Apology by text message
Almost every day here, I get a text message in Chinese from the number 10086. This is a general service number which sends out promotional messages from the phone company and also public service announcements from the government - eg "Traffic's bad on such-and-such road in Beijing" or "It's going to be very cold tomorrow".
Usually you just ignore these messages. But at 9.19pm on Thursday night, something more interesting from 10086 landed in my in-box.
"Today 22 dairy companies including Sanlu have this message for you: We are very sorry to have caused harm to all children and society because of the problematic milk powder. We offer our sincere apologies, and plead for forgiveness. We have resolved to learn the lessons from this and to make sure that no substandard products are made in the future. We welcome supervision from all walks of society. We are operating a compensation system for the families of the sick babies, and are setting up a medical fund for more treatment for those who recover from kidney disease. We wish you and your family a happy new year."
As you may have guessed, this message refers to a story which first broke in September. Baby milk formula in China was found to be contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine. Six babies died and tens of thousands more were treated for kidney stones.
This week, executives from the Sanlu dairy group went on trial. But dairy companies clearly felt that they needed a more direct way of saying sorry. So they used 10086.
But for some parents, text message apologies, trials, and compensation funds aren't enough.
Earlier today, a group of parents whose children got sick from contaminated milk powder invited the foreign media to a news conference at a hotel in Beijing. In China, the decision to speak publicly to international reporters on a sensitive topic carries a certain degree of risk. The police will want to know who's talking and what they're saying.
I went with a colleague to the parents' news conference. Things began badly -the parents we met told us that the police had stopped five of their group from attending. Then, the hotel decided not to allow the remaining parents to speak to us inside the lobby. So we all went outside into the cold. A security guard shooed us away from the hotel's foreground car park. We gathered again by a nearby, non-descript wall. A police car parked nearby.
"We are here today to claim rights for our babies," said Lan Juanxian, the mother of 14-month-old twin sons who were both diagnosed with kidney stones.
"Our babies have been diagnosed with kidney stones, but we don't know what other diseases they will contract when they grow up. We know that the government has a compensation plan. My babies can get 2000 yuan ($290) according to the plan. But I can't accept that amount. The money I spent on Sanlu's milk powder is much more than that. Plus my babies have not fully recovered. What about the future?"
"We are consumers. According to laws, we have every right to ask the dairy companies to do something for us," said Jiang Yalin, whose 17-month-old daughter was diagnosed with kidney stones.
"The dairy companies are the ones to blame because they added toxic materials to their products. The government is good since it provides free medical diagnosis and treatment for our babies. I think it is a responsible government... although we don't agree with the current compensation plan, the government is starting to press the companies to set up a medical fund. I believe they can do it better in the future."
A news conference like this one tends to be covered by two sets of people: reporters, and smartly-dressed men filming the reporters.
From experience, it's fair to assume that the people filming the reporters are plain-clothes police officers. At this news conference, I counted around half a dozen men hovering around, taking pictures of the event.
They didn't interfere with our work - Chinese law states that foreign reporters need only the consent of their interviewees, not the police. Instead, their task appeared to be to document the news conference in as much detail as possible. So, as one man took a picture of me, I took a picture of him.
The parents say that they will continue their campaign for full, long-term medical treatment for their children. I'll let you know if I get any more interesting texts from 10086.