By Jay Fidell
I went to see Shai Oster speak at the Confucius Institute on October 24 at the Plaza Club. Rosita Chang, the president of the Confucius Institute here, introduced him, pointing out that this has been a year of ups and downs for China. Indeed, Shai reported the same background for his talk. His talk was about the milk-melamine crisis in China, and how it affected China’s future.
Shai graduated from Columbia and reported for various publications. Now he’s a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing. He was an amazing speaker. He was so articulate, and he sort of opened his mind, even with journalistic restraints, to the audience. His thoughts flowed and I felt like a sponge - I was spellbound by his style and his content.
He speaks Chinese, which is always something for a Haole - he has 6 or 7 years in China and is conversational in Mandarin, and that somehow enhanced his credibility and gave greater depth to what he was saying.
He spoke about the difficulties China has had this year. He said he is an optimist on China as we all should be, and need to be, given the awful things that would happen to the world if China fails.
The central part of his talk was about melamine. It was fascinating. He gave us a timeline, showing how the scandal unfolded and pointed out that it hit the fan just a few days before the Olympics. Although you might think that this kind of bad news would get to Beijing right away, that apparently didn’t happen. It was just before the Olympics and they didn’t want to hear bad news.
So although the melamine problem was reported before the Olympics it apparently didn’t get to Beijing and there was a kind of cover up for a few weeks while the Olympics was going on. Only after the Olympics was over, in September, they took the bad milk off the shelves and heads started to roll.
The most interesting part of the talk was Shai’s description of the supply lines in China, a newly prosperous country where supply lines are likely to be long. There are various contributors to the milk supply line. Some of those contributors had the opportunity to sell to more than one buyer.
The problem is they didn’t have enough milk to sell to multiple buyers so they had to expand their supply. They did this by watering the milk but there was some testing and the buyers were likely to find that the milk had been watered. In testing for watered milk, the milk companies tested for protein content and the bad-guy suppliers had to get around that. As in the dog food scandal last year, all they had to do was include some material that would satisfy the protein test. Enter, again, melamine.
Melamine was a likely possibility because it showed as a protein in those tests. So these guys who wanted to sell their milk more than once watered the milk and then added melamine to satisfy the protein test. It’s not just stupidity or incompetence or negligence - it’s willful and malicious. What do you think is going to happen when you put essentially an organic chemical in the food?
The result was horrible. Children were the worst victims. The melamine attacks the kidneys and shuts them down and a great many young children in China were injured for life. That is, they would have to be on dialysis for the rest of their lives.
Shai talked about class action suits which were discouraged by the government but which may still be pending by a hundred some-odd China lawyers, probably emulating the consumer class action suits in the U.S.
Of course, it’s a bad story and its bad commentary in China, but it’s also a story of China emerging the way the U.S. did a hundred years ago in its efforts to insure pure food and identify bad-guys like this. Although it was horrible to see children injured this way, it is also a statement about China‘s emergence into the 21st century.
But don’t take my word for it or even my characterizations about it. Take a look at the talk itself. I videoed it and posted the video file on www.hvca.org. You can see it at www.hvca.org/video.aspx?video=ShaiOster.wmv.
Rosita was right, this was an extraordinary speaker. It was worth going down to hear him on any subject he may choose about China, and it was certainly worth videotaping him. This kind of talk is the way Hawaii can play a role in the bridge to Asia. The people in the room were all Sinophiles of one kind or another. Many from the University but many others were from the community in general.
I would have liked to see a greater crowd and maybe next time that will happen. When he comes again, you can be sure that I'll be there.