Pretend it didn’t happen. That’s apparently the strategy of the Chinese government, the World Health Organisation, and the International Olympic Committee toward China’s melamine milk contamination scandal during the Beijing Olympics.
An official ban on reporting of “all food safety issues” during the games stifled domestic media coverage of revelations that at least 20 dairy firms were spiking milk products with the chemical melamine. That cover-up contributed to the deaths of six children and illness among 300,000 others.
But there’s not a whisper of melamine – or of the reporting ban – in a May 2010 book jointly issued by the Chinese government, the WHO and IOC, The Health Legacy of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games: Successes and Recommendations.
That publication instead declares that “no major outbreak of food-borne disease occurred during the Beijing Olympics”. The book describes, without irony, the Chinese government’s attention to food safety during the Beijing Olympics as “an instructive example of how mass events can be organised to promote health in a value-added way”.
The book’s introduction features tributes from the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, who praises the Beijing Olympics for providing a “lasting legacy to the benefit of the population in and around Beijing”. The WHO director-general, Margaret Chan, commends the Beijing Games for spurring “innovative measures to protect the health of visitors and the local population”.
The WHO’s and IOC’s parroting of the Chinese government’s rosy assessment of the Beijing Olympics’ health legacy doesn’t just defy the historical record. It adds insult to the injury of China’s child melamine victims by whitewashing the role of official censorship in their misery. China’s state-controlled media was not allowed to publish the melamine contamination story until September 2008. This fact goes unmentioned in the book.
Nor is there a discussion of ongoing persecution of some public health advocates. On 30 March 2010, Zhao Lianhai was hauled before a Beijing court in a one-day closed trial on charges of “provoking disorder” for blowing the whistle on the government’s failure to assist the thousands who became ill. Zhao helped to establish a grassroots advocacy group, Home for Kidney Stones Babies, which rallied parents of sick children to demand official compensation and an official day of remembrance. For his efforts, Zhao faces a possible prison term of up to five years.
The Chinese government has a long history of denying or covering up issues it broadly defines as “sensitive” – even public health emergencies. The government stifled public disclosure of its severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak to ensure a crisis-free meeting of the National People’s Congress in early 2003.
That decision helped fuel an epidemic, which spread to 25 other countries and killed 774 people before it was contained in July 2003. Two years later, the government blocked all domestic media reports of the massive spill of the toxic chemical benzene in the Songhua river in Heilongjiang province until wild rumours about the disaster prompted disclosure of what had actually happened.
If the WHO is genuinely committed to “the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health” – its stated objective – it should examine the good, the bad, and the ugly in China, not put its imprimatur on half-truths and cover-ups as to the real health legacy of the Beijing Olympics. The WHO reflected some discomfort when Human Rights Watch inquired about its co-authorship. An email from the WHO’s regional office of the western Pacific defends the book as a “scientific study”, but adds that its contents “do not necessarily reflect WHO’s views, nor does WHO necessarily endorse them”.
The IOC’s complicity is no less shameful, but less surprising given its well-documented tolerance of the Chinese government’s unrelenting campaign to squelch legal peaceful protests, limit media freedom and restrict the internet access of journalists ahead of and during the Beijing Olympics.
The WHO and the IOC owe China’s citizens and the international community the truth and not some selective and rosy portrayal dressed up as “science”. The WHO should undertake independent reporting on the Beijing Olympics’ public health legacy in its monthly medical bulletin. The IOC should integrate ethical principles based on the values enshrined in the Olympic charter to establish human rights-compatible standards to guide the Olympic movement and the selection of future Olympic host cities. And both should demand that the Chinese government immediately release Zhao, stop harassing those seeking redress and allocate necessary funds for their compensation and medical treatment.
That would be an Olympic legacy worth writing about.
Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.