XINXING, China (AP) — Heartbroken at the sudden death of their baby boy, the
Yi family struggled to forget what they thought was a tragic twist of fate. They
burned his clothes, toys, everything but a single photo and the baby formula he
Then health officials suddenly arrived at the family's rural home last month
with shocking news: Milk contaminated by an industrial chemical might have
killed their son. On Monday, the Yis filed a lawsuit against the company at the
heart of the scandal — the first court action by a family of a child who
Unrecognized at the time, 6-month-old Yi Kaixuan's death in May made him
among the first victims in what would become a nationwide scandal. It would be
another four months before the dairy, Sanlu Group Co., revealed there was a
problem, and the government later confirmed there was widespread contamination
of China's milk supply. Four infants have died and tens of thousands of children
"I have no idea how any of this happened," Yi Yongsheng, the baby's slight,
soft-spoken father, told The Associated Press on Sunday as he ran his fingers
through his hair.
His wife, Jiao Hongfang, crouched outside in the courtyard cooking silently.
She had collapsed in grief at her son's death and again in September when
officials came with news of the tainted milk.
"She doesn't want to face this anymore," Yi said.
The scandal is one of the worst tainted food crises in China in years. It has
exposed shoddy practices in the booming dairy industry and raised questions
about when the government first knew dairy products were contaminated with
melamine, a chemical used in making plastics and fertilizers. Unscrupulous
suppliers are suspected of adding it to watered-down milk to mask the resulting
protein deficiency in quality tests.
Sanlu — a state-owned company whose products were the most heavily tainted —
is now largely defunct, with the Xinhua News Agency reporting Monday that
several other companies were vying to scoop up its assets.
Worst affected, however, have been China's poor, who turned to Sanlu products
because they were less expensive.
In places like Xinxing, a town of brick and packed-earth houses surrounded by
corn fields in the roughly terraced hills of western China, families have
little. Yi spends most of the year working construction jobs in one of China's
largest cities, Xi'an, while Jiao tends their small plot of land. The family
makes about $580 a year.
The baby boy was their second child; they have a 5-year-old daughter. China's
strict family planning rules allow many rural Chinese to have a second child in
order to try for a boy, in a nod to traditional preferences for male heirs.
Infant formula for the baby was expensive but necessary. Jiao's breast milk
wasn't enough, Yi said, so they started supplementing with milk powder. By his
second month, formula was all the infant was fed. They thought the formula was
healthy, and Sanlu was a brand with a good reputation.
"And it was just a little cheaper than the others," Yi said — $2.60 for a
package that would last three or four days.
But on April 20, the baby wouldn't stop crying and had problems urinating.
Jiao took him to the village clinic, but they couldn't pinpoint a problem.
Alarmed, Yi left his construction job and returned home. The family headed
for the Gansu provincial capital, Lanzhou. On April 30, they took the baby to
two city hospitals. Doctors were stunned, Yi said. They said they'd never seen a
child with so many kidney stones, and the situation was critical.
A frenzy of testing followed, and the bills piled up past $145. The parents
didn't sleep all night, waiting.
Around noon the next day, a doctor came to tell them their baby had died.
No one at the time, the doctors included, seemed to link the kidney stones
and the infant formula.
Terrible luck, the family decided. In keeping with local custom that treats
the death of a child so young as a tragedy best quickly forgotten, they burned
everything. They kept a single photo of the child — shown with his grandfather
during Chinese New Year in February — and the infant formula. It was a luxury
and could be used for another child. There was no funeral.
"Burning those things was like walking away," Yi said. "To keep looking at
them and remembering would be too sad."
The family did their best to forget the boy, until Gansu provincial health
officials arrived in mid-September. They asked many questions and took samples
of the baby formula, then told the family to wait — they would call later with
Since then, the family hasn't heard a word.
The Gansu provincial health department declined comment, its spokesman saying
they do not give telephone interviews.
Yi only considered undertaking legal action after a friend contacted a
Shanghai-based lawyer who'd grown up in the nearby city of Tianshui.
Attorney Dong Junming took the case without charge and started adding up the
damages: $6,700, which Dong estimates equals 20 years of the average Gansu
farmer's salary; $146,000 for emotional damages.
"Frankly? Sanlu won't pay out that much," Dong said Sunday at a cafe in
Lanzhou, where he was making final preparations for filing the lawsuit. "But we
think this situation is really shocking, so we're going to ask."
Such liability suits are rare in China, despite growing public awareness of
an individual's legal rights. A group of some 100 lawyers who offered free legal
advice to victims of the tainted milk scandal have faced official pressure to
withdraw from the cases, attorney Chang Boyang told the AP. After the massive
earthquake in May, some parents whose children died in the collapse of shoddily
built schools said they were offered cash in return for signing pledges not to
So far, just two other known lawsuits have been filed in the tainted milk
scandal, both by families of babies who were sickened but survived. In both —
one in southern Guangdong province, the other in central Henan — it is not clear
whether the courts will accept the lawsuits. In the Yis' case, Dong said he was
told the court would make a decision Tuesday.
In Xinxing, Yi is relying on Dong to handle the legal details. He studied no
further than ninth grade, and Jiao only went to primary school. They had placed
their future in their children.
Both Yi and his wife are only 30, and Yi said some day they might try for
another child, a sibling for their daughter.
The girl, Yi Xuan, really liked her baby brother, Yi said. "But maybe she's
already forgotten him."
Yi sat on a low stool as he spoke, the single photo of the baby on a table
beside him. The daughter, pink-cheeked and shy, hid behind him but eventually
noticed the photo. She smiled and said the baby's name.
She reached for the photo. But Yi looked hard at her and pushed it away.