The Alternative Public Sphere in China: a Cultural Sociology of the 2008 Tainted Baby Milk Scandal


This article studies critical news reports about the 2008 Chinese tainted baby milk scandal, which the World Health Organization identified as one of the largest food safety crises in recent years. Examining the discursive practices adopted to legitimize journalistic criticism in authoritarian China, it reveals that critical-minded journalists avoid criticizing the state during the period of heavy censorship, preferring instead to target local governments. Journalists develop more explicit criticisms of the state as censorship becomes loosened, but they continue to rely on the strategic use of official statement and a heavy dose of praise to appear complimentary. Findings indicate that while critical journalism is constrained by political censorship, the Chinese critical press has managed to circulate counter-hegemonic interpretations of the scandal through strategic discursive practices.

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  1. 1.

    I term the critical press examined in this paper as an “alternative public sphere” to highlight its non-mainstream status, and to distinguish it from “the official public sphere” as the propaganda tool of the state. I define the “alternative public sphere” in this paper as a communicative site of proliberal, critical-minded media professionals that is both critical of and constrained by the state governance. This contradiction was a defining feature of the alternative public sphere in the authoritarian China, as compared with the Western democratic public sphere that is based upon a robust civil society and conventionally defined as an autonomous communicative space of democratic political discourse. The notion of “alternative public sphere” here echoes Ikegami’s conceptualization of “the sphere of enclave publics” that provides a middle ground “between the formal and counter-publics” (Ikegami 2005: 41).

  2. 2.

    Consistent with Maria Repnikova’s (2017) use of critical journalism (or critical reporting), critical journalism in this paper is also understood as an inclusive term that contains reporting of contentious social issues through multiple genres (e.g., investigative reports and in-depth reports) and contents (e.g., proliberal reports and watchdog reports).

  3. 3.

    Due to the three-year search limitation, I included two separate time periods of data collection--from 01/01/2008 to 01/01/2011 and from 01/01/2011 to 12/31/2013. The former period contained the most articles, including 467 articles in SMD and 51 articles in SW, and the latter contained 55 articles in SMD and 13 articles in SW.

  4. 4.

    I conducted two searches within the type names of newspaper articles using the Chinese terms “评”and “论” respectively, which generated all kinds of commentary articles that contains “评” and/or “论” such as评论, 社论,时评, 绿评,热点酷评,点评, 评中评. I counted the articles with both “评” and “论” only once to avoid duplication.

  5. 5.

    The phrase “boundary-pushing civil claims” echoes O’Brien’s (2004) concept of “boundary-spanning contention” used in conceptualizing the contentious activities of rural protesters in China, referring to those claims that advocate to empower civil society and public rights, and attempt to push the frontiers of the permissible under authoritarianism. For example, they ask for opening up the blocked channels of civic engagement and seek for pushing the boundaries of public rights beyond the limits imposed by the current authoritarian control.

  6. 6.

    Polletta (1998) pointed out that narrative’s significance relies on its temporal configurative and projective dimensions, its ambiguity of meaning that calls for more plots, its capacity to constitute subjects, or in his words, “The temporally configurational and evaluative functions of plot account for narrative’s role not only in representing reality but in apprehending and, indeed, constituting it” (421), which requires researchers to pay close heed to narratives per se, particularly the formation and transformation of narrative that described and shaped the event over time.

  7. 7.

    News of the Sanlu scandal first broke on September 8, 2008, when Gansu’s local newspaper Lanzhou Daily published an investigative report that singled out the Sanlu baby milk products for causing similar kidney diseases among fourteen babies under age one. The backstory actually dated to March 2008. From then on, several news media, including the Southern Weekend, also received news from victims’ parents.

  8. 8.

    张鸣:石家庄市政府的道歉太有才了 SMD, October 3, 2008.

  9. 9.

    In order to make the translation of Chinese newspaper articles readable to a broad audience, I found it necessary to simplify the wording and grammatical structure of the quotation sometimes while remaining faithful to the meaning of the text, in translating Chinese quotes into English.

  10. 10.

    See Also “Ten Months Before Sanlu Exposure” 三鹿曝光前被遮蔽的十个月 SW, January 8, 2009; “Reflect On Administrative Supervision To Walk Out Of The Dead End Of Social Governance” 反思行政监管,走出社会治理死胡同 SW, March 5, 2009.

  11. 11.

    政府官员为何不理解中央执政理念 SMD, October 5, 2008.

  12. 12.

    国务院反思三鹿奶粉事件 SMD, October 7, 2008.

  13. 13.

    温家宝:政府很内疚 总理看望患儿, 表示奶粉事件暴露政府监管不力和某些企业没良心 SMD, September 22, 2008.

  14. 14.

    See “Why Old Tainted Milk Has Been Existing” 陈年“毒奶”何以混迹江湖 SW, February 42,010; “Starting With Being Bold To Tell The Truth” 尊重需求当从敢讲真话开始 SW, March 11,2010.

  15. 15.

    三聚氰胺重现的核心问题是执政能力 Changjiang Daily Newspaper, February 2, 2010

  16. 16.

    Many SW commentary articles were reprinted from other critical media outlets. I considered these reprinted commentaries equally important, given that they conveyed the thoughts that the editors supported. In most cases, the editors highlighted their support for these ideas and added additional comments at the end of the reprinted articles.

  17. 17.

    夏佑至专栏:食品安全从限制政府权力做起 SMD June 28, 2013. See additional examples in articles: “The Revision Of The State Compensation Law Is A Reconstruction Process Of Social Values” 修改国家赔偿法是价值重构的过程 SW July 16, 2009; “Made-In-China Products Can Become Better Only If Being Concerned By The Public” 中国制造:被惦记才会变得更好 SW December 3, 2009; “Civil Environment Protection Cases” 民间“绿案” SW March 4, 2010; “Officials Will Be Abandoned If They Suppress Criticism And Supervision” 压制批评和监督,将来你要被抛弃 SW June 24, 2010; “Official Accountability: The Rules And The Hidden Rules” 官员问责:明规则与“潜规则” SW July 29, 2011; “Well-Known Trademarks Cannot Be Granted By Government Agencies” “驰名商标”不能由政府机关授予 SMD July 1, 2013.

  18. 18.

    See additional examples in articles: "Dairy Industry Has To Resort To All Its Courage To Regain Customers' Confidence" [批评/回应]奶业重拾信心须拿出刮骨疗毒的勇气 SMD, March 4, 2013; "Violate It Knowingly: Why Double Standards Have Been Existing" 明知故犯, 福喜"双重标准"何以长存SMD, July, 24, 2014.

  19. 19.

    An example is the blog post “Chinese Rampant Food Terrorism” on China’s popular blogging website Sina.

  20. 20.

    On August 3, 2013, a wide-scale recall of products sold by Fonterra was announced after suspected botulism-causing bacteria were found during safety tests. Approximately 1000 tons of consumer product was affected by the recall across seven countries. China, as the major buyer of Fonterra’s powdered milk, instituted a temporary ban on the import of all milk powder products from New Zealand on August 4. Although the crisis turned out to be a false alarm and the bacteria were ultimately found not to be botulism toxins and contained no actual health risk, the recall scandal had soon spread a global food security crisis to China and around the world.

  21. 21.

    See “Afraid Of Authoritative Voices Not Being Trusted” 就怕“权威声音”不被信任 People’s Daily, October 25, 2013.

  22. 22.

    The commentary thoroughly discussed the fall of Chinese dairy industry after 2008 and the rise of NZ’s dairy in Chinese market afterward. See “An Investigation Into Fonterra” 起底恒天然 SW, August 15, 2013.

  23. 23.

    Scott (1985) utilizes “weapons of the weak” to describe the phenomenon that everyday peasant resistance in Southeast Asia occurs within “the official discourse of deference,” through which peasants feign their compliance to the ruling ideology and avoid being suppressed. Straughn (2005) coined the concept “consentful contention” to delineate a similar facet of the contentious political process in examining how ordinary citizens in Eastern Germany appealed to the state’s legitimating principles to resist state decisions against its own words.

  24. 24.

    An unusually heavy-handed censorship by the local propaganda department in January 2013 led SW journalists to openly defy and criticize on their microblogs, and even staged a protest outside of the newspaper’s headquarters. But the protest was sequenced with a more tightened control of SW and other papers within the Southern Media Group.


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I would like to thank Ronald Jacobs, Richard Lachmann, Elizabeth Popp-Berman, the editor and the six anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments that greatly contributed to the final version of the paper.

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Li, H.C. The Alternative Public Sphere in China: a Cultural Sociology of the 2008 Tainted Baby Milk Scandal. Qual Sociol 42, 299–319 (2019).

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  • Food safety
  • Critical press
  • Alternative public sphere
  • China