Beijing recently announced that a number of former food safety officials who were deemed responsible for the contaminated milk powder scandal, which poisoned hundreds of thousands of babies and caused half a dozen infant deaths, were given new posts.
The scandal broke in 2008, when it was discovered that melamine, an industrial chemical, had found its way into massive amounts of milk powder, which was then sold around the country and even overseas. The matter was known early in 2008 but was covered up until after the Beijing Olympics in August, so as not to embarrass the government.
A raft of officials were punished after that debacle, so that Chinese authorities could demonstrate—or so it appeared—their commitment to food safety.
“Officials who are willing to be sacrificed on behalf of the Party in the event of a social incident are actually making contribution to the Party,” said Xia Ming, a professor of political science at the College of Staten Island, in a telephone interview.
“When they’re politically reliable, when they cooperate fully with the Party, they are already paving the way to become officials one day again,” Xia said.
This reading gives a particularly cynical understanding of the blusterful propaganda against corruption that is regularly aired in state media.
Frustration at state cronyism resurfaced with the recent news of the same officials getting new positions in the bureaucracy.
It had been known for some time that some of the officials held responsible for the scandal had gone on to new posts, but the string of recent anouncements highlighted the matter again—particularly in the context of Party leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign in which he’s vowed to comprehensively wipe out corruption in the Communist Party.
On July 10 it was announced that Sun Xianze, a former official in food safety coordination in the China Food and Drug Administration, was promoted to become deputy head of that organization.
Two days later it became clear that Wang Zhicai, a former top official in China’s Ministry of Agriculture, also had a new position, as the head of the ministry’s bureau of animal husbandry. Wang had also been demoted due to his negligence in regulation many years previously.
In the latter case, the new position was only known after Wang attended a conference wearing the upgraded title.
An examination of the record indicates that it’s not uncommon for officials punished for corruption to later quietly go on to enjoy new posts, after public fury has subsided.
A well known case ocurred in late 2005, when a 56-year-old director of the environmental protection bureau, Xie Zhenhua, was sacrified after a petrochemical explosion in Jilin Province, which released 100 tons of toxins into the Songhua River. Just over one year later, he was made deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, a plum job that allows for extracting tidy sums from infrastructure projects.
The internal logic of the Chinese Communist Party almost dictates this course of events, according to Xia Ming.
“For any major social or public safety crisis, the upper level of government will only carry out superficial tasks. When they’re deciding whether an official is qualified, they see whether the official is loyal to the Party,” Xia said.
He added, “One way to determine such loyalty is whether he is willing to be sacrificed for the Party.”
Thus, after a stern public reprimand and apparent punishment, the officials are whisked off to a distant location and put in some placeholder position.
“State-run companies and high-ranking officials have formed interest groups, and they protect each other,” Xia said, explaining that GDP growth is the key determinant of official career prospects.
“The Chinese government does not fear citizens dying from eating certain foods, but they do fear anger and protest by citizens when they see media reports about that.”
While a number of the officials responsible for the scandal—which resulted in 300,000 reported infections, over 50,000 hospitalizations where infants had kidney stones or other disorders, and at least 6 deaths—were looked after, citizens who sought to expose the matter were persecuted.
Zhao Lianhai, a former food safety worker who became an activist for parents of children harmed during the scandal, was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for “disturbing social order” in 2010. In fact, he had set up a website Home for Kidney Stone Babies, attempting to bring together those affected, and published leaked documents from the regime, which ordered officials to underreport kidney stone cases and lowball compensation sums.