Sanlu’s public relations pawns: a relay of lies in China’s media

By David Bandurski — In early August, as the stage was set for the Beijing Olympic Games and news about poisonous milk powder was being suppressed by corporations and officials, scores of print media and major Web portals across China ran a story about how the dairy brand Sanlu, now at the center of the dairy industry scandal, had been honored in an award campaign called “30 Years: Brands that Have Changed the Lives of Chinese.”

No one could have seen it so clearly then, but the “30 Years” award campaign, hosted by Huaxia Times in cooperation with China Central Television, Sina.com, China National Radio and other media organizations, was the plainest illustration of a media system gone horribly rotten, in which media are pushed to profit richly from falsehoods even as public interest news is systematically suppressed.

jia-jingxue-on-xinhua-website_with-torch.JPG

[ABOVE: Screenshot of Xinhua website coverage showing Sanlu PR manager Jia Jingxue (being held up) as an official bearer of the Olympic flame.]

The August 6 article reporting the “30 Years” honor bestowed on Sanlu was written by Miao Wanfu (苗万福) and appeared virtually everywhere — in scores of newspapers, at the website of the official People’s Daily, at Tianya, at Sina, and at a leading food industry website, to mention just a few.

And who is Miao Wanfu?

As the Oriental Daily and others have reported, Miao runs Sanlu’s internal public relations machine. But readers of the above “news” would never have guessed as much. Miao is identified — when a byline appears at all — as “correspondent Miao Wanfu” (通讯员苗万福).

On the People’s Daily website, Miao manages to come off as a staff reporter for the CCP’s top daily. And when the report runs subsequently at China’s leading food industry website it is attributed again to “correspondent Miao Wanfu.” We are told that the news comes from “People’s Daily Online.”

Misrepresentations of this sort are perpetuated across China’s media, where a lack of professional standards means “news” space is stuffed routinely with material from valuable advertising clients.

Here is “correspondent” Miao Wanfu again for People’s Daily Online, and for Hebei Daily. And here he is apparently reporting for the Central Propaganda Department’s Guangming Daily in June 2006 about the purchase of a stake in Sanlu by New Zealand’s Fronterra Group.

When Southern Metropolis Daily broached the topic last week of how Chinese media had contributed to the tragedy of China’s tainted milk crisis it was opening up a great big can of worms.

There are many hard and searching questions to answer. As the newspaper asked, why, before the breakthrough report by Oriental Daily journalist Jian Guangzhou (简光洲), did media suggest only that “certain brands” of milk powder had problems? And why, even as questions were beginning to surface about the safety of milk powder from Sanlu, were the company’s supposed contributions to the lives of ordinary Chinese being trumpeted so loudly.

Chinese media will not be given an opportunity to delve very deeply into these questions. The answers, after all, point to the ugliness of state media controls and the failure of media policy as well as to runaway commercial greed. The Chinese media’s role in the tainted milk crisis should remind us again just how poisonous the combination of rigorous press controls and unfettered commercialization can be.

Another Sanlu public relations manager, Jia Jingxue (贾静雪), is perhaps the best icon for the false messages drummed into the Chinese public about the company’s products even as news of life-and-death importance was being suppressed in the interest of corporate profits and China’s Olympic image.

As the Olympic torch — the “sacred flame,” as it was generally called in China’s media — made its way through the city of Shijiazhuang on July 30, Sanlu’s Jia Jingxue was official torch bearer number 36, right behind local cultural official Zhou Jian (周健), and the two of them struck the following memorable pose.

pose-3.jpg

A simple Chinese-language search for “Jia Jingxue” makes it clear that she was one of the most prolific contributors to the relay of lies about Sanlu that were perpetuated throughout China’s media.

Take, for example, this August 2007 news report from China Food Quality News (中国食品质量报), the newspaper designated by China’s State Council as the primary vehicle for disseminating food quality and supervision policies and regulations.

china-food-quality-news_jia.jpg

The article, “Sanlu Group Promotes Use of Chinese Herbal Medicine to Prevent Illness Among Dairy Cows,” has a double byline that reads somewhat ambiguously: “China Food Quality News reporting (Jia Jingxuan reporter Shi Wei).”

While Chinese media insiders might understand that the odd placement of names before and after the title “reporter” suggests this is a corporate press release placed directly in the newspaper, ordinary readers would have no way of recognizing this. Jia Jingxue is effectively passed off as a staff reporter for China’s top newspaper devoted to issues of food quality and safety.

Why would China Food Quality News allow this to happen? Because Sanlu is as valuable as advertisers come.

For a glimpse at how profit-oriented this government-designated food quality mouthpiece has become, you need only visit their home page, a sloppy collage of corporate logos — Jiuhe Foods, Bright Dairy and Foods, Yurun, Wahaha, Shineway Group, and of course Sanlu, to name just a handful.

In July this year, just days before her participation in the Olympic torch relay, Jia Jingxue was writing for the local party daily in Shijiazhuang. The article appeared at several major Websites, including Sina.com, with a logo and link to Shijiazhuang Daily and a byline that read: “From this newspaper, Jia Jingxue reporting” (本报讯, 贾静雪).

On September 1, just two weeks before the scandal broke, Jia appeared as a reporter for the official Hebei Daily as well as the official Hebei Economic Daily. The article was called, “Sanlu is Honored with the Nation’s Only Science Progress Award for the Dairy Industry,” and it also appeared on the official Website of the Hebei provincial government.

The examples go on and on. As the screenshot below attests, the same Jia Jingxue has apparently also been a correspondent for the official China National Radio.

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In sickening parallel to the quality problems plaguing other consumer products, examples like these are flagrant abuses of the trust of the Chinese media consumer. Poisonous milk has its parallel in poisonous media.

But the complicity of China’s media is doubly disturbing because it underlines a dangerous trend resulting directly from the party’s policy on media — an amplification of falsehood driven by the narrowest commercial ends attended by state news censorship that suppresses information that is critical to the well-being of ordinary Chinese.

As the tainted milk scandal shows only too clearly, this is a volatile combination.

Sanlu, no doubt, is just the tip of the iceberg. And unless the media are given greater freedom to monitor officials and corporations on behalf of the people, the cruel and cynical contrast between public relations ploys and hidden realities will persist.

Consider this chilling study in contrasts.

On August 12, a rosy piece of soft news on China’s top food quality website reported that Sanlu was generously giving free cases of milk powder to “Olympic babies” born on the first day of the Games.

The final line of the “news article” shouted out with exclamation points:

“Sanlu milk powder says ‘Let’s go!’ to the babies of the Olympics. Let’s use high-technology, high-standard and high-nutrition Sanlu milk powder to say ‘Let’s go!’ for the future of China!”

[Posted by David Bandurski, September 28, 2008, 2:15pm]

26 Comments to “Sanlu’s public relations pawns: a relay of lies in China’s media”

  1. Ipod says:

    Mr.Bandurski got quoted twice in Wikipedia 2008 Chinese milk scandal
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Chinese_Milk_Scandal#Fonterra
    (1)David Bandurski, journalist and researcher at China Media Project , criticised the crippling media controls by the state combined with “runaway commercial greed”, and said that the censorship “suppresses information.. critical to the well-being of ordinary Chinese.”[220] He asserted that increased press freedom needs to be a component of any strategy to deal with this and other future food-security lapses in China. Free media in China could compensate for the underdeveloped rule of law, and be important in keeping companies and regulators honest.[38]
    (2)Bandurski, writing in The Wall Street Journal, reported that the suppression of bad news has not improved since the scandal has been uncovered: media rigidly adheres to the official line, as ordered. Bandurski cites local journalists saying that discussion of the causes of the crisis, government responsibility, questions about government complicity with dairy companies, is strictly off limits. He further stated that Chinese consumers are ill-informed about the extent of global recalls.[38]

  2. Fender says:

    A big proportion of young Chinese do not know the difference between the nation, the party and the government. It is not their fault because that is how they have been educated. They always said the same thing about this country without their own opinions. I am gonna criticize them since they are actually poor people, being used for so many years.

  3. SEAllen says:

    Tina,

    I was also a volunteer during the Olympics. But I didn’t “treat foreigners better than Chinese”. My responsibility was to provide news service for registered Olympic jounalists. I didn’t care where they came from. I just did what I should do cause that was my job.

    My friends at another volunteer post once talked about why some volunteers treat foreigners better, and their anwser was jounalists from western countries were always more politely and treated them better. I myself didn’t agree very much. Most jounalists and staff in my venue were really nice. We shared an amazing summer together.But at their post, that might be quite true.

    Ok, that’s off the points.

    I just want to say everybody knows that “China has many disadvantages.But we never give up trying to change….”

    But so what? Does that mean things like milk scandal deserve understanding? It’s because we love this country that we have to face up to the problems.

    Besides. don’t be too sensitive, too “patriotic” to understanding fair criticism.

  4. qq says:

    Tina,

    as you said, “Volunteers treat foreigners better than Chinese.” this is what i can’t stand. why can’t chinese treat each other equally? why do the foreigners deserve to be treated better? (no offense to “foreigners”). i’m just like you, a chinese born and raised here. i love my country too. but that doesn’t prevent me from seeing the wrongs and loopholes in our system. while there’s no sign of a change in the system in the near future, can we do something to push for more press freedom?

  5. qq says:

    excellent post!!!
    as far as i know, publishing “news” or “soft news” from companies in the industry newspapers (行业报) is a very common practice in china. because these papers are usually an subsidiaries to state ministries. they are not commercial newspapers that you can buy from news stands. their main distribution channel is through subscription from companies in the industry. these companies are at the same time advertisers of the newspaper. as long as those companies keep good relations with the newspaper reporters and editors, taking them to luxury dinners, free travels, holiday gifts, and red envelopes for events, it is so easy to release something in the newspaper. or maybe, the pr manager of one company used to work at the newspaper…

  6. Tina says:

    first, i’m sorry about my bad english again.
    Now I know how important to learn English well
    it’s such a disaster for me that if there’s no sub when i am kind of ‘enjoying’ American TV show

  7. Tina says:

    I am sorry for my poor English.
    It s a bit difficult for me to make an accurate expression of what I mean.
    I am learning English :-)

    Hogo Restall
    When I say:“Volunteers treat foreigners better than Chinese.” I don’t mean our volunteers try to cheat you.Of course you can see the bad as well as the good,volunteers never try to prevent you from doing this.
    We provide free services to show our welcome and friendship.
    Maybe you can’t feel the pain,The Olympic flame had been humiliated , our compatriots died in the earthquake,Not to mention what CNN said about Chinese.
    This deeply hurt us.I smile to every foreigners,I do everything I can to help foreign journalist and visitor because I hope they can understand Chinese aren’t that bad like CNN said——this is also a fact.
    Not all Chinese are bad people,and not all of them are rude,ignorant.
    There should not be another earthquake in BEIJING,not all Chinese should die
    Why they say that?Why they hate Chinese so much?!

    When you say:”Leave China alone.”,China do try to be part of you.
    6o years ago,China even didn’t have a government can protect their own nationals from the aggression other country.
    I know she is not good,has many defects.
    But there are many people would like to change the status quo,China is very hopeful.

    All we want,is be your friend,not the one you hate

  8. anonymous says:

    Tina, as an American having lived in China for the past 15 years, I can tell you with complete sincerity that I love China. But it’s the PEOPLE that I love, not the system. Please don’t misunderstand the things that you read in blogs like this. I’m pretty sure that the negative comments are aimed at the system, not Chinese people like you. We just get so tired of seeing the injustice and corruption that is openly perpetrated by the government on its own people, because it’s a one-party system and there’s absolutely no internal accountability.

  9. [...] the exposure of recent incidents in the media has had one positive effect: central government has begun to [...]

  10. Hugo Restall says:

    Tina, you say, “Volunteers treat foreigners better than Chinese.” I’m sure you mean that in a good way, but that is another symptom of the problem. It is ingrained habit to fool the foreigners, and conceal China’s faults. Why shouldn’t Chinese treat each other just as well as they treat foreigners, and why shouldn’t foreigners understand the bad as well as the good?

  11. Tina says:

    I know many of U are disgusted with China,cause China is a one-party dictatorship,China is a controlled police state……
    But to young adult of China,like me.We love the country,China have more than one billion people.30 years ago,Chinese are suffer from hunger .
    We have changed our social system,so our people live better nowadays.
    We want to change,We are trying to do our best .
    I know this country is not very good,but I still love her.
    I was a volunteer in Beijing Olymic,I smile to every foreigners.I do everything I can to help foreign journalist and visitor.
    Volunteers treat foreigners better than Chinese.
    We just hope they will feel China is not that bad.

  12. Tina says:

    As a chinese,I know China has many disadvantages.But we never give up trying to change.

  13. [...] case you woke up this morning feeling unlucky to be an American, remember that there is still that whole poison powdered milk thing going on in China. As of today there are over 50,000 infants sick from the melamine-tainted milk, [...]

  14. [...] brands is now coming to light. David Bandurski, of the China Media Project, has covered this story in detail. Even as questions were beginning to surface about the safety of milk powder from Sanlu [...]

  15. [...] Bandurski from China media project wrote a detailed article about Sanlu's public relation strategy in creating the high-quality image of its milk products and showed how the media is conspired in relaying the lie. Posted by Oiwan Lam  Print [...]

  16. anonymous says:

    anyone consider avoiding chinese foodstuffs (or chinese products)like the plague given we couldn’t/shouldn’t trust them to maintain food safety.

    able time to start a global campaign to rid of ingredients with Chinese origins? (and from companies operating in Asia under Chinese owners?)

  17. Angus says:

    That’s a brilliant post.

    The most disappointing thing is this just underscores yet further the central role of Xinhua – it needs the Big Daddy to step in to confirm something really big like Sanlu (fake news about the good quality of your product can just as well be fake news about the low quality of your rivals when the media has stopped controlling what it prints).

    Is there an industry in China that is less developed than the media? Can’t think of it myself

  18. [...] searing indictment of Chinese media and its relationship to corporate public relations. [China Media [...]

  19. [...] :: Sanlu gjorde hvad de kunne, for at dække over det forunede mælkepulver. China Media Project har en fantastisk artikel om Sanlu, PR og løgne i de kinesiske medier. [...]

  20. David says:

    Not only is this a problem of mixing “propaganda” and “profit,” it demonstrates the value of maintaining a impermeable wall between the editorial and advertising sides of media.

    Government aside, any news outlet where journalists are obliged to flog ad space in return for copy is a systemic malignancy, and any company who allows themselves to be strong-armed into doing so should fire its PR agency and entire marketing team.

  21. [...] to ESWN for leading me to this story that says a lot about the state of the media in China. I think it crosses into those areas PR people want to keep out of the public eye, the [...]

  22. Sara says:

    Carl:

    We are unable right now to leave China alone. As a citizen living in Hong Kong and having products pulled from our shelves, it is no longer a “Chinese” problem anymore. It is an international problem where everyone’s food security is concerned.

  23. barries hughes says:

    An excellent post. Shows what truly horrific things can happen when the profit motive and the propaganda department combine.

  24. wl says:

    there is no “winner” in this mess, only loosers. and the government doesn’t show skill but tries hard to make the mess disappear with Shenzhou 7 etc., old recipe. people are not stupid but much too intimidated to switch to real action. nothing has changed in the last 5000 yrs.

    Carl: leave us alone, you’re just talking out of your ass. “normal”, fuck it

  25. carl says:

    What’s the big deal?

    Of course, the Chinese media lie. What do you expect from a one-party dictatorship? China is a controlled police state?

    Censorship, lies, deception are tools of the trade. This is normal. So what’s the big deal?

    Leave China alone.

  26. keyan says:

    whatever,the biggest winner is govenment in Sanlu event.The skill of govenment to conqure the crisis is growning up.
    Thank you for your much detail of these news.

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