Posted by: Frederik Balfour on January 23, 2009
The newspaper photographs taken on Jan. 22 of a weeping woman whose granddaughter died from melamine-tainted milk in China last year provided stark and heartbreaking contrast to another grim image of Zhang Yujun, as he was being led to trial in China’s northwestern province of Hebei. Justice was swift and harsh, and the trial lasted but a few hours. Zhang was sentenced to death, as was another man who helped him contaminate the milk supply with melamine to raise the protein content of the products they sold to dairy companies. At least six babies died as a result, while as about 300,000 others suffered kidney infections caused by drinking tainted milk. The chairman of Sanlu milk company, Tian Wen Hua was given a life sentence after she knowingly allowed her company Sanlu to sell the contaminated products for months. Three other company executives also received prison sentences.
But the story should not end there, for justice has not been fully served. Do not forget that this tragedy could have been lessened or even prevented had the Chinese media run with the story sooner. The melamine scandal finally broke last fall only after Sanlu’s New Zealand joint-venture partner Fonterra blew the whistle. Later it was revealed that the Chinese media had been aware of the milk scandal several weeks earlier, but had not dared run the story for fear of reprisal by the State which did not look kindly on anything that would tarnish China’s reputation during the run-up to the Olympics. This is hardly an isolated incident of self censorship and/or official muzzling of the media in China, yet if anything, the government has moved to tighten the fetters on the press since then. How many more tragedies must Chinese families suffer through before Beijing realizes that a vigilant media is an essential bulwark against greed and graft, and could well help save more lives in the future.