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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Crying over spilt milk

As China celebrates its new year,signs of cautious openness

Written by Nimmi Kurian |
January 28, 2009 2:31:47 am

As it wrapped up the controversial milk scandal case last week by announcing convictions,there will be little rejoicing in China. The convictions,which include two death sentences,will do little to abate public anger over the tragedy that has rocked the country for the past two months. The deaths of six babies due to contaminated milk and the fact that about 30,000 others have been affected have seen a mass outpouring of rage as distraught parents have demanded speedy justice. The crisis has thrown up unlikely crusaders as ordinary citizens have mobilized,forming rag-tag coalitions to press their claims. The pressure to deliver effective justice is also a testimony to the slow but inexorable rise of the argumentative Chinese. 

The argumentative Chinese? Impossible,surely,given the image of the obedient,rule-abiding Chinese subject,one who knows his Confucius and knows his place in society. Yet China’s citizens have started arguing about nearly everything. There has been growing societal angst over pervasive corruption,layoffs,predatory taxation,a dramatic rise in inequality,environmental degradation and a crumbling social security system. The milk scandal has come in the wake of a series of similar tragedies in the last few years — the Harbin toxic spill,lead poisoning in Gansu and arsenic poisoning in Hunan. The part played by local governments in covering up scandals hasn’t helped.  As runaway growth imposes unwitting costs on its people,there are growing fears that the country could be “draining the pond to catch the fish.” For Jean Rostand,“the obligation to endure gives us the right to know”,and the Chinese people are demanding their right to know in increasing numbers and in increasingly loud voices. 

As growth pangs have mounted,the average Chinese citizen has also discovered a great appetite for litigation,whether over unpaid wages,land acquisition or compensation issues. Courts in China today are handling a virtual avalanche of labour disputes with 5,20,000 applications submitted last year,a 50 per cent increase over the previous year. There have also been personal stories of quiet courage shown by some lawyers in the face of intimidation and harassment for taking up ‘sensitive’ cases. The Open Constitution Initiative for instance,saw lawyers reach out last year to offer legal aid to thousands of Tibetans arrested after the March 2008 protests. The group is also offering similar legal assistance to the victims of milk powder poisoning. It is this “we are in this together” spirit and the banding together of various social groups that the leadership will increasingly look askance at. Such a fear is evident in the exhortations of Wu Heping,spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security that expressions of resistance should be mindful of “public order” and that the masses should “resolve problems in a harmonious and an orderly way.”

For its part,the government has been at pains to be seen trying to do its best to respond to these social red alerts. There have been some moves to allow a measure of information disclosure on many of these sensitive issues. China’s first Open Government Information Regulation (OGI) that came into effect last May marks an interesting development. Comparable to India’s Right to Information Act,the OGI represents an attempt to institutionalise a commitment by government agencies to release information on a range of public services such as data on land acquisitions and compensation details among others. What is also significant is that this obligation applies to all levels of China’s vast bureaucratic apparatus,and notably also provides reasonable scope for local versions of the information access regimes to differ from that of the centre.  It will be interesting to watch this space for its promise of an expanding sphere of public action and greater transparency in the decision-making process.  

Picture perfect? Not quite. There is no denying that the social space that has been opened up is a carefully managed one,subject to numerous direct and indirect means of state control. For instance,there are significant fetters on the exercise of judicial authority. The Party and local governments continue to exercise influence over the court system in China through appointment of judges and control over the purse strings. But the Chinese state is increasingly coming under press ure to respond to the voices,needs and concerns of its citizens. The very fact that these questions are being debated today offers room for cautious optimism. This is one river that China’s political leadership will cross by invoking Deng’s maxim of carefully “feeling the stones.” 


The writer is an associate professor at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi.

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