[Photo: Four former executives of the Sanlu Group (L-R), Tian Wenhua, Wang Yuliang, Hang Zhiqi and Wu Jusheng stand on trial at the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's Court in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province Dec 31, 2008.]
by Grace Ng
Throughout her 42-year career at China dairy giant Sanlu Group, the ambitious Tian Wenhua sought to make a name for herself.
The steely 66-year-old had shaken off vicious name-calling - including being branded a 'capitalist dog' during the Cultural Revolution - to claw her way to the top of Sanlu.
As board chairman and general manager of one of China's biggest dairy groups with sales of 10 billion yuan ($2.1 billion) and 10,000 staff in 2007, she was arguably the most powerful female corporate chieftain in China's massive dairy industry.
But in September last year, she was stripped of her posts after the melamine scandal broke. And last Wednesday, she broke down when she was charged in the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People's Court.
Tears flowing freely down her weary, moon-shaped face, Tian pleaded guilty to the charge of producing and selling infant formula tainted with the industrial chemical melamine that has made 294,000 infants sick and killed six others in the country.
Sanlu is at the heart of a crisis in China's scandal-ridden food and drug industries. It has been accused of adding melamine, which can cause kidney stones and other ailments, into infant formula to falsely raise its protein count.
The scandal has bankrupted Sanlu, caused widespread concerns about the ill effects of dairy products among the population and prompted global recalls of suspect Chinese food products.
Tian faces the death penalty or life imprisonment if convicted. Lawyers have said the latter is more likely.
Still, the mother of one has refused to bear all the blame.
The leaders of other companies that produced tainted milk should also take the rap, she said in a statement released by her lawyer.
She also insisted in court that she did not intentionally sell the tainted product or cover up the scandal, reflecting her determination to clear her family name.
This resolve has been characteristic of her since the hardship days of her youth, according to state media China Daily.
She was born in 1942 amid the raging civil war, into a family which was later marginalised as pro-capitalists during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.
The second eldest child in the family, she studied her way out of her tiny Nangang village, about 30km from Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province where Sanlu is based.
She graduated in veterinary science from a technical secondary school and later found a job in the city - at state-owned Shijiazhuang Dairy Farm, the predecessor of Sanlu Group, when she was 26.
By 45, she was head honcho of Sanlu, with a motto to 'manufacture quality dairy to serve the people'.
Online forums on China websites such as tianya.com and qq.com have posted comments about the shrewdness of this 'fierce, strong old lady' and how she 'would do anything to get what she wanted'.
According to unverified online forum comments, she had 'stooped so low as to instruct' that Sanlu milk products be sent to the Sichuan earthquake victims, as part of the company's contributions to the relief efforts. She was out to 'maximise glory and publicity', even though she was already aware of the many complaints about the products' ill effects, claimed one unnamed netizen.
She was also alleged to have 'looked down on the ignorant villagers and instructed the sales staff to dump the lower-quality dairy products on them', another angry post alleged.
Tian had always been tight-lipped about her private life and limited her conversations to business and the market, the Securities Daily quoted an unnamed acquaintance of hers as saying.
The newspaper also cited another source saying that the 'old lady' was the only one left from the old guard in Sanlu in recent years.
She did not pay enough attention to the new generation of managers who 'were eager to prove themselves' and 'cut corners to achieve results', said the source.
Still, even her harshest critics cannot deny her Midas touch. She turned Sanlu into China's top seller of baby milk for 15 straight years and meticulously built up its reputation for stringent quality checks.
Sanlu even won second prize at the 2007 National Scientific Techniques Awards for its claim that it ran over 1,000 different tests before its products left the factory.
Her achievements also won her a string of awards, including being named one of the nation's model workers as well as the most respected corporate leader in China's milk industry.
But Tian, whose signature style was said to be tailored 'power suits' in strong colours such as red or black matched by well-coiffed short hair, was careful to be politically correct and not flaunt her wealth.
A neighbour who lived across from the Tians' modest three-room brick house in Nangang village told China Daily that the company chief 'never showed off her wealth' when she came to pay her last respects to her 89-year-old father, who died there in 2006.
Her mother subsequently moved to Shijiazhuang, where Tian lived with her husband, of whom little is known about.
Her propriety earned her an appointment as secretary of the corporation committee of the Communist Party of China.
But all this came crashing down in August last year when she admitted she received results of a probe confirming melamine in Sanlu's products and sent two reports to the Hebei government.
She stoutly denied allegations by two former Sanlu executives that she had ordered the issue to be hushed up.
During the intense 14-hour trial in a packed courtroom of 360 people in Shijiazhuang last week, the stout woman, who was dressed in a bright yellow prison vest, shed copious tears.
She wept as her former deputy general manager Wang Yuliang - who were among the three other Sanlu executives on trial - appeared in a wheelchair.
He broke his leg leaping from a building in a suicide attempt, after he was arrested in September, said Xinhua news agency.
She wept again when she bowed in apology and said in a thick Hebei dialect: 'If it means I could get back the health of all the sick children, I am willing to accept any legal punishment.'
But she maintained that she was not entirely to blame, pointing to other culprits, such as China's lack of regulations on food quality, for the crisis.
Officials in Shijiazhuang and Hebei played a part in the cover-up as they did not respond to her reports during the Beijing Olympics, according to Ms Wu Qing, who claims to be Tian's daughter.
Ms Wu, who is believed to be in her 30s and also worked at Sanlu, wrote in her blog that her mother had 'lost weight' and was in low spirits.
This was not surprising, given that the now bankrupt Sanlu was virtually everything Tian lived for.
'She seemed to live and breathe Sanlu. She wanted the best for Sanlu,' said Mr Andrew Ferrier, chief executive of New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra, which has a stake in Sanlu.
Ms Wu's blog, which was recently taken down, also mentioned a brief visit to see her mother in prison.
The older woman advised her to take her young son - who had been fed on Sanlu milk - to the hospital for a check-up.
Tian also told her that she had arranged for her and her husband and son to move to Switzerland, via Singapore, in the wake of the crisis that has forced the Tian family into seclusion. Ms Wu's blog entry made no mention of her father.
Tian has become a high-profile example of how the Chinese government is clamping down on official and corporate malfeasance.
She also attracted more international publicity than she could have ever imagined - dozens of camera crews waited outside the courtroom from as early as 6am to catch her arrival at the trial , according to Sohu.com.
It is not known when the verdict will be announced, although lawyers in China have reportedly said it could take a few weeks or even months.
Her possible death sentence and the amount of tears she shed at the trial have been among the 20 hottest topics on popular websites.
Some called for her to 'commit suicide for her atrocious act' and 'burn in hell'. Others asserted that she is not the only 'betrayer of the country' and other heads should roll too.
There are hardly any sympathisers for this woman, who may soon make history as the first chief of a Chinese dairy company to be sentenced to death or life imprisonment, in a food safety crisis that has seared the nation's soul and reputation.
This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Jan 4, 2009.
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