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Parents’ voice stifled in China milk issue

Chinese police detained at least five parents for 24 hours to block a news conference at which they planned to publicize the plight of their children, who are suffering from kidney stones as a result of drinking tainted baby formula.

The parents were seized about 11:30 p.m. Thursday and taken to a hotel often used by police as a temporary detention center on the outskirts of Beijing. They had scheduled the news conference in the capital for Friday afternoon, according to lawyers, who said the parents were released late Friday night.

“It is sorrowful for our nation. They just wanted to speak their voice,” said Xu Zhiyuan, a Beijing-based lawyer and activist who represents 111 parents. He said the parents were under what was euphemistically called “temporary restricted personal freedom.”

The organizer of the news conference, Zhao Lianhai, 36, is a former employee of China’s food safety watchdog agency whose 3-year-old son contracted kidney stones from drinking tainted formula. He has been among the most vocal of the parents and started a website, Stone Babies, about the victims. Chinese censors blocked the site Friday.

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Despite the detentions, a small group of other parents, watched by police, spoke to reporters Friday on a Beijing sidewalk.

Six babies have died and as many as 300,000 fell ill after drinking the baby formula, which had been spiked with melamine, a compound used for plastics. Dairy companies had been adding it to make protein content appear higher.

Enraged parents in recent days have been protesting a financial settlement that they say the Chinese government is forcing down their throats. Parents say that the amounts offered -- $300 for mild kidney stones and $4,400 for children who required hospitalization -- do not even cover what they’ve already spent on medical treatment and that inadequate attention has been devoted to the long-term impact on the children’s health. The deal provides free medical treatment for the kidney condition until the children reach 18.

“We don’t know how long the disease will last. Will it get worse? Will our daughter have kidney problems for life?” said Li Yanfang, 28, in an interview Tuesday. Her 17-month-old daughter has a small kidney stone that hasn’t resolved after months of medical treatment that has cost the family $450. “Our daughter has no appetite for food. Her immune system is no good. She’s always sick with a cold or something.

“It’s felt like the sky is collapsing. We have only this one child, and our whole life revolves around her,” said Li, who lives in Shijiazhuang, headquarters of Sanlu Group, manufacturer of much of the tainted formula. She and other parents also have been kept out of a courthouse in Shijiazhuang where Sanlu executives are on trial on criminal charges.

Parental anger is a potent social force in China, which restricts most families to one child. The government also has detained parents of children killed in the May earthquake in Sichuan to stop them from holding protests.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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