Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has taken inspiration from fears in China about milk safety for his latest work of art, a huge map of China made out of milk powder tins appearing at an exhibition in Hong Kong which opens on Friday.
Ai, whose 81-day detention in 2011 sparked an international outcry, has regularly criticized the government for what he sees as its flouting of the rule of law and the rights of citizens.
His new work is a made of more than 1,800 large tins of milk powder from seven popular brands, laid out on a Hong Kong gallery floor in the shape of a huge map of China.
Many Chinese have taken to importing tins of foreign milk powder since at least six infants died and 300,000 fell ill in 2008 after they drank milk formula laced with the industrial chemical melamine.
“A country like this can put a satellite into space but it can't put a safe bottle teat into a child's mouth. I think it's extremely absurd,” Ai told Reuters this week in his Beijing studio.
“This is a most fundamental assurance of food, but people actually have to go to another region to obtain this kind of thing," he said. "I think it's a totally absurd phenomenon.”
Bulk buying in Hong Kong earlier this year prompted the government to restrict the amount of milk powder mainland Chinese could take back with them. It followed complaints of shortages and rocketing prices.
Some Chinese have resorted to smuggling in milk powder from Hong Kong to skirt the restrictions.
“I have heard of drug trafficking before, but when a country has milk powder smuggling instead of drug smuggling, I think this is a devastating sign,” Ai said.
Beijing has tried to reassure people that milk powder and dairy products in China are now safe and rigorously tested. Lax regulatory enforcement, however, remains a problem.
The milk powder issue has added to unease in the former British colony over a flood of visitors from mainland China that was overwhelming the tiny territory.
Last year, more than 30 million mainland Chinese visited Hong Kong, almost four times the city's population, stoking concern about the ability of the city's infrastructure to cope.