On 24 November the South China Morning Post reported that the milk scandal activist, Zhao Lianhai, may be released just weeks after he began his two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. It appears a back-room deal has resulted in Zhao’s application for medical parole being accepted by judicial authorities. According to the Post:
Public pressure from Hong Kong played a crucial role in yesterday’s dramatic twist in the case of jailed melamine milk activist Zhao Lianhai, who will probably be released on medical parole, his supporters say.
It is unprecedented for Beijing to release a mainland convict so soon following lobbying from Hong Kong. In an unusual move, Xinhua’s Hong Kong branch said yesterday morning that a medical parole application from Zhao was being processed.
Zhao was found guilty of “inciting social disorder” after he set up a website for families affected by China’s toxic milk scandal after his own son became sick. The activist has been on hunger strike ever since he was sentenced on 10 November. His wife, Li Xuemei is also on hunger strike. Earlier this week news broke that Zhao had fired his lawyers. In a letter supposedly sent from inside the prison, this, combined with the news he has dropped plans to appeal and sought medical parole raised hopes that he had made a clandestine deal with the authorities.
Hong Kong politicians have credited themselves with Zhao’s possible release — they say the u-turn is the result of public pressure on Beijing: Peng Jian , Zhao’s former lawyer said “Hong Kong is not only helping one person, but the conscience of China”.
As with other sensitive topics in China, the censorship organs, this time the Internet Management Office, has demanded that all mentions of “Zhao Lianhai” be erased from websites, including online forums, blogs and microblogs. Indeed, whilst Twitter is awash with mentions of the case, and a Twitter account for Zhao, its counterpart in the Chinese microblogging sphere, Sina microblog, has no mentions at all.