2008 was supposed to be a glorious year for China, and in some senses it was: it was the year of the Beijing Olympics, in which the host nation topped the gold medal table, and the world was delivered an event that showcased a confident China, firmly in control of her own destiny. That control was at the hands of the CCP, but in 2008 the party was challenged like never before: in riots and unrest in Tibet in March; in Xinjiang in August, where a terrorist attack on a column of Han policemen left 16 dead in a direct challenge to party authority; and in July in the southern city of Kunming, where the apparent bombing of two buses killed two people, but was not, according to the CCP in full damage-limitation mode, an act of terrorism.
These challenges to the party occurred in the extremities of the nation, in the far west and in the deep south of Yunnan province, away from the traditionally Han areas. As such they were manageable, controllable, and could be spun as attacks on the Chinese nation by extremists or by the outside, pernicious influences of those such as the Dalai Lama. The party would still be benevolently looking after the Chinese people, reaching into every facet of their lives, bringing harmony to society, and leading them forward into the new Chinese century, as they had done since Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China from the Gate of Heavenly Peace in 1949.
On May 12th 2008, when the shaking was finally over, 7,000 schoolhouses in Sichuan province had collapsed. Buried in the rubble were thousands more schoolchildren, many of whom would perish even as other, older buildings had withstood the 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Many of the schoolhouses had collapsed instantly, crushing and trapping the students in a pile of broken bricks and mangled iron. The buildings that were supposed to house and protect them had failed; a generation of children were lost in the rubble.
The initial response to the earthquake had been swift: within 90 minutes, Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝总理) had flown to the area to oversee rescue work, and on the same day 50,000 troops and police had been dispatched from Chengdu, the provincial capital, to assist with disaster relief efforts. Emergency teams from Beijing, who were joined by international teams from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Russia, and Singapore, were faced by mountainous terrain and unkind weather conditions, but the speed, efficiency and openness of the rescue efforts impressed the International Red Cross and the watching Western media. Shi Anbin, a media studies professor from Tsinghua University, said “[T]his is the first time the Chinese media has lived up to international standards. I think the government is learning some lessons from the past.”
Wang Yuanping first realised something was wrong with his young daughter when he noticed that her urine started to change. She was a young child who needed milk, and so he had started giving her powdered milk products from the company Sanlu (三鹿); it was after she had started drinking the Sanlu milk that she had started to feel unwell, and Wang had noticed the change in her urine. Problems with her urine could point to something serious, so Wang sent some samples of the milk back to Sanlu, along with a complaint, expecting tests to be carried out. Sanlu, however, would only refund or exchange the milk, but would not let him know the test results, because that would be telling a “commercial secret”. Wang instead tried the government: they replied, telling him that the only way he could determine problems with the milk would be to use an external tester, which would cost him many thousands of RMB. Wang decided to post on the internet forum, Tianya, asking for help, and he complained about Sanlu and their milk products. Ten days later, however, on May 31st 2008, he asked for his topic discussions to be closed by the moderators.
Two days before Wang’s posts were closed on Tianya, government investigators began to sift through the ruins of the schools in Sichuan province. There was already angry talk amongst grieving parents that Education Ministry officials had been building schoolhouses to lower standards than were acceptable, and pocketing the remaining budget. The ruins spoke for themselves: iron wire, not the stronger steel rods, protruded through the rubble; there was very little cement to be seen, and any that had been used was of inferior quality. Even the number of bricks was lower than it should have been. Supervising agencies had not checked to see if buildings met national standards, an official was quoted as saying in the Globe and Mail. The buildings weren’t just of low quality, the Chinese said: they were tofu dregs (豆腐渣校舍).
For the CCP, the penny had dropped: they were culpable. Amongst all the noise that surrounded the disaster, they decided to silence the grieving parents first. They would be paid off and given a pension, and protests, like any protest or public gathering in China, would be broken up. Cordons would be set up around collapsed schoolhouses, and, in their time honoured fashion, the state media would simply stop reporting on the schools, removing them from public discourse. If they accepted, parents received almost $9,000, as well as a $5,500 pension per parent. If they didn’t accept, then they were made to understand that they would get nothing. These are not small sums in rural China, and many parents signed the contracts offered by the government, knowing that by signing they would never see justice for their children. But then the chances were never high to begin with.
For Wang Yuanping, this would be a familiar situation. Unable to afford the tests on the Sanlu milk that made his daughter ill, he was offered 2,470 RMB worth of milk products in exchange for deleting his posts on the Tianya forums. He agreed, and the milk arrived on the same day. Feeling guilty at not having stood his ground, Wang Yuanping gave the milk to his friends. But Wang Yuanping and his daughter were not alone: 300,000 children across China had also fallen ill from drinking Sanlu milk products, all of them from the same kidney stones and renal damage that had afflicted Wang Yuanping’s young daughter. Sanlu had even been receiving complaints about their products – which were popular with the poorest and most vulnerable – since 2007, but had done nothing towards resolving them. Instead, there was the suppression of dissent that had been seen after the Sichuan Earthquake, with parents paid off to remove negative remarks about the company.
The milk that the children had been drinking had been contaminated with melamine, a chemical that could cause kidney damage, and ultimately death. Twenty two dairy companies were found to have sold melamine-contaminated products that led to the deaths of 6 children and the sickness of 300,000 others. Police investigations led back to the suppliers: 12 milk dealers and suppliers were arrested in Hebei province, and six were charged with selling melamine. The total of those arrested was 36, including Zhang Yujun, who produced 600 tons of a chemical mixture of melamine and maltodextrin, which he sold as “protein powder”.
In December 2008, 17 people involved in producing, selling, buying, and adding melamine to raw milk went on trial. A formeer Sanlu general manager, Tian Wenhua, as well as three other company executives appeared in court in Shijiazhuang. Tian Wenhua stated that she knew of the complaints from consumers in May of that year, but did not report the problems to Shijiazhuang city government until August 2nd. On January 22nd, Tian Wenhua was sentenced to life in prison.
Geng Jinping, who managed a milk production centre which supplied tainted milk to the Sanlu Group and other dairies, and Zhang Yujun, the “protein powder” producer, were sentenced to death by the Intermediate People’s Court in Shijiazhuang. They were executed on November 24th 2009. Deputy managers from the Sanlu Group, the state-owned company at the centre of the scandal, were sentenced from five years to fifteen years in prison.
On September 27th 2008, tied to the handrail outside his orbital module, Zhai Zhigang, an officer in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, became the first Chinese astronaut to complete a spacewalk. For twenty minutes, he wandered around the module, collected experiments, and waved a Chinese flag. He wore a Chinese-developed spacesuit, and he and his crew had been taken into space in a Chinese-developed spacecraft. China had announced themselves on the world stage in the Beijing Olympics, and here they were, in the space age, gazing down from the heavens, and equals with the Russians and the Americans. China, the sick man of Asia, had broken through to modernity in dramatic style: the spacewalk was to be a fitting conclusion to a momentous year in Chinese history. As Zhai Zhigang moved slowly around the orbital module, far below him on Earth, the government for which he had worked – the government, it was said, that had raised 700 million people from poverty, the government that had put a man into space, the government that was the guiding hand of over a billion people – had failed those that could not protect themselves.