In autumn of 2008, tainted milk led to the sickening of 300,000 infants in China, at least six of whom died as a result of kidney damage caused by milk powder laced with the industrial chemical melamine to make the milk appear to be rich in protein.
Two men were executed for their involvement while others received lesser sentences.
It turned out that the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), a ministerial-level body responsible for quality standards, had exempted the major dairies from inspections as a sign of confidence in their leadership.
New regulations were put in place and Li Changjiang, the head of the AQSIQ, was dismissed for "negligence in supervision."
A year later, the dairy industry seemed well on the road to recovery. The Xinhua news agency reported in December, 2009, that "after the melamine scandal, it is impossible to sell poor-quality milk."
But in January, melamine was back. Xinhua announced that excessive amounts had been found in milk from the Shanghai Panda Dairy. It was not an isolated case. Companies from different parts of the country apparently were recycling melamine-contaminated stock recalled in 2008 and kept in storage.
Moreover, it turns out that the authorities knew about the new melamine scandal for almost a year before telling the public.
Health Minister Chen Zhu rightly denounced the "unscrupulous food companies." But the government obviously had failed the public by not seeing to it that food products were safe. It should have learned in 2008 that it cannot depend on dairy companies to monitor themselves.
The new melamine scandal exposes serious problems not only in quality control and supervision in food production, but also in the government's order of priorities.
After the dimensions of the milk-powder problem became evident in 2008, Beijing clamped down on distraught parents who were organizing themselves and on lawyers who volunteered their services to represent the sickened children.
In September, 2008, after two dozen lawyers quit a volunteer advice group, Li Fangping, a leading human-rights lawyer, reported that "some of them said that they or their offices were told they would face serious repercussions if they stayed involved."
Zhao Lianhai, whose three-year-old boy, Pengrui, developed a stone in his left kidney, tried to unite parents of sickened children by creating a website called Home for Kidney Stone Babies. He was detained last November and formally arrested the following month for trying to "disturb social order."
The victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake suffered the same persecution as the tainted-milk victims. Lawyers were threatened and those who tried to investigate the deaths of schoolchildren were harassed. Tan Zuoren, who looked into the collapse of flimsily built school buildings, was just jailed for five years for "inciting subversion."
Officials have banned independent reporting on the latest toxic-food scandal. The International Federation of Journalists reported that Guangdong officials have told media outlets to use only official information.
Meanwhile, Li Changjiang, the former head of the ASQIQ, has been appointed deputy chairman of a working group on combatting online pornography. It's part of a pattern. Other officials, fired for covering up the SARS crisis, mining accidents and environmental disasters, have all been given high-level jobs.
It's little wonder, then, that people find it hard to have confidence in a system in which officials punished for malfeasance are quickly forgiven while the victims of government shortcomings continue to be persecuted. The Communist Party should understand that its job is to protect the people.
Frank Ching is the author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record.