BEIJING, Sept. 22 (Xinhua) -- China's chief quality supervisor Li Changjiang stepped down Monday afternoon with the approval of the State Council after tainted dairy products sickened tens of thousands of infants and killed three.
Wang Yong, former deputy secretary-general of the State Council, replaced him as the director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (GAQSIQ).
Li was the highest ranking official brought down so far by the dairy product contamination scandal.
Across the country, about 13,000 babies remain in hospital after falling ill from melamine-tainted milk powder, and nearly 40,000 others were also sickened but had been cured, according to the Ministry of Health on Sunday.
Wu Xianguo, the Communist Party chief of Shijiazhuang City, the epicenter of the national dairy industry tremor in northern Hebei Province, was also sacked on Monday.
Before Wu, Mayor Ji Chuntang and Vice Mayor Zhang Fawang as well as three other responsible city officials were sacked after locally-based Sanlu Group became the first dairy producer under the spotlight in the scandal.
The latest government personnel reshuffle, together with the resignation of Shanxi governor Meng Xuenong following a deadly landslide triggered by the collapse of an illegal mining dump, sent a strong signal of the central government's resolution to hold relevant officials accountable for severe production and quality incidents, said professor Wang Wei of the National School of Administration.
"Such a system is especially crucial to the building of a service-oriented government as the public, impressed with the Olympic efficiency of the governments at various levels, expect officials to retain quick-response and effective," Wang said.
Under the Civil Servants Law effective as of 2005 and the State Council Regulations on the Punishment of Civil Servants of Administrative Organs enacted last April, heads of administrative organs who fail to fulfill their duties and cause avoidable severe accidents will face removal and severer punishment.
A State Council decision released on Monday defined the Sanlu milk powder issue as a "sever food safety incident".
Wu, who doubled as member of the Standing Committee of the Hebei Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, was removed for delaying the reporting of the issue to higher authorities and incompetence in the disposition.
Li resigned taking the blame for supervision default.
Professor Wang found Li's resignation "no wonder". "With tightened and more efficient supervision, pathogenic dairy products would find no way to get out of the production lines," he said.
A combined result from purposeful cover-up of the producer and supervision default, the contamination scandal didn't emerge until Autumn.
Wang Yuanping from Taishun City of Zhejiang reportedly lodged a complaint to Sanlu in May, suspecting that his 13-year-old daughter developed kidney stone after drinking its milk powder.
The Health Department in northwestern Gansu Province admitted having received a hospital report in July that 16 infants suffered from kidney stones after drinking the same baby formula milk.
Public questioning over government supervision exacerbated as the country's four largest milk powder manufacturers namely Sanlu, Mengniu, Yili and Guangming, all officially designated by the GAQSIQ as "Famous Brands", were involved in the scandal.
In a move to remedy, the quality watchdog cancelled the "Famous Brand" title for problematic enterprises, then annulled all kinds of national inspection exemptions previously given to food producers, and declared such exemption labels on food products and their package invalid.
On Sunday, the GAQSIQ was reported to have been deprived of the right by the State Council to carry out any more brand name designation.
Admitting no melamine tests had been conducted on dairy products in the past, the GAQSIQ moved to amend quality standards of milk products targeting non-food additives and planed to release them later this year.
But still it was difficult to ease the public complaints that had spread fast instead with a blog letter written by Beijing lawyer Zhou Ze to Li Changjiang, urging the chief to resign.
The two-page letter bashed Li and the GAQSIQ for failing to fulfill their duties in enforcing administrative approval and quality control as well as colluding with business for unjustified profits.
Since all of the four leading dairy producers among the total of more than 100,000 were certified to be engaged in food processing or production, with each certificate standardizing their production procedures, necessary sources of raw materials, equipment and quality control, Zhou said there was no doubt that the GAQSIQ had been derelict in its monitoring duties.
He also reprimanded the organ for instigating "unfair competition" by issuing "Famous Brand" and "national inspection exemption" titles to unqualified enterprises who then brazenly cashed in on the government credit in commercial contests and marketing campaigns.
The Sanlu scandal has reflected a political culture in certain regions and departments of China that "some officials tend to grab more power but shy away from taking relevant responsibilities", said doctor Wang Shiquan with the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong.
"Such indifference toward the interests of the people will trip officials and should never be allowed while the government aims to deepen administrative reforms for better services," he said.
China activated the official accountability system during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003. More than1,000 officials including the then Health Minister Zhang Wenkang were ousted for their attempts to cover up the epidemic situation or incompetence in SARS prevention and control.
The system was later introduced to all levels of the government, and more officials lost their jobs for major accidents or other administrative mistakes.
Beijing's professor Wang Wei said the punishment was certainly not the end of the milk powder incident. "The core purpose of punishment is not to close a case, but to enhance the government’s enforcement capability and public credibility."