Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate release of Zhao Lianhai(赵连海), an activist who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in Beijing today on a charge of “inciting social unrest” for creating a website about the effects on young children of contaminated milk powder sold by the Chinese company Sanlu.
Detained since November 2009, Zhao has appealed against the verdict and has begun a hunger strike.
“The authorities are again targeting citizens who use the Internet to campaign for action that is to everyone’s benefit,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is yet another dramatic illustration of a lack of humanity on the part of the Chinese authorities and how censorship can prove to be criminal. Zhao should not only be freed at once but also officially commended for his altruistic commitment.”
Zhao set up his website as a source of information for the parents of children affected by milk powder that had been adulterated with melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizer, to make the milk appear to have a higher protein content. Consumption of the tainted milk caused kidney problems and in some cases kidney stones.
An estimated 300,000 children in China were made ill, 50,000 were hospitalised and at least six new-born babies died as result of consuming the milk powder. Himself the father of one of the children who was made ill, Zhao used the website to urge parents to bring a class action suit against those responsible.
How the scandal came to light
The government was aware of the tainted milk scandal as early as December 2007 but hushed it up in order not to hurt China’s image in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He Feng, an investigative journalist with a weekly in the south of the country, began collecting detail information about the problem in July 2008 but the government issued a detailed list of 21 subjects that could not be covered before or during the games. Point 8 on the list said: “All stories relating to food safety, such as mineral water that causes cancer, are off-limits.”
The problem only came out into the open in September 2008. The system of censorship imposed by the state had a disastrous impact of the health of tens of thousands of new-born infants in China and other countries to which this tainted milk powder was exported. Many children were made ill because researchers and journalists had been prevented from informing the public.
The Chinese government claims to have set up a “compensation fund” for the children affected, but many are not eligible under the restrictive criteria used. Some of those responsible for the tainted milk were brought to trial and two people have been sentenced to death.
Other jailed netizens
Coming as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo(刘哓波) continues to serve his 11-year jail term, Zhao Lianhai’s sentence seems to signal a determination on the part of the Chinese government to maintain its systematic censorship. Many environmentalists, HIV/AIDS activists and campaigners on other sensitive issues have been convicted or are awaiting prosecution.
Netizens who have spoken out online about subjects of public interest are also among those who have been unjustly imprisoned. They include the blogger Tan Zuoren, who was sentenced on 9 February to five years in prison on a charge of “inciting subversion of the state” for criticising the poor construction of schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake killing many children. He also posted articles critical of the government and the crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy moment.
Fellow Sichuan resident Huang Qi, a human rights activist and founder of the 64Tianwang website, was sentenced to three years in prison on 23 November 2009 on a charge of “illegal possession of state secrets” because he criticised the conditions of the survivors of the Sichuan earthquake and the government’s inadequate relief efforts.
As Zhao Lianhai’s lawyer, Li Fangping, said, these men just did their duty as citizens to act in the public interest.
A total of 31 journalists and 75 netizens are currently detained in China, which is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet” and is ranked 171st out of 178 countries in its latest world press index.
Zhao Lianhai's son
Zhao Lianhai's son, who has been affected by milk powder, is demonstrating to free his father. On his sign: "Daddy, I love you".