BEIJING—In an unusually harsh sentence, a court Tuesday ordered the death penalty for the disgraced former head of China's food and drug agency, making a show of the nation's resolve to crack down on public health violations.
Zheng Xiaoyu was found guilty of taking bribes and dereliction of duty, according to the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate Court. He's the highest-ranking Chinese official to get the death penalty since 2000.
Zheng was convicted of taking cash and gifts worth about $832,000 to grant approvals for hundreds of substandard medicines, according to the state news agency, Xinhua. In several cases during his tenure, from 1998 to 2005, faulty medicines and fake infant formula led to the deaths of infants and adults.
A global alarm has sounded in the past two months over adulterated goods from China, including tainted pet food, which killed animals in North America, toothpaste containing industrial chemicals found in Latin America and Australia, and contaminated antibiotics in China's domestic market.
Several analysts said the harsh sentence for Zheng, 62, was aimed more at Chinese citizens angry over lax regulation and shoddy products than at consumers around the world suddenly edgy over foods and goods originating in China.
"People are increasingly outraged that profit is supplanting safety" in consumer products, said Russell Leigh Moses, an analyst of Chinese politics based in Beijing. "This is also meant to stanch some of the rising citizen complaints about health care in a general sense. This is to tell that audience, 'We hear you.' "
Another observer, Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based monitor for Human Rights Watch, the global advocacy group, said China's leaders wanted to be seen as resolute in protecting their own citizens' well-being rather than reacting to global jitters.
"I don't think anyone wants to be seen kowtowing to the international pressures," Bequelin said.
State television carried images of a despondent-looking Zheng as bailiffs placed him in handcuffs after the verdict was read.
"Zheng was supposed to use the power given to him by the state and the people seriously and honestly, but instead he has ignored their vital interests . . . by taking the bribes," the verdict said, according to Xinhua. "This has threatened the safety of people's life and health and has caused an extremely bad social impact."
The punishment was appropriate given the "huge amount of bribes involved and the great damage inflicted on the country and the public," Xinhua said.
One pharmaceutical firm, Kongliyuan Group, paid Zheng in return for the approval of 277 drugs, mostly profitable antibiotics, according to state media.
In another instance, an antibiotic that the State Food and Drug Administration approved under Zheng's tenure killed 10 patients in a hospital in the southern city of Guangzhou last year before it was pulled from the market.
After Zheng's removal in 2005, Chinese authorities announced that they were reviewing 170,000 pharmaceutical-licensing approvals that the agency issued under him.
The verdict against Zheng came as authorities said they'd establish a recall system for unsafe foods in response to recent food-safety scandals.
The severe penalty Zheng received coincides with efforts by Communist Party leaders to make a show of fighting corruption ahead of a key party congress next fall, which occurs once every five years to select new senior leaders.
To read the official Chinese news agency Xinhua's story, go to http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2007-05/29/content_6167650.htm