China has stunned observers by announcing that the ex-head of the country’s drugs regulatory agency has been sentenced to death, having been found guilty of taking bribes when approving drugs.

Zheng Xiaoyu, former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, has been convicted on charges of taking bribes and dereliction of duty by the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, according to the Xinhua news agency. The court was quoted as saying that "Zheng was supposed to use the power given to him by the state and the people seriously and honestly, but instead he has ignored their vital interests…this has threatened the safety of people's life and health and has caused an extremely bad social impact".

Zheng, 62, who was expelled from the governing Communist Party in March and removed from the SFDA post in June 2005, had been accused of taking bribes totalling more than $830,000. The bribes, which included cash and gifts, came from pharmaceutical companies, notably the Hainan Kongliyuan Group from South China's Hainan Province. He has the right to appeal the decision.

It had been claimed that the latter gave Zheng bribes, which included paintings, in return for SFDA approvals on 277 medicines, more than 100 of which were granted in 2005, and the heads of Hainan Kongliyuan have also been detained for investigation. During his time at the helm of the SFDA, dozens of Chinese died as a result of dangerous drugs and foodstuffs and in 2004, at least 13 babies died of malnutrition in Anhui province after being fed counterfeit milk formula.

The news, and particularly the severity, of the sentencing has taken many by surprise, and is seen as a strong message from China that the corruption which has been rife in the country’s healthcare system will no longer be tolerated. The Communist Party investigated 2,755 bribery cases in the health sector in 2006 and almost 700 health staff were sentenced on charges of corruption or punished " according to Party or political disciplines".

Meantime the SFDA has announced plans for a nationwide campaign of drug safety inspections which it will see 90 officials being sent to 15 provinces over the next two weeks.