Days after one of his former colleagues was given a suspended death sentence, Zheng Xiaoyu, ex-head of China’s healthcare regulator, has been executed for taking bribes to approve drugs.

Zheng, who was chief of the State Food and Drug Administration in China from 1998 to 2005, was sentenced to death in May and his execution has now been carried out, confirmed state television and China’s official Xinhua News Agency. He had been removed from his post in June 2005, after being accused of taking bribes totalling more than $850,000 and during his tenure the SFDA approved six medicines that turned out to be fake, and one antibiotic caused the deaths of at least 10 people.

Zheng had appealed for leniency at a second hearing on June 12, arguing the penalty was "too severe", given that he had given evidence that implicated other officials in the case. However, the Higher People's Court of Beijing rejected the appeal, noting that the evidence “was obtained by the prosecution team before his confession". The Supreme People's Court ratified the death sentence, stating that “Zheng's dereliction of duty has undermined the efficiency of China's drug monitoring and supervision, endangered public life and health and has had a very negative social impact".

Corrupt officials ‘punished without mercy’

The judgement against Zheng has stunned observers in the west and elsewhere in its severity but China is unrepentant and it leaves no-one in any doubt as to how seriously the country is taking the battle to cut out corruption in health care. Xinhua quoted Professor Gao Mingxuan of the Law School of the People's University of China as saying that “Zheng was sentenced to death because the impact of his corruption and dereliction of duty was extremely negative " and his case “highlights how the government should take effective measures to supervise authority". Zhao Bingzhi of the China Law Society, said that it demonstrated “the resolve of the government to punish corrupt officials, and those with high positions and strong power are punished without mercy”.

SFDA spokeswoman Yan Jiangying said at a news conference that corrupt officials shamed the system, saying that “we should seriously reflect and learn from these cases. We should fully protect public food and drug safety. The new drug registration regulation, which will come out soon, will ensure the transparency of the drug approval procedure".

She acknowledged that China’s food and drug safety situation was unsatisfactory and supervision needed to be strengthened, adding that the government has set up a five-year plan to tighten the supervision of food and drug products to "significantly reduce the number of incidents caused by substandard food or drug products" by 2010.

News of the execution comes days after Cao Wenzhuang, a former pharmaceutical registration department director at the SFDA under Zheng was sentenced to death for accepting bribes and dereliction of duty. Cao was given a two-year reprieve and seven years in prison.