BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Wednesday hailed the swift execution of the nation's former drug safety chief as a warning to corrupt officials while detailing a web of graft that thrived for years without punishment.
Zheng Xiaoyu, former head of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), dominated television and print news a day after he was executed for taking some 6.5 million yuan ($850,000) in bribes to let medicine companies slip past his regulatory net.
The People's Daily, voice of the ruling Communist Party, said the punishment was intended to deter other wayward officials.
"Corrupt elements will be thoroughly investigated no matter who they are, how high their post, or how deep they hide, and there can be no appeasement or softness," the newspaper said.
Zheng, head of the agency from 1998 to 2005, was sentenced on May 29 and his appeal was heard last month.
President Hu Jintao is preparing for a congress later this year that is set to extend his tenure as party chief, which he has used to promote an image of tough, clean rule.
But even as the media cast Zheng's punishment as a sign of the leadership's commitment to curing graft, reports described a system of kickbacks and favors that went back a decade without public exposure.
From 1997, Zheng exploited his grip on drug approval powers to squeeze bribes that went to his wife and son, Xinhua news agency reported. One company in Zhejiang province in the east fed them "consultancy fees" and other rewards worth 2.9 million yuan.
From 2001, Zheng used a shake-up of drug approval rules to concentrate power with him and some close associates, and companies -- including some investigated for using fake ingredients -- were allowed to register substandard medicines for a price.
On Wednesday, China unveiled tightened rules for drug registration as officials acknowledged "loopholes" for abuse.
"Some applicants' research documentation has been substandard, there have been serious problems with fraud and fakery, and it's been nigh impossible to ensure pharmaceutical safety," Wu Zhen, deputy head of the SFDA, told a news briefing reported on the official government Web site (www.gov.cn).
Zheng's execution marked the first time China has imposed a death sentence on an official of his rank since 2000.
China has regularly used executions to promise a purge of corruption, and advocates of political reform said that while Zheng's fate may scare officials for a while, it would not staunch deeply rooted graft feeding off a booming economy.
Under Zhang's watch, dozens died in China from fake or bad drugs and foods.
"Zheng Xiaoyu's execution will satisfy ordinary people's desire for revenge and show that party leaders sympathize, but an occasional execution can't stop corruption," said Hu Xingdou, a professor of Beijing Institute of Technology.
"Corruption is so widespread because the risks to officials are so low. I think a lot of them will think Zheng lost out in a political fight or didn't pay off the right people."