07/07/2010, 00.00
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Father who lost child to melamine-tainted milk gets a year of hard labour

After Tang Lin’s one-year-old son died from tainted milk, the authorities refused to compensate him and he vented his frustrations online. Because of this, he was arrested. Police then convicted him without trial for threatening public security. For experts, Beijing’s tightening grip on the net is a sign of fear.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Tang Lin, a father who expressed his anger in an online forum for losing his son to melamine-tainted milk scandal, was sentenced to a year of hard labour. For experts, this is further evidence that Chinese censorship will go to any length to ban controversial issues, including the most intimate feelings someone may have.

Tang Lin, a villager from Fengjie County in Chongqing, was taken by police on 19 May for questioning, but it was not until two weeks later that his family found out that the police had sent him to a "re-education-through-labour" camp. Chinese law allows for administrative detention without a court order or legal defence. The motivation for the decision was made public only yesterday, namely “posing a threat to public security by scare-mongering”.

Tang's one-year-old son died of respiratory and urinary system failure in August 2008, and he blamed the death on the Sanlu baby formula the boy had eaten. Manufactured by several Chinese dairies, the baby formula contained melamine, a substance toxic to humans, and possibly added to fool government protein content tests. A number of infants died and some 300,000 people became ill from drinking it.

The scandal broke in September 2008, and ended in a number of high-profile trials involving a number of companies. However, the families of the victims were never paid damages. The government offered pitiful compensation, about US$ 3,500 for the worst cases, less than 300 for all other, sums that could not cover medical expenses, let alone help families with children permanently damaged by the substance. Many families turned down the money.

Courts rejected applications for compensation on behalf of affected families and victims, arguing they could not award damages before the government assessed the matter. So far, no assessment has been made; none might be done before a number of years or ever.

Because of this, Tang vented his frustration on Tencent QQ, generally referred to as QQ, the most popular (110 million users) free instant messaging computer programme available in mainland China. The system allows users to form chat groups, and on one occasion, Tang told fellow members that "he would go to extremes", that "there will be news reports on it" and "every measure is in place".

These words were enough to get him convicted, police told local media.

QQ group forums can have up to 500 members, but participation is mostly by invitation, meaning applicants are screened by group creators. This might explain why police intercepted his remarks.

In fact, government China’s Interior Ministry has been monitoring QQ forums and other discussion groups since January. For the authorities, such venues are not private places; hence, Tang’s words constituted public speech.

Ultimately, as a number of analysts have pointed out, Beijing is scared by the free flow of information and ideas on the internet. For this reason, it is tightening its control on virtual communication, including private chat rooms.

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