The heightened anger and fear felt by average Chinese over the safety of food ingredients, medicine and other consumer products were vividly on display here Tuesday after 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 in 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 in June and executed in early July.
Details on how the sentence was carried out were not immediately 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 the 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 Chinese concerning their 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 convicted of 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 imported from China.
This followed the death of several dogs and cats last year who ate 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 confused with harmless glycerin.
Counterfeit Colgate toothpaste containing traces of the same liquid was found on store shelves in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. No deaths have been reported from the counterfeit toothpaste.
Though other countries, including the United States, use the death penalty, China has come under growing criticism for its wholesale use, particularly involving economic crimes such as tax evasion and corruption.
Beijing recently narrowed 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 attorney 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.”
Yet the Chinese Communist Party walks a fine line. Even as it tries to appease millions of angry citizens with Zheng’s rapid 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 agency. “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!”
“Corrupt officials are like leeks in the field,” said another on Sohu.com, by a writer identified as “Common Man.” “We cut a bunch, more come out. Even if we killed every second official in China, nobody innocent would die by mistake.”
Also discomfiting for the leadership is that Zheng, on the surface, represented just the type of official the party has sought to showcase, the product of an elite education who rose rapidly through government ranks and received broad exposure to Western practices.
After graduating from Shanghai’s vaunted Fudan University, Zheng joined the Communist Party in 1979, held a series of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, became a regulator and served as a delegate to the National People’s Congress.
“He had the qualifications of an up-and-coming cadre,” said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “Yet he still fell prey to the path of corruption. That’s a big concern for the party.”
Some now question why it so often takes a major scandal for the system to police itself. “How did a corrupt official like Zheng remain in power so long?” read a comment on Sohu from Gaojh4508.
A January profile in China’s Business Weekly magazine paints a portrait of Zheng as a complex figure who didn’t seem to care much about money yet made no secret of his willingness to accept it in large quantities, perhaps as a testament to his power. According to the article, Zheng received up to $25,000 for attending receptions held by a pharmaceutical company he regulated.
He was also characterized as something of a gentleman and a lover of calligraphy, who used to tell reporters: “Money can buy books but it can’t buy wisdom.”
Another official quoted anonymously in the article termed him “a womanizer, corrupt and manipulating; he didn’t supervise his people but loved to take credit for himself,” and a report in China Business News describes Zheng’s wife as controlling and “well-versed in using Zheng’s money.”
As thousands of comments poured in Tuesday after the morning execution, there was no shortage of advice for the Communist Party on handling the case.
Some said Zheng should have been force-fed the medicine he approved, and others wanted his execution carried live on national television.
“I’m just worried all these scandals will hurt China’s reputation overseas and foreigners won’t want to buy our products,” said Zhao Lingchen, a 27-year-old marketing employee. “It’s like being bitten by a snake and being afraid of a rope for the next 10 years.”
Yin Lijin of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.