China's Premier Wen Jiabao is a without doubt the most popular figure in China's top leadership: a graying, grandfatherly standout in a crowd of wooden faces that rarely crack a smile, much less choke up on national television as Wen did after May's earthquake in Sichuan province. But this week even the ever-patient Wen must be wishing that someone else could take up his role as Beijing's mollifier-in-chief. On Sept. 22, the 62-year-old said he felt "extremely guilty" about the poisoned milk products that have killed four babies and sickened tens of thousands, adding: "I sincerely apologize to all of you."
And though he undoubtedly meant what he said, Wen's mea culpa must carry less weight than it might have a few years ago, echoing previous occasions on which he has been obliged to ask the people's pardon for everything from the deaths of coal miners and polluted drinking water to train passengers stranded by the authorities' inadequate response to a severe snowstorm. Faced with an ever expanding crisis over poisoned milk products and a string of other recent accidents that left hundreds dead — all directly attributable to administrative negligence or corruption — ordinary Chinese might be excused for asking themselves whether the government ever intends to do more than just apologize. To some critics, September's scandals have been a bloody reminder of Beijing's apparent inability or unwillingness to undertake the kind of reforms needed to stop the slaughter from continuing for years to come. "This is a long-term consequence of the economy-oriented ideology," Hu Xingdou, a professor of Beijing Institute of Technology, wrote in an online essay about the milk powder issue. "There hasn't been an effort to establish a moral foundation to the market economy, and this incident is the inevitable result."
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.
There's no question that many Chinese were willing to accept the need to show a united face to the world in the approach to the Olympics. But within days of the closing ceremony, a public protest demonstration against the government in a Beijing suburb signaled that the grace period was over. The string of disasters that has befallen the nation since then will only add to questions about where the limits of the long-suffering public's patience lie. This week, anger over the milk powder scandal was palpable at one of Beijing's main Children's Hospitals, where hundreds of anxious parents were lined up with their toddlers waiting to see a doctor. "Enough with the hindsight," said private business owner Zhang Zaihua, 26. "Where were all those supervisors before this whole thing happened?" Zhang's 19-month-old daughter, who had been fed on one of the brands on the government's blacklist of tainted products, had to undergo testing after traces of blood were found in her urine, a possible indication that she might have developed kidney stones caused by the addition of the chemical additive melamine. Zhang said he didn't hold grudges against any individual officials, but rather the "collective moral corruption of the producers."
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."
But others say real change will require much more than just more training and education of officials. "Every time there is an incident, the relevant department takes medicine to cure the headache. That only fixes the problem, not the system," Professor Hu of the Beijing Institute of Technology wrote in his essay. "Now is the time to transform the way of thinking, to repair the system. Beijing-based China scholar Russell Leigh Moses isn't optimistic that will happen anytime soon. The problem is "not so much political or structural as psychological. The top leadership can't get over their anxiety that any structural reform will mean the end of one party rule," Moses says. "They are more and more out of step with the public and even though there's still room for them to maneuver on this, these events accumulate and the wiggle room gets narrower and narrower." At some point, saying "sorry" just won't be good enough anymore.