China executes ex-food safety chief

China on Tuesday executed its former chief food and drug regulator for taking bribes to approve medicines, in an apparently draconian warning to other officials after a series of scandals about the quality of Chinese products.

The execution of Zheng Xiaoyu, 62, was confirmed by state media after the Supreme People’s Court approved the death sentence on charges that he took Rmb6.5m ($855,094) in bribes from eight pharmaceuticals companies. Mr Zheng is the most senior central government official to be executed since 2000 and the harsh penalty and swift enforcement, after an initial trial in May, underlines mounting government concern about the scandals that have damaged the reputation of Chinese products.

Mr Zheng was accused of approving the sale of six medicines that turned out to be fakes during his seven-year tenure as head of the State Food and Drugs Administration. In one case, a gallbladder medicine containing the wrong ingredients is believed to have led to the deaths of at least five people.

A SFDA spokeswoman said the scandals underlined the weak institutional apparatus in China to monitor the quality of products such as food and medicine.

“China is a developing country and our supervision of food and drugs started late and our foundation for this work is weak,” said Yan Jiangying. “Therefore we cannot be too optimistic about the food and drug safety situation.” The government is rotating officials in key posts to prevent them from becoming too close to companies, she said.

In addition to the cases of fake medicines connected to Mr Zheng’s trial, China has witnessed a series of product safety scares in recent years including a cancer-causing dye used to colour egg yolks, fake milk powder that resulted in the deaths of several babies, and pork that contained banned additives.

The prosecution of Mr Zheng has also coincided with safety problems with Chinese products in the US, including pet food that contained an industrial chemical, toys covered in lead paint, and tires that lacked an important safety feature. Meanwhile, Spain withdrew two leading brands of Chinese-made toothpaste because of a risk to public health, the European Commission said.

A former senior aide to Mr Zheng, Cao Wenzhuang, was also sentenced to death for his role in the bribery allegations involving his former boss, but he was given a two-year reprieve. Lawyers said that in most such cases the sentence was reduced at a later date.

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