China’s Other Jailed Dissident: Food Safety Fighter Zhao Lianhai

  • Share
  • Read Later

The Hong Kong Journalists Association is on the defensive this week after several reporters from the SAR were assaulted in a Beijing suburb on Friday, the same day the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in Oslo to jailed human rights activist Liu Xiaobao. The Hong Kong reporters were waiting outside the housing complex of another detained activist named Zhao Lianhai, who was sentenced in November to 2.5 years in prison for organizing parents whose children were sickened in China’s food safety meltdown in the milk industry in 2008.

Seven reporters had been waiting outside Zhao’s building in the district of Daxing when they were confronted by annoyed residents, some of whom reportedly hit and kicked the reporters, slapping one reporter who works for the prestigious RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong). The Journalists’ Association has asked the Hong Kong government to appeal to the mainland to look into Friday’s events.

Zhao’s son was one of the nearly 300,000 children who fell ill after consuming milk powder containing melamine, a chemical often used to make plastics, which was found in the products of 22 Chinese dairies to make the milk’s protein content sku higher. At least six babies died in the ensuing scandal that was uncovered.

Zhao set up a web site (that’s either been taken down or blocked in Hong Kong — don’t know if you’ll have better luck elsewhere) to get information to parents across the country whose babies were sick, and later helped mobilize the thousands parents who sought greater accountability and compensation from Beijing in the scandal’s aftermath. Zhao was detained for this work in November 2009. A year later, on Nov. 10, he was convicted on charges of inciting social disorder.

(Read more TIME coverage of the milk scandals.)

The conviction was met with widespread condemnation; Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Asia-Pacific said in a press release that that AI was “appalled that the authorities have imprisoned a man the Chinese public rightly view as a protector of children, not a criminal… Zhao Lianhai should never have been arrested for organizing a self-help group and exercising his legal rights to seek compensation from a commercial firm.” Zhao evidently did not appeal the charges, but has reportedly since been granted medical parole, ergo the herd of journalists outside his apartment building. It’s not yet clear whether he’s been released from detention yet or not.

Friday’s scuffle is part of the ongoing fallout from the 2008 tainted milk scandal. (Here’s a good timeline from the BBC on how it unfolded that year.) Though China eventually handed down a raft of convictions of many involved, and went so far as to execute two men convicted of producing and selling melamine-tainted milk and milk powder, the efficacy of the reforms that have been made to ensure greater food safety in China is not so clear. Nor has the new food safety law tabled in 2009 in response to the corruption in the food chain done much to assuage people’s fears that they can’t trust what they eat. In a July 2010 poll cited in the English-language People’s Daily, food safety topped the list of Chinese citizens’ concerns, putting it ahead of 10 other issues including social security and medical coverage. Only about 40% of people polled across 12 Chinese cities trusted what they bought in supermarkets, and only 20% thought Chinese milk was safe to drink.

The day that Zhao’s conviction was handed down, over a year after the new food safety law went into effect, the Ministry of Health announced again it would redouble its efforts to get more information about food safety issues out to the people. Still, it’s hard to say whether the government is fully committed to reform when, two years later, it still can’t help itself from deflecting the blame. As a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health was quoted as saying in People’s Daily article the day the news came out: “In many cases, from milk powder to the crayfish, false news was occasionally delivered to consumers and this hurt public confidence in China’s food safety and the government’s credibility.”

(Read about food safety regulation in the U.S.)