Watch carefully as the Chinese media report on the explosive
story of tainted baby formula. The most recent break came from Central China
Television (CCTV), the government's official, flagship broadcaster. CCTV
reported that an industrial chemical, melamine, has been discovered in milk
products--everything from yogurt to ice cream as well as baby formula--from 22
companies nationwide. So far, products from more than 100 companies had been
tested. The first company to admit to a problem was Sanlu, the third-largest
milk product manufacturer in
The real pressure to chase the story came from
A careful reading of the story will explain how China's media universe operates, including the role of the Central Propaganda Department, the role of the official flagship media, as well as that of the media not tied so closely to the government. And believe it or not, there may be a tie-in to the Olympic Games, too.
a post from Hong Kong in August, I wrote about the government's recognition
that its media clampdown during the ethnic rioting in
The Olympics tie-in? In August, Kristin Jones and I posted about the 21-point guidelines handed down to Chinese reporters and editors a month or so before the Games. Item number eight on the list read: "All food safety issues, such as cancer-causing mineral water, are off-limits." Gao Qiang, Health Ministry party secretary, told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post the government denied it had had covered up the problem to avoid detracting from the Beijing Olympics and said it was a "severe food safety accident."
Here's a bit of a timeline on the tainted formula/milk products story: Sanlu did not admit to the contamination problem until September 11, even though there had been complaints on official government Web sites since June. When it first publicly addressed the problem, Sanlu blamed it on counterfeit formula, packaged to look like the real Sanlu product.
The number of children affected has been reported at 1,235 (the number is sure to climb), most with kidney stones apparently caused by the melamine, an industrial chemical banned in the food industry. The chemical is rich in nitrogen and gives false readings of protein in chemical assays. Sanlu blamed some of its suppliers of raw milk, the accused suppliers say they didn't do it.
The number of arrests--four by this morning, with more sure to come--won't placate angry parents, nor will the departure of Sanlu's chairwoman Tian Wenhua, who was fired. She also lost her post as the secretary of the Corporation Committee of the Communist Party--a position of immense prominence in a country with an authoritarian government wedded to a free market economy.
Now that is out in the open, CCTV and the official news
agency Xinhua have jumped on the story. It has been one of the top four stories
on Xinhua's Web site for the last 36 hours, though never the top story. And the
coverage has played up the government's response. Typical headlines for what
has become a major food safety issue: "Milk powder sent for testing after
dozens of babies get sick"; "
South China Morning Post, which operates
free of mainland government direction, reported that the story has been
bubbling for a few months. Josephine Ma, who has been reporting for the SCMP from
Mainland journalists said the first report about the scandal was aired by the metropolitan channel of
cable TV in July after an unusually high number of kidney-stone cases among infants were found in a children's hospital. Hunan
However, the media have been low-key regarding the scandal as they dare not challenge Sanlu, a powerful state-owned enterprise, a mainland journalist said.
But the attention on the Internet became too great to keep the story under wraps.
According to the Legal Weekly report, a doctor puzzled by the cluster of unusual cases in his hospital blogged about his queries. The doctor concluded that Sanlu milk powder was responsible after he talked to other hospitals.
story also ran in papers belonging to the Nanfang Daily Group printed in considerably
is a pattern to be followed expect