of his provinces' mines, why has Hebei
Governor Hu Chunhua escaped censure for the milk powder scandal?
is also the question of whether the party chief - or the governor or major - of
a province or city should shoulder responsibility for lapses. The fall of both
the party chiefs and mayors of Shijiazhuang and Dengfeng seems to indicate that
senior members of both the party and government should take the rap. However, in
the case of Shanxi, only the governor and the vice-governor - but not the more
senior-ranked party secretary of the province, Zhang Baoshun - took the fall.
One explanation is that Hubei's Hu, 45, and Shanxi's Zhang, 58, have
been spared because of their closeness to President Hu. In particular, Hu
Chunhua, who, like the president, is a former head of the Communist Youth
League, is regarded as a possible "core" of China's sixth-generation leadership.
The Hu-Wen leadership's apparent failure to come up with a laudable cadre
responsibility regime is one more illustration of deep-seated woes in the
Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at
The Jamestown Foundation. He is the author of five books on China, including the
recently published Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New