A Chinese Regulator Sentenced to Die

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For a Vice-Minister accustomed to running a branch of China's government as his own virtual fiefdom, the sentence must have come as a surprise. On Tuesday, a Beijing court handed down a death penalty for Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), after he was convicted of dereliction of duty and accepting some $850,000 in bribes, according to local media reports. But while the severity of the sentence wasn't completely unprecedented—several senior officials have been executed for corruption in recent years including a deputy minister in 2000—it was still a shocking illustration of how seriously Beijing took his crimes. While Beijing has cracked down on official corruption over the past 18 months, with several other senior officials caught up in the dragnet, all of those arrested so far have received prison terms or still await sentencing. Hao Heping, another former official at the Food and Drug Administration, only received 15 years in prison for bribery in November last year.

Zheng, who was arrested in December, may to some extent be a victim of bad timing: Beijing is being bombarded with criticism at home and abroad for its sometimes-fatal inability to regulate its food and medical industries. Chinese citizens have been inundated with news stories about fake drugs and poisoned food products in recent years. In 2006, six people died and scores of others became ill after taking a contaminated antibiotic. Several years earlier, 300 babies fell gravely ill and more than a dozen died of malnutrition after being fed fake milk powder which had found its way onto market shelves. Indeed, the same day Zheng's verdict was announced, China's main quality control agency, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, announced it was launching its first recall system for unsafe food products, expected to be up and running by the end of the year.

Even worse for Zheng, China's regulatory problems have extended beyond the country's borders. More than 100 people in Panama were killed by Chinese-made cough medicine last year; in March, Chinese-made pet food ingredients containing the chemical melamine sickened or killed an untold number of animals and led to the recall of some 100 brands of pet food. With the world's spotlight is on Chinese efforts to improve its record on food safety, there's little doubt that the pressure of international embarrassment and death and illness at home added to the severity of Zheng's sentence.

But before you start feeling too sorry for Zheng, it's worth remembering that even in a country inured to reports of official venality, his case is particularly egregious. Zheng almost singlehandedly supervised China's drug industry for over a decade before his retirement in 2005. Through astute bureaucratic maneuvering, he managed to have the SFDA removed from the supervision of the Ministry of Health in 2003, after which it became a powerful agency in its own right—leaving it effectively under his sole control. According to Xinhua, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court said Zheng "sought benefits" for eight pharmaceutical companies by approving their drugs and medical devices. His actions "greatly undermined the integrity and the efficiency of China's drug monitoring and supervision, endangered public life and health and had a very negative social impact," the report quoted the court as saying. (It's unclear if Zheng will appeal.) Officials say the country's pharmaceutical industry is now in disarray; many of the SFDA's senior officials are under arrest or investigation and virtually all previous decisions are being reviewed, leading to confusion and paralysis. It may take years to sort out the mess created during Zheng's long tenure—and there will no doubt be further illnesses and deaths from tainted food and contaminated drugs in the meantime.