China's melamine-tainted milk has now claimed at least eight lives – six babies and two scapegoats.
Earlier today, Zhang and Geng were executed for the crime of endangering public safety by dangerous means, and the crime of producing and selling toxic food, respectively. Nineteen other participants in the tainted milk scandal also have been convicted and sentenced – one to a suspended death sentence, and the others to prison terms ranging from two years to life.
The melamine story first broke in September 2008 – shortly after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games – when China recalled 700 tonnes of Sanlu Bei Bei Infant Powder, which had been linked to one death and 50 cases of infants with kidney stones. At the time, Sanlu was a major Chinese dairy company that was 43% owned by Fonterra Cooperative Group of New Zealand.
The story, and the number of illnesses, eventually mushroomed to six confirmed deaths and at least 300,000 sick babies. It soon became clear that the Fonterra Board of Directors, the Sanlu Board of Directors and the PRC government knew about the melamine adulteration problem for several months before the story became public. Sanlu was under government pressure not to embarrass China in advance of the Olympic Games. The adulterated baby powder was recalled in September 2008, after the New Zealand government pressed China to act.
In addition to the two men who were executed this morning, here are some of the other players who have been convicted and sentenced:
- Zhang Yanzhang: sentenced to life in prison for supplying melamine to the dairies
- Geng Jinzhu: sentenced to eight years for producing and selling poisoned food
- Tian Wenhua: sentenced to life in prison for selling melamine-adulterated milk products. Tian was the chief executive of Sanlu Group
- Gao Junjie: death sentence – "suspended" for two years – for producing melamine-laced powder
Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping were out to make a yuan and chose a fraudulent way to do so. There has been no indication that either man knew he was endangering the lives of babies by adding melamine to milk. Were these two men more deserving of the death penalty than Tian, the former chief executive of Sanlu? Or than the PRC officials who withheld knowledge of the adulterated milk from unsuspecting Chinese mothers? I think not.
Zhang and Geng deserved to be punished severely for their crimes. They should have been sentenced to long prison terms – perhaps for life. But they should not have been singled out for execution. That honor should have been reserved for the senior government officials who kept the melamine-adulterated milk situation under wraps until after the Beijing Olympic Games were over. They were the true murderers of those six babies.