By Robert Chang Posted Feb 28 2009
Months after a Chinese citizen made a plea on a popular online forum for public attention regarding tainted milk, the traditional media had still not managed to investigate and report the magnitude of his allegations.
In late August, Changjiang Shang Bao of Hubei Province reported infants in at least six Chinese provinces were diagnosed with kidney stones, and they all had formula from “the same company.” It was not until Sept. 11 that a report in Dongfang Zao Bao of Shanghai began to question whether the cause might be the milk powder products of Sanlu Group, one of China’s oldest and most popular infant formula providers. Overnight, the Hebei Province-based company admitted that 700 tons of infant milk had been tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical illegally added to boost nutritional content and cheat quality tests. Sanlu is a state-owned company with investments in New Zealand’s Fonterra, which had just become the dairy supplier to the China Astronaut Center in June.
The nationwide investigation that followed found most major Chinese dairy companies had the same problem. The Xinhua news agency reported that by Oct. 11 contaminated milk powder had been blamed for at least four infant deaths and poisoning more than 54,000 others. The scandal triggered another round of recalls and dealt a big blow to the reputation of “Made-in-China” goods, especially Chinese dairy products.
These findings justified Wang Yuanping’s allegations, posted online in May, stating his 13-year-old daughter’s sickness was caused by Sanlu Group’s milk powder.
Wang posted May 20 on Tianya.cn, China’s biggest online forum, that after his daughter drank Sanlu milk powder her urine became turbid with granule. The problem ceased when she stopped drinking the powder.
The 40-year-old father in Taishun County, Zhejiang Province, called Sanlu Group with his concern, who in turn asked him to mail two packages of his milk powder for lab testing. Wang posted that the company confirmed his packages were genuine products but refused to share the official test results he had requested to see. Sanlu Group did send a representative to Wang with an offer to replace the milk powder, but Wang refused. He said he felt morally obliged to find out the truth given the largest local kindergarten used the same formula. Wang alerted the local industrial and commerce authority that regulates product quality and consumer protection.
He posted that when he and officials went to collect sample formula from the supermarket that sold him the milk powder, they found the disputed products replaced with new ones.
“As a father, as a son, what should I do? Now I could only seek the help of media,” a frustrated Wang concluded on his post. The posting went unnoticed; it generated three responses in the following week, including one of his own. A popular posting on Tianya.cn could easily surpass 100 responses with in a matter of hours.
The cold response to Wang’s appeal was understandable. Netizens’ and journalists’ attentions were drawn to the May 12 Sichuan earthquake. The chance for journalists to pay serious attention to a nobody’s suspicion on the quality of a well-established brand’s product was slim. Wang even tried to steal some limelight by giving his posting the headline: “How could such milk powder be used for quake relief work?” (Sanlu Group, like many other dairy companies, donated milk powder to quake victims at that time.)
While Wang tried repeatedly to get the public’s attention, Sanlu continued its negotiations with him and increased the initial offer. A Chinese newspaper, Western Economic Daily, uncovered that the company ultimately offered Wang four cartons of milk powder, valuing nearly $360, almost 25 times the cost of Wang’s purchase. Wang accepted and agreed to ask the forum coordinator to delete his posts, claiming the milk powder he bought before was “counterfeit.”
Despite his decision to take the bigger offer, Wang did continue to report the problem to quality supervision authorities with no success.
The post was deleted Sept. 12, one day after Sanlu Group acknowledged the problem, but the coordinator republished it, offering rare “historical evidence” of the incident’s earliest warning.
There are now more than 3,000 responses to Wang’s original post.
It’s not clear why Wang didn’t go directly to traditional media. Frequent Internet users in China commonly tend to distrust traditional media because big companies, including dairy firms, are major advertisers.
The scandal eventually mobilized Chinese netizens to search for more details on the Internet and relentlessly expose those involved in the scandal.
Some netizens found out that China’s Central Television program, broadcasted Sept. 2, praised Sanlu Group’s quality-control process. At the end of the program the reporter ironically stated, “I wish China will have more companies like Sanlu to cherish the quality of their products.”
Following the scandal, CCTV.com quickly deleted the archive video on its Web site. Still, some users found the program’s full text and published it online, damaging the reputation of China’s official TV station.
Chinese netizens also kept major Internet Web sites in check for objectivity. Baidu.com, China’s largest search engine, was accused by sina.com Sept. 13 of cutting a deal with Sanlu Group to filter out negative news about the company. Some people even posted a public relation company’s proposal, in which it nudged Sanlu Group to buy a $340,000 ad on Baidu.com immediately so the search engine would block news reports on the scandal and ban users from initiating discussions on this issue.
The PR firm denied the allegation, while Baidu.com issued a statement saying they received the proposal twice but rejected it because “it’s a violation of the company’s principle of letting users collect objective information easily.”
The netizens’ consistent efforts in finding evidence not only questioned the credibility of media organizations but led to the resignation of Li Changjiang, the head of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. They studied the bureau’s Web site and found a June 30 posting reporting that five children suffered kidney stones after drinking the same brand of milk powder. The administration’s reply on July 2 was: “please provide us with more details so that we can further handle this case.” Taking the blame for lax supervision, Li resigned Sept. 22
Netizens’ prompt and in-depth investigation into this scandal overshadowed the work of many journalists and, compared to citizen journalism in the United States, still has room to expand its impact.
China Internet Network Center reported in July that China has 253 million Internet users, the biggest online population in the world. Typically Chinese Internet users view cyberspace as a freer place to voice their angers, lodge complaints and expose corrupted officials.
Some traditional Chinese media have noticed the rich and vigorous news leads online forums are offering. So far the majority news leads of traditional media come from old sources—press conferences, government statements or set-up interviews—but online forums have contributed an increasing number of stories that have attracted nationwide attention and debate. Once the Chinese media work out a scheme to identify valuable and legitimate news leads from the Internet, citizen journalism might have a chance to make a difference.