Baby formula

Infant formula row a reminder of the value of an open society

Stephen Vines says doubt lingers on mainland after melamine cover-up

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2013, 5:19am

The best way to understand the real lesson of the baby formula controversy is to go back to its origins, which explains why Hong Kong has to cling as tenaciously as possible to the "two systems" part of the "one country, two systems" arrangement.

In late 2007, the Sanlu baby formula producer started receiving reports that its products were causing serious problems for babies whose kidneys were being damaged. This was caused by the introduction of melamine into the formula as a way of bulking it out and reducing costs.

While parents were growing alarmed, China's official media was busy hailing the success of Sanlu.

The company had suspected for months that its products were tainted before it went public. Supervision was already lax. As a major brand, Sanlu was exempted from tests on its products by national inspection officers.

The company's own investigations confirmed the presence of the illegal chemical in July 2008. It notified the local Shijiazhuang government, as well as its New Zealand joint partner, Fonterra, on August 2.

All this was taking place, of course, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. And, instead of ordering a product recall, Shijiazhuang officials decided to cover it up and said measures should be delayed until after the Games. Fonterra, which pushed for a recall, was overruled.

Meanwhile, as part of the efforts to ensure that nothing would detract from the Games' success, propaganda bosses were tightening the screws on the media to eliminate all aspects of negative news.

Matters came to a head a month later, when Sanlu was forced to issue a product recall after Beijing intervened. The Chinese government had to: the New Zealand government had found out about the contamination and, through its embassy in Beijing, informed the Chinese foreign ministry that Sanlu's baby formula contained melamine.

What followed was mounting panic among parents and the start of class-action lawsuits against the company. An unprecedented 124 lawyers in 22 provinces volunteered their services for these cases. Most were soon put under pressure to withdraw. Meanwhile, the government moved in to sack the company's executives and shovelled them through a one-day trial. Local government officials were also dismissed.

Whether parents knew or cared about this trial is uncertain, but what is certain is that when it came to ensuring their baby's well-being, they were loath to take risks and most certainly did not believe any assurances given by the state.

The legacy of this disbelief lingers today so that when parents can get baby formula supplies from outside the mainland, they will do so. Many parents do not even trust foreign-made baby formula sold on the mainland. because of a fear of fake products.

It may well be that the central authorities have done their very best to solve the problem, but in the absence of a fair and transparent legal process and in the face of a ruthlessly state-controlled media, who will believe them?

This is a rather dramatic example of what happens in nations that value state control over trust. They breed concern, even where it is not needed, because they are incapable of being honest with their citizens.

In Hong Kong, many people are sceptical about the government and not that sure about the veracity of the media, but they do trust the legal system. Such is the openness of society that information flows freely.

This freedom is what needs to be preserved in Hong Kong. Everyone pays lip service to this idea. But listen more carefully to what some of Beijing's more vociferous supporters say when they call for greater integration with the mainland, when they speak blithely of what should happen after the end of the 50-year "two systems" period and how, even today, they seek to curb the independence of the judiciary.

Some people like to pretend that all this talk about democracy and freedom is meaningless in the daily lives of Hong Kong people.

Maybe they should express these views to the parents of children poisoned by Sanlu baby formula.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur