China's Baby killers Triumph Over Parents

When Zhou Xiong looks at his three-year-old son, Zixuan, he feels hopeless. The child has had two operations since his right kidney stopped functioning at the age of nine months.

It's not the medical catastrophe that makes Zhou feel hopeless. It is the fact that justice has not been done by his son, who is being cared for by relatives in Chibi, a prefecture-level city in Hubei Province, while Zhou and his wife work in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, to make enough money to pay for the child's medical expenses.

"I have no options left," Zhou says. "Everything I did was all for nothing. I just feel so much pain whenever I think of my boy … I almost collapse."

So far six children have died in the 2008 melamine-tainted milk scandal, in which an estimated 300,000 children became victims, according to Chinese authorities. Of those, a further 860 were hospitalized with kidney stones and other kidney damage. Like Zixuan, others suffer from continuing medical problems that may well worsen as they age. Milk power produced by the Shijiazhuang-based Sanlu Group, then one of China's biggest milk product producers, appeared to have been spiked with the chemical melamine to make it appear to have a higher protein content. Melamine is normally used to manufacture a type of plastic commonly used to create kitchen counter tops. Ultimately 21 other companies were found to have used melamine to a lesser degree, including some of China's most prominent dairies, Mengniu, Yili and Yashili.

But if it is a story of alarming corporate deception, it is also a story of a broken legal system. Hundreds of thousands of parents continue to entreat the milk powder manufacturers to pay their medical expenses. Fearful of the consequences, they have completely abandoned any notion of suing government authorities and the manufacturers, who declared the milk extremely safe for drinking and then apparently tried to cover up the scandal before, during and after the 2008 Olympics. Attempting to obtain redress far too often has resulted in beatings by thugs or police for the plaintiffs.

The compensation package was a paltry 200,000 yuan (US$30,033) for a dead child and 30,000 yuan each for those with serious complications. All other children received 2,000 yuan each.

Zhou rejected the 2,000 yuan. He has tried to sue Sanlu, protested at the company's door and has been to Beijing to petition the authorities, all to no effect. Not one court on the Chinese mainland has even agreed to a hearing for his son.

Zixuan's health checkups and treatment run at more than 1,000 yuan a month. Zhou and his wife, Zhou Honghua, sold their pastry shop and Zhou found a job that pays about 2,000 yuan a month. Doctors told Zhou in September that they couldn't find his son's right kidney, meaning it had "atrophied."

The child's left kidney, which has already undergone two operations, is weak and unlikely to sustain the extra burden. If both kidneys fail, Zixuan will die. Kidney donors are virtually impossible to find.

"How come such a cute kid has to bear such pain?" Zhou says. "No one proposes any follow-up medical treatment plan for the affected kids."

The NGO Transition Institute has raised 39,700 yuan ($5,958) for Zhou, says institute researcher Jin Fusheng. The institute will set up a website listing the names of about 10 parents in need of donations, Jin says.

Most of the poisoned children continue to struggle, says Jiang Yalin, mother of three-year-old Tangxin Yilin. They rely on such private donations after their failure to seek any form of legal redress. Without adequate compensation, some parents are hoping to establish a fund and asking for society to donate.

Others have reportedly started a campaign to monitor the quality of dairy products and then threaten manufacturers with exposure if their products are substandard. Jiang denies any such plan, saying parents don't have the skills or technology to monitor product quality.

The stakes are high and sensitive.

The signed note

Zhao Lianhai, a father whose son Zhao Pengrui is sick, was jailed for 30 months on November 10 for inciting social disorder after trying to peacefully draw attention to the plight of the poisoned children.

His wife, Li Xuemei, announced the end to their campaign for justice on behalf of families after entry to their home became impossible without agreement from the neighborhood committee and a newly arrived detail of around-the-clock security guards. Hong Kong reporters who tried to access the compound were beaten back by the guards.

Zhao had ripped off his shirt and declared he would appeal against the unjust sentence, his former lawyers say. It therefore came as a shock when two days later, Zhao's lawyers were told – not by Zhao – of a U-turn in attitude. They were handed a piece of paper with Zhao's signature that alleged Zhao had fired them both, abandoned his appeal and instead applied for medical parole. They were not permitted to see him before the appeal deadline to confirm the decision.

Since that time, it has been learned that Zhao's medical parole has been granted. His lawyers said he has been released, and is receiving medical treatment at a hospital. Earlier, Zhao released a statement in his personal blog, saying he does not want to talk to anyone and that he agrees with the punishment imposed by the court.

No one knows whether he was under pressure to write such astatement. His family members, whose outspoken comments outside the Daxing District Court in Beijing on November 10 when Zhao was sentenced helped attract international attention to the case, have turned silent and refuse to speak to the media.

The expensive and sinister wall of silence that surrounds Zhao extends across an entire nation: Zhao's former lawyer, Peng Jian, says more than 200 parents submitted applications to courts demanding that milk powder manufacturers pay more compensation, but most refused to register the parents' applications. Of those that did register the cases, few if any have held hearings.

No explanation has ever been offered as to why the registrations were rejected or why the courts would not fix a date for trials.

Despite vowing to continue with their court action, many parents believe the legal campaign will yield nothing as the two-year deadline for civil lawsuits passed with courts still ducking trials.

Peng says in theory if the parents can prove that they filed legal documents over the last two years, they can still continue with their legal action. However, the road will be bumpy.

Burden of proof

Parents must prove that the shareholders of the bankrupt Sanlu are responsible for the scandal or that the relevant government authorities have been negligent.

"It's difficult for parents to provide proof that the scandal was caused by the mistakes of shareholders," Peng says. "If they sue the government authorities, I doubt whether the courts will accept the case."

Proof is the biggest challenge, says mother Jiang Yalin. She has to prove her girl's problem was caused by contaminated milk powder. Hospital reports only record symptoms – kidney stone problems – not the cause of the illness.

"The burden of proof rests with the parents," she says.

Four desperate parents including Zhou, Li Jieli, Chen Lu and Ye Hongbo went to Hong Kong on May 4 to demand HK$12,369 ($1,590) to HK$33,490 in compensation from Fonterra Brands (China), a Hong Kong-incorporated company that owned 43 percent of Sanlu's shares. The world's largest dairy exporter, New Zealand company Fonterra had paid US$107 million for its share on Dec. 1, 2005.

The parents accused the company of delaying the release of information about the contamination for six weeks and failing in its responsibility to oversee Sanlu.

"I hadn't thought that I would be going to Hong Kong not for travel, but to take someone to court," says Ye, who had been offered 2,000 yuan compensation. His three-year-old son Ye Xi's medical expenses already exceed 10,000 yuan ($1,500).

The Hong Kong Small Claims Tribunal rejected their claims on May 27, saying, without any apparent irony, that judicial organization on the mainland was a better place to deal with the issue.

"The whole legal battle is a mental torture for us," Ye says. "None of the things we demanded have been achieved. We broke down in tears many times since the scandal, but no difficulty can stop us."

It's not just legal channels that are blocked.

Sinister silencing

Parents say they come under constant pressure whenever they talk to the media or post stories about their plight on the Internet. Whenever she makes an online post, Jiang says, people claiming to be representatives of government officials tell her the government is dealing with the matter and ask her not to post any more stories.

"But they just say empty words," she says. "So far there is no follow-up action taken. They just want me to shut up."

The lawyer Peng says parents may have to return to Hong Kong to seek justice on the mainland. He's confident the parents' situation will improve, but not necessarily through legal means.

"If we fail at all legal battles, we will liaise with some charity groups to see how we can take care of the victims," he says.

"I feel sad every day," Zhou says, "but I won't give up on making a better life for my son. We now allow these miserable children to deteriorate at home … We should be responsible for the life of these children and stop them from going down. I hope people will be concerned about these children or otherwise, we may suffer similar scandals in the future. I beg you for your support."

Date April 21, 2004 At least 13 babies die in Anhui Province die after being fed pirated Sanlu milk powder with no nutritional value, according to state media reports. More than 170 other malnourished victims, dubbed "big headed babies" as their heads swell while their bodies waste away, are affected. March 2008 Sanlu receives customer complaints that babies' urine is discolored and some have been admitted to hospital. Company officials say they investigated and recalled some products at this time, but did not inform the government. May 2008 Five-month old boy dies in northwestern Gansu Province in what is later said to be first fatality linked to melamine-tainted milk. May 20, 2008 An Internet user named 789oo88oo88 writes in an online forum that his daughter had urinary problems after drinking Sanlu milk, but he later deletes the post after Sanlu compensates him with 2,477 yuan. July 2008 Eight-month old girl dies after her parents remove her from hospital in second death later linked to the powder. August 2, 2008 Sanlu starts recall from suppliers. Fonterra says it first learnt of problem in August. September 5, 2008 New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark is informed of milk powder problem. Three days later, New Zealand officials are ordered to bypass local officials and inform Chinese government. September 8, 2008 Fourteen children in Minxian county, Gansu Province, suffer kidney stone problems. September 10, 2008 First Chinese media reports that babies have fallen ill after drinking Sanlu milk formula. September 11, 2008 Fifty-nine children suffer from kidney stone problems in Gansu Province. September 11, 2008 Sanlu declares the sickness of Gansu children is not related to their product. September 11, 2008 Sanlu says milk powder produced before August 6, 2008 is contaminated with melamine. The company recalls the product. September 12, 2008 Sanlu says dairy farmers illegally added melamine to the milk powder. September 13, 2008 The State Council activates an emergency response. September 16, 2008 Milk powder from 22 diary companies is found to have been contaminated with melamine. September 19, 2008 Dairy products from Yili, Mengniu and Guangming are also found contaminated. September 22, 2008 Li Changjiang, the head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine responsible for milk safety, resigns. January 22, 2009 Sanlu former head Tian Wenhua is sentenced to life imprisonment. The company's senior management of Wang Yuliang, Hang Zhiji and Wu Jusheng are sentenced to imprisonment of between five and 15 years. Dairy farmers Zhang Yujun, Gao Junjie and Geng Jinping are sentenced to death. November 24, 2009 Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping are executed. December 2009 Li Changjiang is appointed deputy head of an anti-vice team. December 21, 2009 Zhao Lianhai charged with inciting social disorder December 31, 2009 Melamine level of products made by Shanghai Panda found to exceed national limit. November 10, 2010 Zhao Lianhai sentenced to 30 months' imprisonment by a Beijing court. November 22, 2010 Zhao Lianhai reportedly abandons appeal, applies for medical parole.

Fast facts: Courts that accepted registration. Date Courts Status March 25, 2009 Xinhua District Court in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province No hearing held July 2009 Xicheng District Court, Beijing No hearing held July 2009 Daxing District Court, Beijing No hearing held June 2009 Shunyi District People's Court, Beijing Trial on Nov 27 Verdict never given November 2009 Xuanwu District Court, Beijing Yili compensated the victim 30,000 yuan in May 2010 August 2010 Hailin People's Court, Heilongjiang Province Yili compensated the victim 20,000 yuan in Sep 2010 September 2010 People's Court of Tongshan county, Hubei Province No hearing held November 2010 Shenzhou People's Court, Zhejiang Province Moved to another court. No hearing held. October 2010 Xigu District Court, Lanzhou, Gansu Province Moved to Jinan Court, Shandong Province. No hearing held.