The former head of China’s food and drugs regulator was sentenced to death in Beijing on Tuesday for taking bribes to approve medicines, as the government scrambled to restore confidence after a series of scandals about health and safety.
Zheng Xiaoyu was convicted on charges of taking more than Rmb6.5m ($832,000, €632,000, £429,000) in bribes from drugs companies and of “dereliction of duty” by the Beijing municipal no. 1 intermediate people’s court, the official Xinhua news agency said.
He can still appeal against the harsh sentence. But it is the most decisive response yet from Beijing to the growing unease in China and overseas about the quality of its food and drugs, which is threatening to undermine fast-growing agricultural exports.
In a separate announcement, the government said it would introduce a recall system for “potentially dangerous and unapproved” food products.
Food and drug scares are relatively commonplace in China. However, its regulatory regime has also been in the international spotlight in the past month after it was revealed that wheat gluten containing melamine, a chemical used in fertilisers, had been found in pet food in the US that caused the deaths of cats and dogs.
Last week the US halted all imports of toothpaste from China after reports that products sold in Latin American countries contained a poisonous chemical. Several US states have banned imports of catfish from China, while US regulators have warned about imports of Chinese monkfish.
According to Outlook Weekly, a magazine run by the Xinhua Group, a recent survey of 450,000 food production companies conducted by the government’s food quality agency found 60 per cent did not have the capability to do quality inspections. One third did not have a business licence.
This year the State Council, China’s top governing body, ordered a review of the licences of 170,000 drugs, most of which were approved during Mr Zheng’s tenure at the state food and drug administration.
Although it is rare for a senior official to be sentenced to death, China’s leaders have been trying to show a tough stance on corruption. The last official of similar rank to be executed for corruption was Wang Huaizhong, the former deputy governor of Anhui province, in 2004.
Mr Zheng, 62, was shown on state television on Tuesday night receiving the sentence.
Russell Leigh Moses, an analyst of Chinese politics based in Beijing, said the sentence was aimed at the domestic audience rather than a response to international pressure. “They are trying to tell people the situation is under control and signalling to elements of the bureaucracy to get in line.”
Mr Zheng was expelled from his post as head of the food administration in 2005 and expelled from the party in March, often a signal criminal charges will follow.