11/12/2010, 00.00
CHINA
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Zhao Lianhai, an unlikely hero for children poisoned by melamine-tainted milk

When he found out that his son was suffering from kidney problems caused by melamine-tainted milk, he quit his job to defend the rights of the victims. He “didn’t want to betray other parents,” his wife said at a time when the government was making generous offers on the condition that he desist. Now she and their children are on hard times, surviving thanks to anonymous donations.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Zhao Pengrui (pictured with his mother) went to school this morning despite the fact that his father, Zhao Lianhai, was sentenced on Wednesday to two and half years in prison for defending his and other children’s right to health. His mother Li Xuemei did not want him to miss kindergarten.

Until two years ago, Zhao Lianhai led a quiet life, with a good salary of 5-6,000 yuan per month. He was not involved in fighting for democracy or human rights, he was not fighting at all, not until that is, he found out that his son Pengrui was among the 300,000 children poisoned by milk formula tainted by melamine, a chemical substance normally used in making plastic but used by dairy companies to fake higher protein contents.

Reeling from the worldwide scandal and mounting protests, Beijing was initially all generosity with pledges of free medical care and compensation for the sick children. Afterwards, money offers started to dwindle, reaching the point that in many cases they did not cover emergency medical expenses.

Faced with claims for redress, many judges simply dismissed the applications, saying that they could not rule in civil cases when the authorities were still conducting their investigations into the matter.

A number of officials in some dairy companies were tried, convicted and sentenced, two to death, but as most analysts point out, no company or food safety official has ever been tried.

Zhao quit his job instead to defend the rights of the children and the parents caught up in the affair. He set up a website to provide information to those affected and to coordinate their action. Told threateningly by the authorities to desist, he was arrested almost a year ago for stirring up trouble and “disrupting the public order”.

His wife, Li Xuemei, has now been left with their two children, a five-year boy and a one-year girl, living in her mother-in-law’s 60 m2 flat, outside Beijing's South Fifth Ring Road. Since her husband’s arrest, the family has survived on her mother-in-law’s 2,000-yuan pension.

After Zhao began his campaign, the local district offered to pay for his son’s medical treatment, and provide him with a good job, if he stopped. However, “We had to keep up the work after seeing so many suffering children, and we didn't want to betray other parents," his wife told the South China Morning Post.

Small donations from online friends, and anonymous supporters, provide additional money for her and her family.

After Zhao announced at his sentencing hearing that he would go a hunger strike, his lawyer Peng Jian also began a three-day hunger strike in solidarity with his client. Zhao’s wife Xuemei said she would have done the same but had to remain healthy to take care of their children.

Since Zhao attracted media attention, Li’s mobile phone has been bugged. At the start of the year, the authorities also installed a new surveillance camera in front of the building where she lives.

Through her mother-in-law, the authorities have urged her not to speak with the media. However, "I won't do what they have asked," she said. "I am not scared of going to jail, where I don't need to worry about what to eat.”

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