Milk scandal: government fears social protests, threatens lawyers
About 90 lawyers have offered to help the victims, but the authorities have advised them to "help to maintain stability". The fear is that the thousands affected by the contamination could act together. Central government's responsibility shown to be increasingly serious.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Now the government is afraid that the milk scandal could unleash social protests. In order to prevent the infuriated parents from organizing, the local authorities are warning lawyers to "refuse" to represent them.

A group of about 90 lawyers has offered free legal assistance to the parents of children sickened by the tainted milk. The group posted the offer and the names of lawyers on the internet on September 12. Many have responded, and there is interest in joint action. But the government is afraid of seeing hundreds and thousands of parents joining together to ask for compensation. This would also be a dangerous precedent, in an affair widely followed by the media.

Li Fangping, the leader of the lawyers' group, says that the local authorities have said that, if they want to assist the victims, they must join the local attorneys' association. He adds that the association in Beijing has already asked him "to have faith in the [communist] party and in the government". The lawyers' associations are generally controlled by government officials.

In general, groups of people or entire communities whose rights have been violated do not sue for damages, but submit petitions to the local or central authorities. But the authorities have no obligation to examine the petitions, and instead there are frequent threats and arrests against those who organize and present them.

Attorney Lu Jun, an expert in health matters, says that one of the 90 lawyers has already withdrawn, and he is afraid that others will do so under pressure believed to be coming from the top. Many other lawyers in the group are now refusing to speak with the media. The lawyer Zhai Zhilong says that he has been contacted by parents of the victims, who were turned down when they called other lawyers on the list.

The Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post reports the comments from a lawyer in Hebei, who says that the authorities have contacted all of them, urging them to "consider the overall situation and help maintain stability, that we should not get over-involved in the Sanlu milk powder incident".

Beijing is finding it difficult to manage a scandal of unimaginable proportions: more than 53,000 infants sick, and the number still on the rise; about 13,000 hospitalized; the companies that produce about 60% of the country's fresh milk, and most of its powdered milk, are implicated. The production of cow's milk has tripled from 2001-2006, to 31.9 million tons, making China the third largest producer after the United States and India.

Yesterday, Li Changjiang, head of the general administration for quality supervision, inspection, and quarantines resigned, after admitting that there had never been tests for melamine in dairy products. But Chinese public opinion is not being reassured by the punishment of a few officials, because - as Liu Xutao, a professor at the National School of Administration, observes - the responsibility goes all the way to the top, because of the failure to supervise food inspections. It has emerged that the use of melamine in milk is widespread, and has been practiced for years. Only now has agriculture minister Sun Zhengcai become aware of the fact that "the intermediate link in purchasing raw milk is basically out of control", and that "many milk collection centers are not even officially registered".

Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, criticizes the government for "just doing [something] whenever there is a crisis, instead of taking real action unceasingly. Vegetables, fruits, sauces and aquatic products all have toxic addictives, and they may crack down on individual cases, but they have neglected the widespread problem".