From time to time, mobile phone users in China receive a mass mailing text message that’s not the usual maddening spam (companies offering to supply illegal satellite dishes or equally illegal receipts for everything from airplane tickets to rent and of course offers for wonderful but amazingly cheap apartments). Mostly these non-spam mass mailings are from the government, for example exhorting the recipients in Beijing to show the civilized face of China during the Olympics. On New Year’s day however, we received a two part missive purportedly from San Lu and 22 other companies responsible for the adulterated milk powder scandal that killed at least six babies and sickened hundreds of thousands more. The text message was an uncompromising acceptance of responsibility, an unqualified apology and promise that it wouldn’t happen again. There was also a promise of a treatment fund for victims and best wishes for the new year “with your families.” It’s hard to know what to make of this, that is, whether it is a PR exercise or an attempt by the government to damp down public anger over the issue. I’d personally bet the latter as the likelihood of all 23 companies getting together and penning this statement of their own accord is vanishingly small.
Four Sanlu executives are now awaiting a verdict on their role in the case. They could receive the death penalty, but even if they did, it wouldn’t make much difference, I am afraid. We’re bound to see similar events for years to come unless the government makes a huge effort to reform the entire food production and regulation system. (This sad but inescapable truth was acknowledged by none other than the chairwoman of Sanlu, who should know if anyone does. Nor is she liable to be suspected of trying to shift the blame by criticizing regulation, having already plead guilty and indeed having attempted to commit suicide after the story broke.)
Meanwhile, presumably in a show of evenhandedness, the police on Friday arrested or detained anyway, the father of one of the children sickened by the tainted milk, apparently to prevent him holding a press conference complaining about the amount of compensation families were set tor receive. Plus ca change….