Does the punishment fit the crime?

China has sentenced the former head of its food and drug safety agency to death. He had pleaded guilty to corruption and accepting bribes.

According to Xinhua, Zheng Xiaoyu, aged 62, was accused of taking about E630,000 in bribes in exchange for approving drug-production licences. The court said the sentence was appropriate given the “huge amount of bribes involved and the great damage inflicted on the country and the public by Zheng’s dereliction of duty”.

However, the International Herald Tribune quite rightly points out that this impending execution comes amid outcry over China’s food safety. Earlier this year, two Chinese firms were accused of shipping contaminated pet food ingredients to the US, leading to the deaths of animals across the country and subsequently a massive recall.

Meanwhile, a chemical used to make antifreeze made it into cough medicine and toothpaste exported to Central America. More than 100 people died last year in Panama after taking cough medicine containing diethylene glycol, which left China marked “glycerin”. Last week, the same ingredient was found in toothpaste in Panama, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

That China has a shoddy record when it comes to food and drug safety is putting it mildly. Counterfeit medication is rampant and mass food poisonings are common. However, I can’t shake the feeling that Zheng is taking the heat for a wider problem in the nation. His actions — if indeed he did what he has been accused of — have led to the suffering of many and the deaths of some from sub-standard medicine.

But I have to ask you: does Zheng’s punishment fit his crime?

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