2008 has not been kind to China: deadly winter storms in February, riots in Tibet in March, protests of the Olympic torch relay in April, and a massive earthquake in Sichuan province in May. Within weeks of its triumphant hosting of the Summer Olympic Games, China is again mired in scandal. This time, it’s news of baby formula and other dairy products contaminated with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics and fertilizers (and which was also at the heart of the pet food scandal last year).
Since Xinhua News Service, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, began reporting about the milk scandal on September 12, an estimated 53,000 babies have been found suffering from kidney stones and four have died. There are widespread suspicions that China’s authorities were warned about the problem as early as spring 2008, but chose to cover it up until after the Olympics.
Chinese consumers have been expressing their outrage at the lack of corporate and government accountability through unofficial channels such as internet chat rooms and text messaging. But the government response to this outrage has been a bit different than in previous incidents, such as the recent Sichuan earthquake, when victims and their relatives were bribed or intimidated into silence. Censorship has been minimal, and lawyers have been authorized to assist the victims’ families.
“In the past, when facing a public incident, people tended to wait for the government to respond. But now they are learning to act to protect themselves,” said Li Fangping, a prominent human rights lawyer who is leading a loose coalition of 120 lawyers who are offering pro-bono assistance to the victims’ families.
In recent years, these lawyers have boldly capitalized upon public scandals to advocate for citizen rights. This time they are contemplating the possibility of a class-action lawsuit against the dairy manufacturers. More than 1,000 parents have already complained to Li and his colleagues, saying that hospitals are not providing free treatment for affected babies as was promised by the Ministry of Health.
But taking on controversial cases to seek redress from the state or state-linked companies is still a risky proposition in the context of China’s authoritarian political system and newly created legal system. Li and his colleagues are facing growing pressure to abandon their efforts -– including intimidation tactics on the part of officials nervous about the social repercussions of such a sensitive case.
Experts predict the Chinese government will resolve the scandal through compensation settlements rather than permit the families and lawyers access to the courts.
WIDE ANGLE’s 2007 film about the reform of China’s legal system, The People’s Court, profiled a human rights lawyer and revealed the lengths to which Chinese people must go to obtain justice.