What's the link between China's thriving space program and an innocuous glass of milk?
One may first think those things are utterly unconnected, a random selection unlikely to be mutually relevant. As it turns out, there's actually a common thread that spotlights some of the deepest social and political challenges that the country now faces.
China's premier Wen Jiabao said in 2007 that he had high hopes for a future when every child in the country would be able to drink a glass of milk a day. China traditionally faced a shortage of grazing land and with it, a scarcity of milk for its massive population; in the past many families were too impoverished to buy a daily serving of milk for their child.
A year later in 2008, an estimated 300,000 children across the country were sickened by melamine-tainted milk formula from agricultural giant Sanlu Group -- 860 infants were eventually hospitalized. Sanlu was bankrupt by the end of the year.
On June 13, 2012, another major dairy corporation, Yili, began recalling all of its baby formula made within the half-year period between November 2011 and May 2012. Yili stated that it was investigating the possibility of leached mercury pollutants.
One wonders whether the country's parents would be confident of having their children drink milk now, even if there were enough to go around.
Indeed, after years of public anger at corporate and government negligence in food safety and quality control, the harmless looking glass of milk in China carries with it darker suspicions of chemical contamination and poisoning.
The emerging Yili scandal may not be much of surprise for those who have followed similar stories in China this year. In just over the last three months, there have been newly emergent cases of a massive black market for recycled waste oil, waste leather being used to make the protein casing for medicinal pill capsules, unsafe apples from fruit orchards in Shandong, and trace chlorine found in Coca-Cola China beverages.
But last week carried yet another shocker: this time the embarrassment stemmed not from any new poisonings, but from efforts to prevent them for a select few.
Last Wednesday, select news organizations in China released an exclusive on the extreme efforts made by the space program to ensure superior safety and first-rate cleanliness in the food and beverages provided for its astronauts.
To many observers, it was an implicit admission of the dangers in the country's food products by China's own government. Astronauts had to be kept away from the normal food eaten by the public, sometimes with intensely extravagant measures.
Beijing News was the first to reveal that special organic farms near the Jiuquan Space Launch Center were being used to provide organic produce for the astronauts. Obsessive precautions were taken to prevent contamination of the foods coming from these farms. No automobiles, not even bicycles, were allowed onto those farmlands; fish, cows, pigs, ducks, and chickens were fed only high-grade organic grains; no vegetables or grains grown on the lands were touched by artificial fertilizers or chemical pesticides.
And perhaps most incredibly of all, the milk from the farms were only selected from the healthiest and most robust of animals. Those lucky dairy cows were then raised in isolated shelters and given a month of rest so they had enough time to discharge any possible chemicals from their bodies before their milk was collected.
All wonderful for the three astronauts now floating in space on a major new mission to demonstrate the country's scientific progress, but back on Earth the aforementioned privileges raised a general ire from China's increasingly well-connected digital populace.
When can average citizens eat [anything] as safe as this? said an anonymous commentator on popular Web portal Tencent, in response to the news.
I hope regular people can drink that kind of milk as well! responded another.
A post from a Dalian netizen named Luhu said: This makes it abundantly clear that food for the public has problems!
The care and attention given to the food provided to the astronauts has led many to question why similar measures could not be given to the foods eaten by the general populace.
An opinion piece in Bohai Morning Post titled Hopes for Using Astronautical Standards in Food for the Public criticized attempts to portray the difference between the food given to astronauts and the masses as an issue of technology or specialization. It's really about a different level of care and value, said the author Mao Jianguo. The same values should be carried into food for the public, to prevent problems of conscience, said the article.
Indeed, the example of the specialty organic farms used by the space program demonstrates something endemic to the country's economic and social conditions. Critics say the government is largely eager to spend on national champions and select leading programs, but large portions of the population still need to fend for themselves.
Moreover, the farms near Jiuquan seem to prove rumors of a persistent system of tegong (??) in China -- a phenomenon in which privileged individuals are able to receive their own specialty foods and products from exclusive sources, segregated from those used for the larger public.
That gap, not only in income and political influence, but also in attention and resources given to address health and safety for the privileged few versus the greater public, is leading to a widespread backlash.
Another comment on NetEase Web portal, posted from Shandong province, read, the fundamental cause for the current system of tegong is the hierarchy [of power], its due to the misuse of power.