At Chinese Congress, Delegates Talk Toxic Milk Powder

As National People's Congress gets under way in Beijing, milk powder is emerging as a key point of contention between mainland China and Hong Kong

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A Chinese baby plays by tins of infant milk powders in a Beijing supermarket.

In 2008, several Chinese infants died and thousands were hospitalized after consuming milk tainted with a chemical compound called melamine. Since then, Chinese parents have almost emptied Hong Kong’s stock of formula milk, hoping the semiautonomous city’s relatively stringent food-safety rules will keep their kids safe. Hong Kong parents have since protested that the supply of safe milk is dwindling. The city recently banned people from taking more than two tins of milk powder (about 1.8 kg in total) outside the Special Administrative Region. That, of course, has upset many mainland Chinese.

As the National People’s Congress (NPC) gets under way in Beijing, milk powder is emerging as a key point of contention between mainland China and Hong Kong. Hong Kong delegates insist the new rules are designed to prevent unscrupulous mainland traders from disrupting Hong Kong’s milk market. But the ban was met with harsh criticism. Chinese mainland delegates criticized the Hong Kong government for being “way out of line,” reported the South China Morning Post. Pan Shiyi, a prominent Beijing businessman, warned of “starvation” on the mainland. “Hong Kong should help us by sending cans of infant-milk powder here. Instead, it established such a harsh law, putting those who purchase milk powder in prison,” he wrote. “The Hong Kong government should think twice about this regulation.”

(MORE: China on Food Safety: Seriously, This Time We Mean It)

Still others wonder why mainland authorities have yet to restore public confidence in the food-safety system. Li Xiaolin, a Beijing-based businessman, told the South China Morning Post that he wouldn’t let his 2-year-old grandson consume milk powder made in the mainland. Even People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, has demanded an answer from the NPC. “China’s diary industry should be ashamed that Chinese people are going global for infant milk formulas,” read a February editorial. “We should think about why a country that can launch spaceships fails to ensure baby-food safety.”

Beijing has defended China’s diary industry. At a press conference on March 2, Lu Xinhua, a spokesman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said 99% of the milk powder in China was safe. But his remarks don’t seem to impress delegates nationwide. Cui Yongyuan, a famous TV host known for his outspokenness, said he has no confidence in mainland-manufactured formula milk when asked by a journalist to comment on the 99% claim. “How would I know where the 1% is?” he told Chinese reporters.

Vincent Lau, who recently led a protest calling for the protection of Hong Kong’s milk-formula supply, told TIME that China’s diary industry problem should be fixed at the source, not at the expense of Hong Kong. “Even if it’s the same brand as what they are buying here, they don’t trust the product sold on the mainland. Hong Kong is tiny. Seven million people can’t take care of 1.3 billion.”

(MORE: Mainland Chinese Traders Milking Hong Kong for All Its Worth)