Angry mum exposes fake cures that hurt her son

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 April, 2011, 12:00am


Liu Jianqiong took on a well-known brand of bathhouses and exposed it and the products they sold as fake. But the price was dear: her four-year-old son cannot walk steadily and is in constant pain from itching all over his body as a result of the baths he was given.

This was one of the stories China Central Television told in its annual special report on March 15 for World Consumer Rights Day, an observance that began in 1963.

Liu's story started in August 2009 when her son, Zhou Zibo, developed red spots on his neck. Liu decided to take him to a bathhouse in Xichang, Sichuan, that claimed to be able to treat eczema with a bath containing traditional Chinese medical remedies.

Liu has regretted that decision ever since. She now believes it was the so-called herbal bath at Grandma Tian, a franchise company that once boasted more than 400 outlets nationwide, that not only made her son's condition worse but was also responsible for the psoriasis he developed.

Sceptical of Grandma Tian, Liu went undercover, spending months working in Grandma Tian outlets in Kunming, Yunnan; Chengdu, Sichuan; and Chongqing, gathering materials that she thought were suspicious. Her report on that merchandise to authorities eventually led to the closure of the franchises.

'It had more than 400 outlets nationwide and bragged about the magical effects of the spa. If they were at fault, I would have to speak out and save others from suffering the same misery,' Liu said.

When she took Zibo, who was two at the time, to the bathhouse in Xichang, the manager looked at the spots.

'He told me it was nothing but eczema and would go away after several sessions,' Liu recalled, although he mentioned there might be more red spots at first. But the rash did not go away. After two sessions, Zibo's condition became worse. Liu went back, and the boy was given a scrub with a 'stronger dose'. He developed water blisters all over his body and screamed during the bath.

'In retrospect, I can only say I was obsessed by traditional Chinese medicine, and they looked so trustworthy,' Liu said. 'If you saw all the banners and propaganda, you would have believed them.'

When Liu returned from a business trip a week after the scrub, she found the blisters had begun to burst and Zibo's flesh was rotting. He later fell down, unconscious. Liu took him to Huaxi Hospital, where he was admitted to the intensive care unit. His condition stabilised after four days, but his muscles were permanently damaged.

'My boy was very healthy before he took the baths. I strongly suspected it was the baths that made him sick,' she said. Liu joined an online discussion group and found other mothers who said their children had suffered various complications including diarrhoea, headaches and water blisters, after bathing at Grandma Tian outlets.

It was then that she determined to find out whether the spa was indeed at fault. Over eight months, she applied for jobs at Grandma Tian outlets, posing as a poorly educated, single woman from various parts of the country, to see what was going on. She won trust by working hard and not being too demanding. She soon realised that her words would not be enough to expose consumer fraud, so she bought equipment for tens of thousands of yuan and used it to record evidence.

'Everything was fake,' Liu said. 'They said the traditional Chinese medicine was a famous brand, but that brand later denied it. They sold fake metal plaques to customers for 100 yuan [HK$118] each, saying the brand had intangible cultural heritage status.

'A customer once found a hair in the tub for babies and suspected they were recycling water used by women who had just given birth. They also added baby urine in the bathtub and said it was to improve health.'

The CCTV special report showed undercover video of a spa employee saying: 'You must not let the parents see pouring water. You should close the door'. Another clip showed that egg white, which they claimed was to disperse heat, came from rotten eggs. 'You use it on babies; they don't know it's stinky,' an unidentified voice says. Liu reported her findings to consumer rights authorities in Xichang, and an investigation by the city Bureau of Industry and Commerce concluded that the eczema cream Liu was prescribed had violated basic requirements by showing no product name, manufacturer's address or expiry date.

She also lodged a suit in December against Grandma Tian seeking 990,000 yuan for mental and physical damages to Zibo, and is awaiting a verdict.

The details of the suit were reported by local media, and it came to CCTV's attention as well.

The spa where Zibo took the bath was registered as a public bathhouse.

Another CCTV report showed that powder added to the bath was provided by Chengdu Biousi, a company that produces wooden bath basins but is not certified to produce medicine. Zhao Jian, general manager of Biousi, admitted to CCTV the so-called medicine was tree bark and grass roots he had bought at a market and ground into powder.

Zibo's case finally prompted authorities to act. Grandma Tian outlets across the countrry were shut down, and the State Food and Drug Administration ordered local agencies to inspect the market and remove Grandma Tian's products, which the agency determined were fakes.