Why Did I Publish The Name Sanlu?

(I Still Dream blog at Tianya.cn)  Why did I name Sanlu for having bad milk powder?  September 14, 2008.

Sanlu has collapsed because of a storm over quality accountability created by my report <Fourteen Gansu infants suspected of getting kidney disease from Sanlu milk powder> in which I named Sanlu.

I feel no pleasure over this.  In fact, I have many sorrows, including about the loss of corporate social responsibility at a historically well-known corporation, the "feeble-mindedness" of the Chinese media outlets and the loss of "social responsibility" among the media.

After I finished writing the story, I could not sleep that night.

I was not the first one to report on the infants with kidney ailments.  Previously, the media in Hubei, Gansu and elsewhere have reported on the matter.  But for a variety of reasons, they all referred to "a certain company" when they spoke about the milk powder that the infants took.

I can understand the concerns of these media.

Today, the media exist for politics, but they are under even more pressure to commercialize.  There is no job more stressful than that of newspaper boss.  On one hand, they have to worry about content issues like as if they are treading on thin ice.  On the other hand, they have to worry about money issues because a lot of people are counting on them to generate ad revenue for their living.

Today, the reporters are trapped under the general trend towards a market economy and also subjected to various news restrictions.  They no longer have the sense of glory and mission that they had when they first entered the business or that their forebears once felt.  They find themselves as the "little reporter guys" that the big corporations could order about or else send to the defendant's seat in court.

Back to the story itself.  On September 10, I saw that there was a report in Gansu media that 14 infants may have gotten kidney ailments through consuming a certain brand of milk powder.  My mind associated this case with the fake milk powder case in Fuyang city, Anhui province (the author of that report was a former colleague of mine and we shared a house at the time).  I felt that this could be a serious food safety problem.

So I contacted the Number One People's Liberation Army Hospital in Gansu.  The doctors said that kidney diseases are rare among children under 12 months old.  At the same time, they have not confirmed that the milk powder caused the kidney ailments.  For this reason, this reporter agonized over whether the company should be named, just like what the other media outlets must have gone through. 

But according to Dr. Li Wenhui from the hospital, the principal source of food for the infants was milk powder.  This gave the reporter more confidence.  But he still felt that the evidence was insufficient.  His colleagues reminded him that a Hubei media outlet reported at the end of August that three infants in Hubei, Henan and Jiangxi respectively may be having kidney stones as a result of consuming milk powder, even though the company was not named.  Through friends, I reached that Hubei reporter and learned that those infants also used Sanlu milk powder but the company was not named for a variety of reasons.

With similar cases appearing in so many different places, I came to the preliminary judgment that the issue was about the milk powder and not water quality.  So I decided to name "Sanlu" in my report, while realizing that I could be facing all kinds of risks.

I was still nervous so I contacted the Sanlu media relations department for confirmation.  The worker there swore up and down, "There is no quality problem with the milk powder."  She also claimed that an authoritative government department in Gansu province has recently tested the milk powder and confirmed that it passed full inspection.

I am familiar with the brand "Sanlu" among milk powder brands, but I didn't know a lot about the history of the company.  I went to the Sanlu website and the information made me more confident and friendly towards this well-established traditional Chinese brand.  The company has a long history over half a century; it owns a 18% share of the market; it is the designated milk powder for the Shenzhou 7 astronauts.

Do the Shenzhou 7 astronauts drink Sanlu milk every day?  I doubt it.  But from the marketing and advertising angles, this shows that Sanlu has invested a great deal of thought and effort into brand promotion.

Frankly, over the past two decades, many excellent Chinese brands were either wiped out by the wave of market economy reforms, or swallowed up by internationalization (such as Huiyuan Fruit Juice recently), or begging to be bought out (such as Wahaha).  But Sanlu is still able to stand tall.  That is why I feel respectful and good towards this Chinese brand (even though it has some foreign capital).

"Should I publish the name of Sanlu or not?"  As I wrote this report that had the potential of destroying the company, I had many worries and struggles.  I was afraid that a possibly erroneous report could create unnecessary trouble and losses to this excellent company.  If that should happen, I would be in the defendant's seat in court and be accused of helping foreign brands to ruin a Chinese brand.

Therefore, I was extra cautious with respect to the evidence that linked the milk powder to the ailing infants.  I was extra cautious in choosing my words.  I reprinted the response from Sanlu that "there is no quality problem" almost verbatim.  Apart from that, I emphasized in the report headline that Sanlu "did not have the evidence that showed the milk powder was causing the kidney ailments."

I recognized the various risks associated with this report, and I kept wavering about whether to write everything out.  Finally, I decided to name Sanlu because it would be against my conscience to keep saying "a certain company."  Previously, the netizens had commented on the published media reports with a strong demand to name the company.  "If you have a child, would you be able to be so vague?"  The comments from many young mothers led to my decision to name Sanlu, even if I get sued in court.

I am not saying that I am noble and lofty.  I only want to tell you one fact.  In this society, there are so many risks and temptations that it is hard to even tell a simple fact.

As the report went into print, my head was filled with visions of Sanlu calling up the next day to denounce the reporter for being irresponsible and threatening to go to court.  Frankly, I did not sleep well that night.

On September 11, the report appeared.  The large amounts of re-posting to websites led to a storm against Sanlu.  I made the psychological preparation to face the condemnation from Sanlu.

I arrived at work at noon on September 11.  My colleagues told me that Sanlu has made multiple calls already.

In the afternoon, I received a call from a Ms. Liu who claimed to be from Sanlu.  She wanted the report to be withdrawn from the website.  When I asked for her name, she said: "Just call me Ms. Liu."  Obviously, she did not want this reporter to know her name.

The reason why Ms. Liu wanted the report withdrawn was that the 14 Gansu infants with kidney ailments came from the same area (I have no idea where she got the information because the ailing infants came from an area of several hundred square miles) and therefore the kidney problems may be due to water quality issues (and therefore unrelated to the milk powder).  Besides, the Sanlu milk powder has just passed inspection and therefore the patients must be at fault.

The reporter asked: So how do you explain the same type of cases happening in Hubei, Jiangxi, Henan, Jiangsu and elsewhere?  Could there be the same water quality problem all over China?  This Mr. Liu could not come up with a coherent response but still stuck to the claim that "this could be related to water quality."

This Ms. Liu told the reporter: "People in Shijiazhuang drink the milk everyday and they don't have any probems."

Obviously, Ms. Liu's arguments were very feeble.  From the corporate public relations angle, I cannot understand certain things about the media relations department at Sanlu.

Firstly, this self-claimed Ms. Liu from the media relations department of Sanlu Group could not articulate the progress of the investigation of bad milk powder at Sanlu.  She does not know Ms. Yang from the same department, which she explained by saying that Sanlu Group is a big company with many employees.  It was really hard for me to imagine how big the media relations department at Sanlu Group must be such that they don't have a uniform understanding when they communicate with the media.

"If you don't understand what is going on, then you are irresponsible towards your company.  Why does your company need such a media relations department?  Why does Sanlu Company need people like you?"  The reporter went beyond his news gathering capacity to lecture Ms. Liu.  At that moment, I had a premonition: this company has a management problem, and therefore it won't be able to avoid the prospect of collapsing.

Finally, Ms. Liu said that since the reporter did not have proof that the Sanlu milk powder is bad, he must be violating intellectual property rights (I have not yet figured why this is a matter of intellectual property rights instead of damaging its reputation).

Secondly, I wondered why this woman did not call my mobile phone.  I had left my mobile phone number with the media relations department on the day before, as I hoped that they could contact me if there was anything more that they wanted to tell me.  This showed that this media relations department was in chaos.

Thirdly, when I interviewed Ms. Yang from the media relations department of Sanlu on the day before, I asked whether I can contact the department at night such as via a mobile phone.  Ms. Yang said that her mobile phone is personal and therefore it is inappropriate to give out the number.  I have interviewed many companies over negative stories, but this was the first time that I came across a company which refused to leave a phone number for the reporter to contact.

Fourthly, on the day before the report was published, I called the media relations department of Sanlu to see if there is a quality problem with the Sanlu milk powder and whether they were aware of the problem of infants getting kidney ailments from the Sanlu milk powder.

I called at 2pm.  Someone told me that the media relations department wouldn't be in until 2:30pm.  So I waited until 3pm before calling again.  Ms. Yang from the media relations department at Sanlu took the call.  She replied that the Sanlu Company has asked an authoritative department in Gansu to do quality testing and the results showed that the Sanlu milk powder passed everything.

When the reporter asked which Gansu authoritative department was it?  When were the tests done?  The answers were disappointing because Ms. Yang knew nothing more beyond repeatedly saying that Sanlu is a historically well-known company with a sense of social responsibility.

Based upon my observations, Ms. Yang was not deliberately confusing the reporter.  She basically had no idea about the status of the bad milk powder case.

Based upon the information disclosed by Sanlu itself now, the company was aware that there was a problem with its milk powder in June.  On September 11, this reporter's story was published but Sanlu (which was described as "a certain company" in previous media reprots) still insisted on its innocence.

The reason that I keep nagging about this is that Sanlu did not have the capability to respond during a moment of corporate crisis, being particularly 'feeble-minded' with respect to media relations.

Of course, Sanlu may not be 'feeble-mined' as such.  It may just be stalling for time and covering up the truth (this is very likely).  Over the past few days, the Internet is saying that its public relations firm made a recommendation: pay 3 million RMB to Baidu to remove all negative information.  This is a nasty piece of action, but it is not known whether it was carried out.

Consumers began to provide feedback in March.  In June, there was more and more feedback.  In August, Sanlu quietly stopped production and attempted to recall the products.  From the information disclosed by Sanlu itself, they were aware of the problems very early on.

So why did they not recall all the products over this time?  Why didn't they inform the consumers?

Over these past several months, I did not see the Sanlu Group do anything responsible.  This irresponsible behavior is going to cause the termination of its corporate life.

When the reporter's story which named Sanlu directly was published and re-posted on the Internet, Sanlu issued a Q&A-like response to Sina.com and People's Net.  They claimed that there are no quality problems with their products and that there is no evidence to link the Sanlu milk powder with the infants with ailing kidneys.

Sanlu knew that there was a problem with its milk powder, but they issued such a statement all the same.  That must be the death throes.  It can also be seen that Sanlu has no sense of rue in its dying moment.

At past 9pm on September 11, I finished my report of the day and I got on an airplane to go from Shanghai to Lanzhou.  I was nervous during the flight, because Sanlu was still quite adamant one day after my report appeared.  I even doubted whether I could be wrong.

At around midnight, I arrived at Lanzhou airport.  I turned on the mobile phone and saw a SMS from a colleague: Sanlu has decided to recall all infant milk powder produced before August 6.

After struggling for more than 10 hours from the morning to the evening, Sanlu finally bowed its head with a guilty conscience.

This is a delayed correct decision, but it is too late to save everything.  I can also hear the sound of a corporation that claims a half-century history and the highest market share of milk powder in China crashing down.

In retrospect, if Sanlu had the courage to acknowledge its mistakes several months ago, would the situation be better?  I think that it probably could not be better by much.  For a company that produces food that affects the health of infants, it would be death to admit so anyway.  No mother would let her baby be the test subject of a company with bad products, but especially a company that refuses to admit fault.

While the company is dead one way or the other, there are different ways of dying.  If they died early, people would be sad but they would still say, "Great courage, highly responsible."  If they waited until the last moment, people would have no sympathy and plenty of condemnations.

After the incident, some netizens wanted to support this Chinese brand (even though it has some foreign blood).  I don't think that I can support a brand with no sense of corporate social responsibility and treats the lives of thousands of infants as child's play!  Although I am often an emotional nationalist, I will retain some rationality at this time.

The Sanlu website says that the China Brand Equity Center valuates the Sanlu brand as being worth 14.907 billiion yuan.  It took half a century to accumulate 14.907 billion yuan, but it took only six months to reduce 14.907 billion yuan to zero (or even negative equity).

By the time that I get to this point, I have not a hint of delight in my heart.  Instead, I am an indescribable sense of sorrow.  I even felt a little guilty about the collapse of this company; if I didn't name them, could they have averted the catastrophe?

During the work for this story, I saw the crying parents escort their infants into the operating room; I saw the righteous doctors chance the inordinate risk of operation by giving total anesthesia to an infant less than 12 months old; I saw the 5 millimeter needle inserted into the urinary tracts of the crying babies; I saw the nurses searching for a blood vessel on an infant's head for the injections.  These sights make me feel less guilty about ruining the company with my report.

Finally I want to talk about the media which has been called the "conscience of society" and the "watchmen at the ship's bow."

I don't know if the Internet news that Sanlu used 3 million yuan to shut Baidu up is true or not.  Yet, it is an open secret in the industry that companies use money to shut the media up.

In the case of the Sanlu milk powder affair, did some media take money to keep quiet?  Based upon my understanding, it is highly likely.  But I don't want to condemn those media, because you cannot understand how hard it is for the media to survive unless you are a media person yourself!  When the problem is survival, how much is your conscience worth?

When I studied the history of western journalism in university, the professors criticized the western media as being owned by tycoons.  We were very disappointed to learn that the freedom-spouting western media were actually not free themselves.  Yet, within another decade or so, the Chinese media seemed to have suffered the same fate by being bought and controlled by corporations.

When the media, which is society's conscience, loses its conscience, what will society become?  When there is no watchman at the bow, where will the ship head?  I am somewhat worried!

(I Still Dream blog at Tianya.cn)  Do not let the Internet buried the growing seeds of freedom and democracy.  September 16, 2008.

At around 9am this morning, I turned on the computer to check my post made at the Media World forum of Tianya.  In just over two days, it had gotten more than 80,000 hits as well as several hundred comments.

Why do so many people care about this post?  This is not because the post was so great, but because the issue of food safety concerns the health and safety of every person and every family.  Looking at the outrage in the comments, I deeply feel that the Chinese netizens share a sense of righteousness and sympathy.  They feel bad for the victimized children, and they are disgusted with the Sanlu Group for the cover-up that endangered the lives of consumers.

You are perhaps aware that Tianya has deleted that post.  A few days ago, the forum master sent a SMS to tell me that the post had passed the review process and would be placed at the top of the page for maximum attention.  Today, he went a SMS to say that, "this post does not fit the principles of this page and will therefore be deleted."  Why did the attitude change?

I was angry about this all day today.  A friend working at a portal comforted me by saying that Tianya might have been under all sorts of pressures.  Where were the pressures coming from?  The Internet publicity department?  Sanlu?  Baidu?

According to what netizens suggested, I could find pitifully few posts and reports on Baidu about Sanlu.  At Google, I found almost 10,000 results.  I believe that it is probably true that Baidu is filtering the story.

Is there any justice left in the world?  Is there any place left to speak out?  We cheer that the Internet era has brought about grassroots democracy and the Internet forums has given us greater speech rights.  But the Internet violence and monopoly of speech rights by Baidu makes me deeply worried about the hard-won democracy and freedom.