Wednesday, July 11, 2007

PRC Food Safety Chief Gets the Bullet

There is an old Chinese saying that sometimes you have to kill the chicken to scare the monkey. It’s a time-honored tradition that dates back centuries in China, which is to say the best way to maintain social order is to make an example of its troublemakers by smashing in their heads (or other body parts, when available). Say what you will about the death penalty, but it has a way of curing corruption. One wonders how our ex-administrative officials and directors at FEMA, the EPA, and the FDA would hold up to such justice.


China executes ex-drug chief for graft

BEIJING, China (Reuters) -- China executed a former drug and food safety chief on Tuesday for corruption in an unusually swift sentence which will serve as a warning amid a series of health scandals that have stained the "made in China" brand.

The Supreme People's Court approved the death sentence against Zheng Xiaoyu, 62, who was convicted of taking bribes worth some 6.5 million yuan ($850,000) from eight companies and dereliction of duty, Xinhua news agency said.

His execution marked the first time China has imposed a death sentence on an official of his rank since 2000.

"Zheng Xiaoyu's grave irresponsibility in pharmaceutical safety inspection and failure to conscientiously carry out his duties seriously damaged the interests of the state and people," Xinhua cited the high court as stating.

"The social impact has been utterly malign," the court said, adding that Zheng's confession and handing over of bribes were not enough to justify mercy.

Yan Jiangying, spokeswoman for the State Food and Drug Administration, said the case had brought only shame to the watchdog. "This kind of serious case of law breaking by a small minority of corrupt elements, as far as the entire system is concerned, really made us feel ashamed," she said.

"But these cases revealed several problems, and I think we need to seriously reflect on what lessons we can draw."

Zheng, head of administration from 1998 to 2005, was sentenced on May 29 and his appeal was heard last month.

Under rules introduced at the start of this year, the supreme court also reviews and can quash death sentences, a power previously in the hands of provincial-level high courts. But this time the supreme court spent little time endorsing the execution.

The unusually harsh sentence and its prompt enforcement reflect the pressure on Beijing from domestic and international alarm about consumer safety after a series of breaches and deaths involving toxins in food, medicines and other products.

Yan admitted China faced a huge safety problem.

"As a developing country, China's food and drug supervision work began late and its foundations are weak. Therefore, the food and drug safety situation is not something we can be optimistic about," she said.

"We must ensure that those who have power fulfil their duties and responsibilities, and if anyone abuses their power they will be punished," Yan added. "Officials in key departments will change posts on a rotating basis."

Investigators found Zheng and his subordinates abused new rules in renewing drug production licenses to squeeze kickbacks from companies.

His misdeeds led to approval of many medicines that should have been blocked or taken from the market, including six fake drugs, the court found.

Last week, a court handed down a suspended death sentence on one of Zheng's subordinates on the same charges. Another senior administration official was jailed for 15 years in November for taking bribes and illegal gun possession.

Despite repeated official pledges to get tough, new cases keep coming to light. Up to half of the water used in coolers in the capital Beijing may not be as pure as manufacturers claim, the China Daily reported on Tuesday.

But these were isolated incidents which did not broadly mean Chinese goods and especially its exports were unsafe, insisted Lin Wei, deputy head of the quality inspection bureau's import and export food safety division.

"We are confident we can guarantee that Chinese products are of good quality and cheap, yet safe and healthy," he added.

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


What is not reported by most media outlets is why China recently imposed the central court appeals system (which is not a real appeals system inasmuch as the PRC's federal courts now signs off on executions, instead of local and provincial courts). Over the past decade there has been several executions, which later turned out to be mistakes. I recount at least two cases in which husbands were prosecuted and convicted (as a defendant almost always is following an indictment) for murdering their spouses. Both of these cases occurred after instances of the husbands getting into verbal disputes with their wives (who subsequently disappeared). Traditionally, executions in China take place quickly after conviction (usually within a month or two), and in both cases the supposedly murdered wives turned up alive and well in neighboring villages (albeit too late to reanimate the defendants that were mistakenly departed to the hereafter). The media furor was an embarrassment for the provincial courts (contrary to popular belief, there is a lively press in China [just a repressed one when its reporting crosses the state]). The Chinese government responded to the criticism with the new appeals system.

Another little known fact about the death penalty in China is that when the execution occurs (to date, still by a bullet to the head [although some provinces are converting over to lethal injection]), you're fitted in a black hood, driven to a remote site, shot, your body disposed, and the family of the executed party charged for the the price of the bullet put into the person's head, as well as the time that the member of the People's Armed Police had to spend shooting your loved one.

This reminds me of my first visit to Beijing years ago. After getting a cab from the Beijing Airport (a terrible hanger-looking relic of the Maoist era), we drove past a succession of police cars with a prisoner in the back of each vehicle (ensconced with the ubiquitous black hood), flanked by a police officer on each side. I asked the driver what I was witnessing, and he joked, "Oh, those are just the guys on their last ride. They have to pay for it, too." If nothing else, the Chinese are cost-conscious.

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