Posts Tagged ‘scandal’

China’s dead baby pills: probably a sad story of misinformation and miscommunication

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

According to the Associated Press, South Korea has seized thousands of suspicious capsules smuggled from China. Upon examination, human flesh was found inside the pills. Korean Customs Service says the capsules were made in northeastern China, by chopping dead babies into small pieces, drying them, and making them into powder. Such pills are considered stamina boosters.

This may sound like news, but it isn’t really.

As early as August 2011, South Korean TV channels started broadcasting news about “dead baby pills” from China. The information was fairly vague, and was acknowledge by the Chinese government soon after, who demanded an investigation be initiated in Jilin Province, where the pills were supposed to be made. This was all over Chinese news for a couple of days before being flushed into the oblivion by more exciting (not necessarily good) news with more solid references. The investigation was indeed started, but with no apparent conclusion. So the story that blew up overnight is actually old news, and is about 9 months old.

Sure, it definitely looks scary, with new food safety scandals breaking out in China on a weekly basis, dead babies brings things to a new low. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s ask ourselves, really?

We homo sapiens are a sentient race. Most things we do boil down to a clear motive, either to steer away from harm, or to move closer to benefit. The endless food scandals in China share one thing in common: they are the results of people trying to use counterfeit ingredients to cut production costs. But dead babies? China is not a country with a particularly high newborn death rate. Even if we consider the wildest theory by taking the one child policy into account, the end result is still not likely to bring the availability of dead babies to such a surplus that they become cheaper than any known substance of medical value. On the other hand, neither the Chinese nor the Koreans have ever had any traditions of consuming dead babies. Such things were not even employed in old time wizardry. What’s the point of producing things no one cared to use until August last year? And doing that with gross yet quite scarce materials? Logically, this is highly unlikely.

So what really happened? Let’s try figuring it out with reason.

Did South Korea seize “dead baby” pills?

Yes and no. South Korea certainly did seize several batches of capsules containing dried and powdered human flesh. But whether or not they are “dead babies” remains a big question. Using common sense, it will take a whole platoon of science geniuses and they would still fail to tell if a pile of powdered flesh is from male or female, young or old. Unless solid evidence can be shown, the “dead baby” part remains a mystery.

Were they coming from Jilin Province?

It’s almost certain that the pills came from China, and if that’s the case, Jilin Province is the most likely source. Jilin is geographically connected to North Korea, and has a dense population of the Korean ethnic group. Jilin has always been known as the international trade front with the two Koreas, largely because there is no language barrier there.

So what do the capsules really contain?

Human placenta is the most likely answer. Or “胎盘” (tāi pán) as they are called in Chinese. Try punching that into the Chinese search engine Baidu, and you will be rewarded with an impressive collection of eye-opening reading. While the Chinese never found any news in dead babies, placentas make an entirely different story. According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) system, placentas have a long list of health benefits, including stamina boosting (sound familiar?), immune system enhancements, and even improvements for erectile dysfunction as well as spermatorrhoea. Aside from being medicine, placentas were even used in ancient Chinese wizardry. They have constantly been traded underground to this very day.

These things exist in huge numbers. One per newborn, to put it scientifically accurately. That makes them way more common than dead babies, by an incredibly long shot.

How do the Chinese use placentas?

The traditional way is to just cook and eat. We won’t venture into much detail here, for obvious reasons.

Since placentas taste horrible no matter how you cook them (I’m speaking from experience. It had quite a special stink from what I can remember.), more civilized modern people tend to chop them up, bake them dry, grind them into powder, then consume as capsules. Again, does this sound familiar?

Underground placenta pill factories do exist in China. In 2011, such a workshop was found in Dalian, Liaoning Province. Earlier in 2010, another was found in Changchun, Jilin Province. There are other cases if you care to dig deeper. These places are usually badly (if at all) sterilized and have been converted from regular apartments. Customers are required to bring their own supply of placentas, while the workshop merely does the processing.

Jilin Province, underground placenta pill shops. Again, sound familiar?

However, the current generation of Chinese people generally do NOT consume placentas, because it’s simply disgusting. On the other hand, the Chinese government and medicine administrations discourage people from eating placentas. The reason is rather simple. Precisely what the Koreans said: it could contain bacteria and other funny things.

But they said dead babies!

A placenta is part of a baby (and the mother) until it’s born. Technically they are one and the same. And the capsules contain powders. On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely do you think you can tell the head from the tail in a puddle of what looks like an utterly mashed up worm?

You can’t say a placenta is not human flesh.

So how did this mess happen?

Let’s recreate what we believe is the most likely scenario. Once upon a time, in a galaxy not far away at all, Mr. Kim, a Chinese-Korean, is talking to his Korean-Korean cousin, Mr. Lee on the phone.

Mr. Kim (China): Hey cousin! How have you been?

Mr. Lee (South Korea): Not good. I’m exhausted.

Mr. Kim (CN): That’s bad! What happened?

Mr. Lee (SK): I have no idea! I’m just spending my days as usual, doing nothing in particular, and I’m exhausted by the end of the day.

Mr. Kim (CN): Poor guy. Tell you what. We have this great medicine in China, it boosts your stamina like nothing else could!

Mr. Lee (SK): Eh? What is it?

Mr. Kim (CN): It’s… how shall I put it… It ‘s a THING.

Mr. Lee (SK): Huh???

Mr. Kim (CN): It’s… wossname… OK I get it. It’s the piece of dead meat that comes with every baby.

Mr. Lee (SK): Dead? Meat? Baby? Really?

Mr. Kim (CN): Yeah really. And it, *ahem*, also brings more fun to your nocturnal life!

Mr. Lee (SK): Oh? What exactly is it called? How can I get some?

Mr. Kim (CN): Don’t bother yourself looking for it. You know what? We have lots here. Will bring you some on my next visit.

Mr. Lee (SK): Thanks cousin!

Mr. Kim (CN): You are totally welcome, my man!

Then words spread, and people got into action.

In South Korea, Mr. Lee mentioned this marvelous “dead meat coming with every baby” (then “dead meat baby”, then “dead baby meat” – you know how Chinese whispers works) to all his friends and relatives. Soon Uncle Lee, Papa Lee, Grandpa Lee, Minister Park and Sir Gyeong are all waiting in high anticipation for it.

On the other hand, the Mr. Kim in China told his own circle of Uncle Kim, Papa Kim, Grandpa Kim, Minister Gwon and Sir Jo of the potential business opportunity, and a small army started trolling local hospitals for placentas.

Lo and behold, a new sector is born!

Several months later, a certain Officer Park at the South Korean customs was horrified by what he just seized…

“You mean what’s in the capsules? Wossname… dead meat baby. No, not dead baby meat. From China. Very good stamina booster!” Said Auntie Kim, the accused smuggler innocently, when questioned by officers.

Later, someone at the Associated Press woke up from several months of jetlag, scanned South Korean news he has been neglecting for so long, right in time to witness probably the 15th coming of the sacred “dead baby pills”, and bellowed: “HEY YOU GUYS! You aren’t going to believe this story!”

Thus here we are. Hello world.

So the moral of the story is?

If our retelling of the whole matter turns out to be true, which we are quite confident is the case, then everyone should learn something:

  • AP journalists should probably start paying more attention to what’s happening in Asia.
  • South Korean journalists should start picking up more professionalism, preferably as well as some human anatomy.
  • Chinese people, please, really and seriously, stop smuggling funny things. Many things from the TCM system could easily scare a billion people or so. If absolutely necessary, please try keeping it for domestic consumption.

So, are Chinese-originated pills safe?

By all accounts, NO! It happens that many shady factories in China have been producing empty capsules from industrial gelatin all along. The gelatin is produced from recycled leatherwear such as boots or bags, with abnormally high chromium content. By the time the scandal broke out, such capsules have already been sold to a number of market-leading medicine manufacturers. You can find the story on here.

Now THAT is a proper scandal, and something well worth digging on.

Article by Illuminant’s head of research, Kane Gao.

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