BEIJING (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 fulfill 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 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.