By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
BEIJING, May 29 -- The disgraced head of China's drug administration was sentenced to death Tuesday for accepting what a court described as "huge bribes" to approve faulty medicines, including a batch of antibiotics that killed six patients and sickened 80.
The sentence handed down to Zheng Xiaoyu, 63, former chief of the State Food and Drug Administration, was not unprecedented in China's long struggle against corruption. But it was unusually harsh and was interpreted as a signal from the government that it is determined to look after the public's interest.
Zheng's conviction, announced by the official New China News Agency and highlighted by other government media, followed international alarm over tainted exports from Chinese factories, including pet food that killed animals in the United States and toothpaste with a potentially poisonous chemical additive that was sold in Latin America.
In what was seen as a gesture to those concerns, an official said Tuesday that the government plans to set up a product recall system to make it harder for fraudulent or unsafe exports to reach the market here or abroad. Other officials, however, were quoted in the government-controlled media as saying the problem arises when export firms skirt existing government controls, often with the cooperation of foreign companies purchasing the products.
Analysts in Beijing said the severe sentence against Zheng, who was replaced as head of the State Food and Drug Administration in 2005, seemed aimed more at the Chinese people and their increasing concern over tainted food or medicines and physicians who demand bribes before caring for patients.
The case of an antibiotic called Xinfu, administered by injection, caused a particular stir. Despite approval by the State Food and Drug Administration, it killed at least six people and caused severe reactions in 80 in the Guangzhou region, just north of Hong Kong.
The Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court said Zheng's actions "greatly undermined the integrity of an official post and the efficiency of China's drug monitoring and supervision, endangered public life and health and had a very negative social impact," according to a report on the verdict relayed by the New China News Agency.
Indicating that the government intended to make Zheng's case an example, the agency also quoted an unnamed official of the Communist Party's Central Discipline and Inspection Commission, the main corruption-fighting organ in China, as saying: "Zheng's case highlights weaknesses and loopholes in the legal system, the abuse of administrative power, a lack of supervision and weak anti-corruption attitudes among officials."
The court said Zheng was sentenced to death for the bribes, amounting to nearly $850,000, and to another seven years for dereliction of duty.
The conviction can be appealed, analysts noted, but China's judicial system responds to guidance from the Communist Party and Zheng's fate depends on how strong a signal party leaders want to send.
The court said Zheng's family sometimes accepted the bribes, while other times he accepted them directly.
At least eight drug companies paid money or gave gifts to get products approved, sometimes on the basis of fake documents, the court said. Official news reports said Zheng's son, Zheng Hairong, and his wife, Liu Naixue, are being investigated in connection with the case.
Hao Heping, an aide to Zheng, was sentenced in November to 15 years for accepting bribes as part of the same case, according to the news agency. Cao Zheng, another Zheng aide, has been put under investigation, it said.
Zheng was a veteran of China's drug inspection regime, serving between 1994 and 2005 as head of the State Pharmaceutical Administration, then the State Drug Administration and finally the State Food and Drug Administration.