Zhou Qing is a writer and board member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center who has written several groundbreaking books of investigative nonfiction. Imprisoned for almost three years after taking part in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, Zhou endured more than a decade of unrelenting harassment before leaving China in 2008 to live in exile in Germany. He recently joined us for a conversation about censorship and human rights in China. Below is an excerpt from his book What Kind of God: A Survey of the Current Safety of China’s Food, translated by Flora Drew.

Punished to Save Them

What is the biggest problem in the world? Food is the biggest problem.

—Mao Zedong

In early 2004, a rumor spread across China that the government had attempted to cover up stories that Beijing clinics were reporting large numbers of children prematurely reaching puberty. Through various contacts, I managed to meet a well-known gynecologist at her clinic. On the morning of our meeting, as I waited in the clinic’s reception area, I saw a professional-looking woman in her 30s walk up to the registration counter with her daughter. If I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes, I would never have believed that the very mature-looking girl standing with her mother was only a seven-year-old.

Later, during our conversation, the doctor informed me that the girl had already started menstruating, had developed breasts the size of ping pong balls, and had thighs as developed and mature as a girl in her late teens. She also told me that premature puberty is not uncommon in Beijing these days. Other seven-year-old menstruating girls had also come to see her at the clinic, as well as six-year-old boys who had started to grow facial hair. At the root of this phenomenon are dangerous antibiotics found in popular children’s food products that a child’s digestive system can’t break down. The chemicals accumulate in their bodies and lead to premature puberty. The most dangerous products are chemically polluted seafood.

After further investigations, I discovered that seafood products—traditionally believed to help build body strength—are not only harmful to children’s health, but to adult fertility as well. From birth to death, Chinese culture has always emphasised the notion that the food we eat is a tonic that promotes good health. This is not the case anymore.

In Guangzhou Province, there is a saying that “so long as it has wings, the people will eat it.” People of the same southern province don’t stop with winged delicacies; they eat all kinds of strange and bizarre foods, including, in some instances, human dumplings. These are dumplings stuffed with aborted fetuses—a result of the one-child policy—and are considered extremely nourishing. Many of these fetuses come from migrant workers in the Zhujiang Delta, who become pregnant out of wedlock. The entire dumpling-making process in Guangdong Province was documented by a photographer and close friend of mine and provides undeniable evidence. Perhaps it was fate then that a certain wild cat the Guangdong people find delectable became a carrier of SARS, making Guangdong Province the place this dangerous disease first reared its head. Perhaps God was exacting his revenge on a people who dared eat human dumplings.

An open secret among the restaurant traders in Beijing is that the more expensive the seafood is, the less safe it is to eat. Especially dangerous are eels and soft-shelled turtles. A normal soft-shelled turtle weighing two jin (about two pounds) would usually take about two years to grow; however, with a little contraceptive powder and antibiotics, these turtles can grow to mature size in just two or three months.

After peasants finish their annual fish and shrimp pond cleaning in Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Shaanxi, and other provinces, they now cover the base of their ponds with a thick layer of contraceptive powder and other antibiotics to help protect the fish from disease and to speed growth. And on several occasions, at different fish farms in Guangzhou, I saw peasants cover the base of their ponds with crushed contraceptive pills. Many of these fish farmers told me that they never eat the fish they farm.

In the global economy, where the world feels more and more like a large village, a disease in one place is bound to spread to another. China produces vast quantities of agricultural products, and these products are gradually attracting the condemnation of institutions in Japan, the United States, and Europe. The Chinese government, which is used to controlling the country with lies, has countered these complaints with lies they themselves don’t believe. How have harmful chemicals found their way into fish products? The girls who scoop the seafood from the water often cut their hands on shells, and then apply antibiotic cream to their wounds. The government asserts that traces of these chemicals then find their way into fish going to market.

Recently, a friend returned from a trip abroad and told me that while he was traveling, he met an American with little knowledge of Asia. However, when my friend explained he had emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s, the American’s eyes popped and he gasped, “Big-headed babies! Big-headed babies!”

In Fuyang, the birthplace of both Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and today’s highest leader, Hu Jintao, contaminated milk powder has led to alarming cases of “big-headed babies.” News of this has spread throughout the world, and focused everyone’s attention on the safety of China’s food.

In 2004, cases of contaminated milk powder in Fuyang County led to more than one hundred “big-headed babies” falling ill, and the deaths of more than 13. After the media broke news of this shocking case, it attracted attention from all levels of society. According to one report by Chinese Central Television Station (CCTV), contaminated milk powder was already being sold in Fuyang markets as early as 2003.

On August 7, 2003, Rongrong, a five-month-old baby girl was taken to the hospital. She was suffering from severe liver and kidney failure as well as intestinal swelling—all signs of acute starvation. On August 13, six days after being admitted to the hospital, Rongrong died.

Earlier that year, the Department of Commerce of Fuyang County uncovered 33 other cases of substandard or contaminated milk powder being sold. But this didn’t put an end to illegal trading and production—recently the same department discovered another 45 cases of contaminated milk in Fuyang markets. Soon after reports of contaminated milk powder in Fuyang, the Chinese media uncovered additional cases of milk powder tainted with carcinogenic toxins being sold in large quantities in the markets of Cao County in Shandong, Shantou in Guandong Province, and in Lanzhou. And substandard milk powder was found in Guangdong, Hainan, Hubei, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Guangxi, Henan, and Gansu, as well as in the markets of the capital city, Beijing. One can only imagine how many other places in China are selling this illegal product, and how many children’s lives are at risk.

The consequences of this horrific trade have been reported quite well by the media, and this time, the central authorities have not entirely turned a blind eye to the issue. I would like to express my admiration for the professionalism of the people in the media who reported so tirelessly on this issue, and writers on the Internet who posted reports, helping to increase the transparency of our society. But apart from that, I don’t know what I can say.

When the media began running pictures of the swollen and deformed heads of young babies, no one could help being angry and distraught, including government officials. Wen Jiabao, the head of government and premier of the State Council, instructed relevant departments to deal strictly with the criminals involved in these cases. In addition, the central government sent teams into the field to speed up investigations. Their response gave people hope that the horrifying cases of big-headed babies would, in this way, be dealt with properly.

Instead, what came to light was that the Department of Industry and Commerce of Taihe County in Fuyang deceived investigation teams sent by the State Council. It turns out the local officials involved in “fighting the fake” were themselves involved in “fabricating the fake.”

In April of 2004, the media was full of stories along these lines: “The Fuyang Department of Industry and Commerce has filed cases against 189 large-scale traders of substandard milk powder.” Oddly, of these 189 cases, 148 were filed by the Department of Industry and Commerce of Taihe County. Fuyang’s Department of Industry and Commerce is divided into ten town and county departments, so Taihe’s 148 cases far exceeded the number of cases brought by the remaining nine departments combined. The cases reported by local officials in Taihe were all relatively large in scale, involved significant amounts of products and money, and had complicated histories. It seems that in reporting these 148 cases, Taihe County’s Department of Industry and Commerce were hoping to appear conscientious in their duties.

In the middle of April, Anhui Province’s Department of Industry and Commerce informed Fuyang City’s Department of Industry and Commerce that they wanted to review the documents relating to the 189 cases reported by all 10 departments. When Fuyang authorities requested relevant documents be sent to them, they immediately discovered that only eight of the cases reported by Taihe had proper documentation that could be passed on to the provincial authorities.

On April 23, 2004 investigation teams sent by the State Council arrived in Fuyang, and began to review all cases of substandard milk powder reported in the area. That very night, Lu Shaoxia, the Deputy Mayor of Fuyang, called a late-night meeting of Taihe County Office of Fair Trade and instructed the staff to begin fabricating documents for the more than 140 cases they submitted relating to the investigation of substandard milk. Each case document was to a case overview, interview records, punishments meted out, and receipts of fines taken.

The next day, on April 24, the State Council’s investigation team personally discovered 890 bags of Three Generations substandard milk powder manufactured by the Wuwangwo Sweet Factory. This powder had already been publicly declared unfit for consumption by the Municipal Department of Industry and Commerce. The local Industry and Commerce departments, it seemed, had only concerned themselves with reporting the cases to higher authorities, but had taken no real action, and worse still, had deliberately deceived both the State Council’s investigation and the general public.

According to Xu Xueshun, the head of Taihe’s Department of Industry and Commerce, the Fuyang Municipal Party Committee and municipal government, and the leaders of Taihe government took this matter very seriously, and that very night the county’s Department of Industry and Commerce held an emergency meeting and fired Ji Dengjuan, the head of Chengdong’s Industry and Commerce Office, Wu Hai the deputy head, as well as Chen Chunsheng and Song Ying, who managed the Dongcheng’s Industry and Commerce Office. On April 25, news of these dismissals was reported to the State Council’s investigation team. And on April 26, the news was reported by CCTV and the Fuyang local media. However, when reporters visited the Taihe County’s Industry and Commerce offices more than a month later in June, they discovered that the four men—Ji Dengjuan, Wu Hai, Chen Chunsheng, and Song Ying, who had supposedly been dismissed a month before—were still members of the staff and either “awaiting duty” or “on duty” throughout the coming month.

When it finally came to light that many of the documents related to cases of substandard milk powder in Fuyang had been fabricated in Taihe, the managers responsible were fired a second time. But those who were let go felt they were in fact being punished for the deeds committed by the county’s leaders and for following their orders. There was no incriminating evidence that said otherwise, and they protested strongly against this second and final dismissal. When the truth about the initial “fake dismissals” was reported by the media, Xu Xueshun, the head of Taihe Industry and Commerce Department, was also fired. Following his dismissal, he said that the initial round of firings was initiated by the county leaders. Another of the four men, Chen Chunsheng, asserted that Fu Xiaoyang, the Deputy Head of the department, said, “We have no choice but to sack you. If we don’t punish you, we will have to punish the County leaders and the Secretary of the County’s Party Committee. You are being punished to save them.” He then promised they could all continue to work and receive a salary.

In October of 2003, a young peasant couple from Songzai Village in Taihe County gave birth to a little girl and named her Yueyue. Soon after, her mother’s milk supply dried up, and her parents began feeding her Sunlight Baby milk powder, one of many baby formulas blacklisted by officials for its substandard nutritional value. It was found to have a protein content of only 2.13%.

In April of 2004, Yueyue’s parents saw a television report on the State Council’s investigation team arriving in Fuyang to look into cases of substandard milk powder. They had been feeding her Sunlight Baby milk for several months. The parents looked at Yueyue and saw that her head had swelled over the previous six months, but that her hands and feet were no larger than they had been the day she was born. She was also unable to sit up and support herself on the bed. They immediately knew something was wrong and took her to the Taihe County Hospital.

Yueyue was fortunate to receive free medical care from the hospital. But shortly after being admitted, the State Council investigation team left Taihe County, and her “free lunch” came to an abrupt end. According to Taihe County Hospital, Yueyue didn’t meet the requirements for free treatment. Yueyue’s parents had limited financial resources, and had no choice but to take her home. The parents and grandfather worked tirelessly for six months, making 4,700 yuan (about $735), which they spent on further treatment. But this wasn’t enough, and on May 2, 2005, they once more had to take Yueyue away from hospital due to a lack of funds.

Two months after the State Council investigation teams left Fuyang, traders selling illegal and blacklisted milk powder had still not been dealt with. Because of the county’s inaction, families began taking matters in their own hands.

One hero of the Fuyang substandard milk powder fiasco is Little Aoqiang. Born on August 6, 2003, he developed normally until, a month after using Nilu milk powder, he came down with a particularly high fever and showed other symptoms of malnourishment associated with consuming substandard milk powder. During his medical treatment, Aoqiang could only be injected in his scalp; as a result, his head was covered with needle pricks, making his skin look like a plucked chicken wing—it was a horrible sight. He hovered between life and death many times. This innocent baby had no expression of anger on his face or tone of complaint in his voice. He just silently endured the effects caused by substandard milk powder: arrested physical intellectual development, weakness and susceptibility to illness, swollen head, etc. Later in life he will face severe obstacles when it comes to his education, employment, and prospects of marriage. The fake milk powder has not only severely harmed his health; it also created a heavy financial burden for his family. His parents can no longer live normal lives.

On June 23, 2004, Aoqiang’s parents, on his behalf, brought a case against the illegal traders who sold substandard milk powder in Fuyang. The court awarded the family 250,000 yuan (about $39,000) for physical and emotional damage, of which 150,000 yuan (about $23,500) was set aside for Aoqiang, and 50,000 yuan (about $8,000) for the parents.

According to an informed source, the accused stayed at home throughout the proceedings. Two months after the State Council’s investigation team left, the accused had still not been arrested.

These are the so-called public servants, whose salaries are paid for by our taxes and who constantly tout the need to follow Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and to uphold the principle that “The people’s interests are paramount.” But in reality these servants are deceiving and harming their so-called masters. The Chinese authorities have controlled society for the last 50 years through fear and lies. Can anyone still remember Premier Zhou Enlai standing before the public and famously promising to bring about the “Four Modernizations” before the year 2000? Lies and fear have in fact controlled China for thousands of years, eroding our sense of morality and making fear and uncertainty about the future easily exploited by those in power. The promises or apologies announced in public have lost all credibility, and we can’t help but remember the criticism that was once directed towards Confucius: “He talks of benevolence, justice, politeness, knowledge, trustworthiness, but from his belt hang a knife and a wooden stick!”

Food is essential to our survival and reproduction, and vital to the political stability and social development of the country. The problem of food safety is the result of our reckless overspending in recent years. We have overdrafted on our society, environment, personal relationships, and trust. When we consume beyond our means, we lose our sense of morality, and this has allowed phenomena such as the production of unsafe food to take place. The television show Daily Quality Reports, which continually reports on cases of unsafe food products, is now one of CCTV’s most popular programs. But are people watching this merely to learn how to produce fake products? In the system we live under, it is more dangerous for officials to tell the truth than to lie.

The lies told about food safety create serious problems that will be hard to deal with in the future. We should deal with this problem in the same way that we dealt with SARS—if the officials aren’t up to the job then get rid of them! The stubborn officials who view the discussion of food safety as a phenomenon with negative consequences are the diseased, malignant cells in the body of our nation.

If food safety is to be improved, the government must use its power and resources to work hand-in-hand with the people, and deal with illegal activities in a just way, for example by implementing modern and transparent laws, rather than the traditional method of coercion.

Otherwise, if satisfying our basic daily needs for food and drink becomes a highly dangerous activity, what hope is left for our society?

Recently, America’s Free Asia Chinese language radio station telephoned me for an interview about new cases of “big-headed babies” in Zhuzhou, Hunan Province. This is less than a year after the Fuyang milk powder incidents. Just like SARS, the problem of substandard milk powder is considered to be a “negative” news story, and has therefore been hushed up by the authorities, but the problem continues to exist and pose a threat to humanity. Without knowing it, our race is unconsciously heading towards mass suicide. In my opinion, all Chinese people, from the top echelons of society to the bottom, are in need of urgent, spiritual rescue.


Check out PEN’s conversation with Zhou about censorship and human rights in China.