In China, tainted milk trial kept under wraps
Inside a courthouse cordoned off by yellow tape and a phalanx of police, the alleged perpetrators of China’s tainted-milk scandal are being brought to trial here. But the sensational consumer safety case has been shrouded in so much secrecy that it is hard to say whether justice is in fact being done.
On Wednesday, the most significant defendant, Tian Wenhua, chairwoman of the now-bankrupt Sanlu Group, admitted that her company had delayed for months reporting that its infant formula contained the additive melamine, which causes kidney stones. Tainted formula killed at least six babies and sickened about 300,000 others.
China has made a big show of the trial, releasing courtroom video of the defendants being paraded before the judges in yellow-and-black prison garb. But the public has seen only snippets and images, and all but a few carefully screened journalists from government-owned news media have been excluded.
Parents and their lawyers, many of whom traveled from across the country in hopes of seeing the trial, are also personae non gratae at the well- secured courthouse here in Shijiazhuang, about 190 miles south of Beijing.
“There is no transparency in the process. They are behaving like there is something to hide,” said Teng Biao, a Beijing lawyer who has been trying to bring a lawsuit on behalf of 111 parents. “They are completely excluding the victims.”
The case is turning into a showdown between the Chinese government’s opaque legal system and a consumer culture that increasingly clamors for information and accountability.
Parents whose babies were sickened by the melamine have set up their own websites (one is called jieshibaobao.com, which translates to “rockbabies.com”) and trade text messages about the latest developments.
Although they have been barred from the courthouse, privately owned Chinese news outlets have stationed dozens of reporters behind the police lines, trying to interview people as they come and go.
“This is a case that the whole country is watching, actually all the world,” said Zhang Chen, senior editor for an online news service and one of the journalists in the scrum Tuesday.
Courts throughout China have refused to hear the parents’ lawsuits, and lawyers who have tried to file them have been threatened with disbarment, lawyer Teng said.
In its haste to wrap up the case before the end of the year -- which under the traditional Chinese lunar calendar falls Jan. 25 -- the government is pressing parents to accept a $160-million settlement from a consortium of dairies that was announced this week.
“It is not that I want vengeance. I don’t care about people getting the death penalty. I only want what is right for the children,” said Li Yanfang, 28, one of the mothers who was refused entry to the courthouse here.
Li complained that the government is forcing an inadequate and confusing settlement on the parents.
She was called to a municipal office here in Shijiazhuang, where she lives, and asked to sign a letter by which she would forfeit her right to further claims in return for $300 and free treatment for kidney problems until her 17-month-old daughter turns 18.
She wasn’t permitted to take the letter with her or make a photocopy, although she insisted on copying the letter by hand. When she was about to leave the municipal office, an official told her she would have to sign another letter acknowledging that she was forgoing the money.
Li refused to sign anything.
“We’re not going to sign away our rights for so little money,” said Li, who works in the insurance industry, along with her husband. “But other families in the countryside who aren’t in as good a situation as we are will feel that they need to take the money and keep quiet.”
Three babies in Li’s apartment compound have the same kidney problems as a result of drinking Sanlu’s baby formula, which was heavily marketed as a quality local brand. The company is headquartered in downtown Shijiazhuang in a huge factory with giant lettering on top of its roof reading, “Manufacture Quality Dairy Serve the People.”
Without an opportunity to hear the testimony, it is impossible to know much of what has been said at the proceedings here. For example, the daughter of Tian Wenhua, the Sanlu chairwoman, has alleged that officials in Shijiazhuang and surrounding Hebei province were part of a coverup.
“We used to receive frequent visitors from the Health Ministry. These people would eat and drink and take ‘red envelopes,’ ” Wu Qing wrote on a blog published in September, referring to the envelopes traditionally used in China to give cash. “They extorted us and didn’t inspect the product. Shouldn’t the government take responsibility?”
China’s top product quality supervisor resigned in September after the milk scandal broke, as did several Shijiazhuang officials, including the city’s Communist Party secretary. But no government officials or executives of other dairy firms implicated have been arrested in the case.
Among the 17 people who have gone on trial are other Sanlu employees and various small-town businessmen who sold melamine under the name of “protein powder” to dairy farmers. The official press has reported that some could face the death penalty.
“These criminal suspects may have committed serious crimes, but they are not the only ones,” lawyer Teng said. “The higher government officials abused their power and should be prosecuted as well.”
Eliot Gao and Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.