Throw a few dissidents in jail and most Chinese will stay silent. Deny them the right to vote and they may put it down to the cost of orderly development. But when you trifle with the safety of their children, stand back.
Thanks to China's one-child policy, children are particularly treasured in China. If you have only one, the thought of anything happening to him or her is a special torture. That thought is now on the minds of countless Chinese mothers and fathers.
China's tainted-milk crisis has made tens of thousands of babies ill, put more than 13,000 in hospital and killed at least four. In clinics and doctor's offices, anxious parents are lining up to get their children tested. Others are hovering by the hospital beds of their ailing sons and daughters. Just imagine their anger.
The government encouraged them to feed their children more milk as part of a national health campaign. It assured them Chinese milk was safe. Now they find that some dairies may have deliberately spiked milk supplies with melamine, a chemical used to make fertilizer and plastics.
The dairies are accused of watering down the milk to save money, then adding the nitrogen-rich melamine to fool government inspectors about its protein content. Melamine can produce bladder or kidney stones, an often agonizing condition that can lead to cancer. Some babies were found to have stones as large as a centimetre. Many have two or three.
Parents are now wondering who they should blame for putting their children at risk. Evidence points straight at the government and its food-safety system.
Officials say that one of China's biggest dairy producers, Sanlu Group, started getting consumer complaints about adulterated milk in June, but put off telling authorities till Aug. 2 - just six days before China's international showcase, the Olympic Games. A new report from the official Xinhua news agency this week says Sanlu may have known of the problem even earlier, as far back as last December.
Fonterra Group, the New Zealand dairy company that has a 43-per-cent share in Sanlu, says it pressed Chinese authorities for weeks to announce a milk recall. Perhaps concerned about dimming China's Olympic glow, they instead quietly pulled suspicious milk powder off store shelves. Only on Sept. 11, when the Olympics were over, did Sanlu announce a nationwide recall. It took two more days until the government revealed the problem and the cabinet declared a food-safety crisis. By then, tens of thousands of Chinese children were sick.
In a democratic system, the government would have fallen or the responsible minister been fired. In China, with its perpetually ruling Communist Party, governments don't fall. But regimes do. This is the sort of scandal that could discredit Communist rule for good.
China's leaders justify their monopoly on power by claiming to deliver fast economic growth and orderly, capable governance. Scandals like this put the lie to that claim. Although it looks powerful, the government in Beijing has less and less control over what actually happens in China. Lacking the legitimacy and accountability that would come with a democratic mandate, it has seen its power slip away as others, like provincial party bosses and local tycoons, fill the vacuum. The result is a system where corruption flourishes, regulations are not enforced and no one is held to account. As they grow more prosperous and better educated, Chinese are bound to lose faith in a regime that cannot do something as simple as make sure milk is safe for babies.
The regime is only too aware of the threat to its future. In this scandal, as in others, it has launched a damage-control operation that mixes panic with paranoia. Nineteen people have been arrested and several officials have resigned or been fired, including the head of the government food and product watchdog. At the same time, Beijing is warning the media to limit its coverage of the scandal and lawyers to be careful about representing victims.
The government has used similar tactics - cut off a few heads, sat on the media, intimidated the victims - in each of the serial scandals that have hit China in the past few years: the delayed response to the SARS outbreak; the poisoned pet food and tainted toys exported around the world; the shoddy school construction, exposed after the Sichuan earthquake, that buried thousands of schoolchildren this year.
With each exhibition of the government's negligence and incompetence, it becomes harder for Beijing to keep a lid on the anger of a people grown sick of corruption, injustice and environmental destruction. Unless Beijing has the wisdom to start a democratic evolution, it is only a matter of time before the lid flies off.