China: Zhao Lianhai, tainted milk activist, launches hunger strike in prison

“The government is guilty! The government is not taking responsibility for us!”

A court in the Beijing district of Daxing handed down a two-and-a-half year jail sentence to Zhao Lianhai, for his efforts to organise and win justice on behalf of parents of children who became ill from drinking milk poisoned with the industrial chemical melamine. Zhao was a reluctant political activist who was jolted into taking action when his own son became sick in 2008. He gave up his relatively well-paid job to work on a full-time voluntary basis as the leader of the “Kidney Stone Babies” campaign group.

Centre: Zhao Lianhai. His son was sickened by tainted milk.

Last week, at yet another Chinese trial that lacked even the slightest pretence at fair play or natural justice, he was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” to be locked away for two-and-a-half years. This is just the latest example of the rising tide of state repression in China aimed against all those who refuse to meekly obey the dictates of the one-party regime. In October, as reported on, the lawyer and trade union activist Zhao Dongmin, a Maoist, was given a three-year jail term for “disrupting social order”. These cases, and that of liberal capitalist author and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, are typical of the new wave of arrests and repression in China. The regime is hitting opponents to the left (Zhao Dongmin), right (Liu) and those who do not espouse any political position, but merely stand up for their rights, such as Zhao Lianhai.

The 2008 milk scandal

The big milk scandal erupted in 2008 shortly after the Beijing Olympics (crucial time was lost because government censors blocked coverage of the issue during the games). A truly Olympian number of children, 300,000, were made ill after drinking contaminated milk powder and products. At least eight children died and tens of thousands were hospitalised with differing degrees of kidney failure. Even those children who have recovered from this ordeal may face lifelong problems as a result of developing kidney stones in infancy. The source of the contamination was melamine – a chemical used in glue and plastic furniture – that was added by dairy companies to enable watered-down milk to pass protein-level checks.

China’s ruling dictatorship has become adept at manipulating the mass media in crisis situations, which occur frequently, by “selling its story first”, making loud announcements of “action” and appearing to roll out generous support for victims. This is accompanied by ruthless repression against all those who persist in asking questions, pry into the causes of the crisis, or stage protests when official actions fall short of official words.

This happened after the massive earthquake in Sichuan in May 2008. To this day nobody knows how many schoolchildren died in rickety school buildings that should never have been allowed, least of all in a major quake zone. Tan Zuoren, a campaigner who fought to establish the truth about these “tofu schools” was found guilty of “subversion” and sent to prison for five years in February. A similar fate has now befallen Zhao Lianhai. His campaign group emerged from the disappointment and anger of thousands of parents who learned that government promises could not be trusted. Following a few summary sackings of officials, the government effectively decreed the matter “closed” and did its utmost to suppress continued protests from the parents of infant victims. In short, this has been its record:

• Authorities knew that contaminated milk powder was on the market and harming children in August 2008, but this was not reported publicly until early September because of the Olympics.

• Although the government jailed or executed a few farmers, middlemen and executives of the worst offending company Sanlu, there has been no public announcement of the disciplinary action taken against government officials detained in the scandal. Some officials dismissed for their role have been reappointed to other positions.

• Parent activists have sought to bring individual lawsuits against the companies and officials but not a single case has been allowed.

• The government set up a compensation fund for children who suffered serious damage from their exposure to tainted milk, but this has left many children and families ineligible for compensation. Zhao emerged as a spokesperson for many parents in this situation.

• Earlier this year, a new melamine-tainted milk scandal hit China, with contaminated products found in at least 11 provinces. This time it was consignments of milk powder ordered destroyed after the 2008 scandal that had instead been sold back into the market. If the government jails and terrorises those with the courage to speak out, then of course such shady practises will continue.

“Rubbish court!”

Scenes outside the Beijing courtroom sum up the anger that is felt in chat-rooms and among wide sections of the Chinese population over this case. “Zhao Lianhai is a hero, Zhao Lianhai is innocent!” shouted one protester outside the courtroom. “The government is guilty! The government is not taking responsibility for us!” was another irate comment. Courtroom officials were seen filming the small demonstration from an upper floor, a standard tactic to intimidate protesters that can very likely lead to police action against those identified from film footage. Nonetheless Zhao’s wife, Li Xuemei, holding their baby daughter, made a defiant speech to the crowd of supporters: “Zhao Lianhai is innocent. I can’t believe this [judgement]. It is too corrupt!”

Other supporters took up chants of “Rubbish court! Rubbish judgement!” On internet the issue caused a storm of criticism with comments like the following on Twitter: “The milk powder companies poisoned the milk and the legal system poisons society.”

After Zhao’s son Penglui became ill and he launched his campaign, the local Communist Party district offered to pay for his son’s medical treatment, and provide him with a good job, if he gave up the campaign. His wife told the South China Morning Post, “We had to keep up the work after seeing so many suffering children, and we didn’t want to betray other parents.” Since Zhao’s arrest almost one year ago, Li Xuemei and their two children have lived with her mother-in-law and survived on her mother-in-law’s 2,000-yuan monthly pension.

Hunger strike

Upon hearing his sentence, Zhao reportedly tore off his prison uniform and threw it on the judge’s desk. He shouted, “I’m innocent. I have done no wrong!” His lawyer is preparing an appeal, but says he is not optimistic. News has since emerged that Zhao has gone on hunger strike in prison.

The upsurge in arrests, illegal detentions, and harsher prison sentences against regime critics of the last two years make nonsense of speculation that the one-party state is deliberating over “political reform” and a possible relaxation of its repressive apparatus. The regime is paralysed by a fear that any softening of its iron fist or opening to oppositional views may blow apart a “Three Gorges Dam” of social discontent that has accumulated in recent years, as the wealth gap widens and official abuse and corruption outstrips all precedents. The unleashed social torrent could sweep the regime from power. By its heartless and vindictive treatment of a fighter such as Zhao, whose only crime is to stand up for his children and others in the same situation, the regime wants to “hammer down the nails that stick up”, sending a warning to others.

But the clock is surely ticking for this regime of jailers, police bullies, corrupt judges and the party bosses who hand out the orders. In the brave and stubborn individual resistance of figures such as Zhao and Li Xuemei, and the thousands who support them, we see the future outline of a mass resistance that no dictatorship can survive.

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