Chinese officials accustomed to the tame questions of a compliant state press were caught out by a plucky 11-year-old reporter during the country’s sensitive Communist Party congress.
Sun Luyuan, a Beijing sixth-grade student, on Friday shook up one of the tightly-controlled party meetings on the congress’s sidelines with a question that put officials on the spot over China’s miserable food-safety record.
Noting that a steady stream of scandals and health scares involving tainted or unsafe food products had particularly affected students, leaving many sickened in various incidents, Sun asked why China can’t clean up its act.
During the meeting at Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People, Sun, who works for the Chinese Teenager News, continued by asking “why are these kinds of food products available for purchase?”
The Communist Party is presenting a tightly-scripted image of national unity for the week-long congress that opened on Thursday.
Held every five years, the congress will end next Wednesday with the unveiling of a new top leadership line-up widely expected to be headed by Vice President Xi Jinping, who will lead for the next ten years.
Ma Kai, a top official in China’s cabinet who presided over Friday’s meeting, passed the question to Education Minister Yuan Guiren, the China News Service said.
Yuan offered a stock official response pledging the government was addressing the situation and putting proper safety measures in place, a line repeated for years even as the scandals have persisted.
Increasingly anxious Chinese consumers are regularly hit with food scares ranging from cancer-causing toxins found in cooking oil to food items that are expired or contain dangerous chemicals and additives.
In 2008, China was rocked by one of its biggest-ever food safety scandals when the industrial chemical melamine was found to have been illegally added to dairy products to give the appearance of higher protein content.
At least six babies died and another 300,000 became ill after drinking the tainted products.