boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Food safety head's execution in China stirs Internet cheers

BEIJING -- Heightened anger and fear over the safety of food ingredients, medicine, and other consumer products was vividly on display here Tuesday following the execution of the former head of China's food and drug safety agency.

Within hours of an announcement that Zheng Xiaoyu, 62, had been put to death for taking bribes from pharmaceutical companies, China's Internet lighted up.

"Good job!" said an anonymous posting on Sina.com, a major Chinese Web portal.

"He deserves it," said another writing under the moniker Lgzxm2005.

"We can't even count how many people Zheng has killed," chimed a third.

In China's one-party state, with its nascent legal system and heightened concern for social stability, justice can be swift, particularly in highly political cases. Zheng, who headed the State Food and Drug Administration from 1998 to 2005, was convicted in late May of taking bribes. Granted an appeal last month, he was executed in early July.

Details on how the sentence was carried out were not available. In recent years, China has made greater use of lethal injection, sometimes undertaken in mobile execution vans, reducing its traditional use of a bullet to the back of the head. Executions are traditionally carried out at 10 a.m. by People's Armed Police.

"It was decided by the Politburo, so what can I say?" said a law professor who declined to be identified, citing his links with the government. "This case is very sensitive. Nor is it unusual in China to execute a person in short order."

Yet even by Chinese standards, Zheng's punishment was harsh, reflecting a wellspring of anger among ordinary Chinese concerning their own health and the growing international fallout.

In recent months, a series of safety scandals have tarnished the nation's export juggernaut and threatened to undermine the "Made in China" label abroad.

Zheng was charged with taking bribes worth about $850,000 and dereliction of duty. During his tenure, the administration reportedly approved six medicines that turned out to be fake, including an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths in China.

In North America, authorities this year have blocked or recalled toxic seafood, juice made with unsafe color additives, and toys coated with lead paint.

This followed the death of several dogs and cats last year that had eaten pet food containing Chinese wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine, a fire retardant.

In Panama last year, dozens of people died after ingesting medicine contaminated with highly toxic diethylene glycol, an ingredient in brake fluid, that originated in China and was substituted for harmless glycerin.

While other countries, including the United States, make use of the death penalty, China has come under growing criticism for its executions, particularly in cases of economic crimes such as tax evasion and corruption.

Beijing recently tightened its use of the death penalty. But it still carries out more state-sanctioned executions than all other nations combined.

"Abolishing the death penalty is a goal for China's legal future, but realistically I don't expect it to happen in my lifetime," said Qian Lieyang, a Beijing-based lawyer who has represented defendants in several high-profile death penalty cases. "In Zheng's case, it's not just the amount of money involved, it's also the circumstances."

The Chinese Communist Party walks a fine line. Even as it tried to appease millions of angry citizens with Zheng's execution, it faces an uphill battle portraying his brand of corruption as the exception rather than the rule.

"The few corrupt officials [of the State Food and Drug Administration] are the shame of the whole system," said Yan Jiangyang, a spokesman at the administration. "Their scandals have revealed some very serious problems."

China's propaganda ministry has sought to focus public anger at a relatively narrow target -- Zheng and a small number of colleagues. But it hasn't taken long for some people to demand similar treatment for other offenders.

"Our country will have no peace unless corrupt officials are killed," said an anonymous posting on Sina. "We should kill more!"

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES