Chinese Running Man

"CHINESE APPLAUD Ex-official’s Execution," reads the headline in a recent edition of the Los Angeles Times. And in a place like Los Angeles, home to Hollywood and much of the world’s entertainment industry, they know something about the meaning of applause. When something does not work for the moguls of Tinsel Town, you see a different kind of "death penalty" headline in Variety. Something like "Hicks in Sticks Nix Pics." Apparently in China, the hicks in the sticks are not nixing the execution of at least one former big-shot bureaucrat. What does that tell us?

"Approving Lethal Products"

Amplifying the headline, the L.A. Times explains, helpfully, that "The former head of food and drug safety [in China] was convicted of taking bribes, which in some cases involved approving lethal products."

The background is that a certain Zheng Xiaoyu, aged 62, who headed the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration from 1998-2005, was convicted in late May of taking bribes and approving the release of unsafe drugs. Zheng was granted an obligatory, if not cursory, appeal in June and was executed on Tuesday, July 10 by lethal injection. The lethal injection drugs worked as intended. Sauce for the goose, I suppose.

Shocking Stories, Thunder Out of China

Perhaps you have heard some of the shocking stories of adulterated goods, dear readers, coming up like thunder out of China. A series of safety scandals has recently dogged the Chinese export powerhouse and threatened to undermine the "Made in China" label.

Earlier this year, several thousand dogs and cats were poisoned in North America after eating pet food containing Chinese-origin wheat gluten. The Chinese wheat gluten was tainted with a fire-retardant chemical called melamine. Also in North America, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has blocked or recalled a wide range of products being imported from China. This includes toxic seafood, fruit juice made with unsafe color additives, and toys coated with lead paint (including "Thomas the Tank Engine" toys). One lawsuit in Pennsylvania revealed a large number of Chinese-made tires with a statistically significant tendency to explode and disintegrate while rolling along highways. All of these faulty goods were imported from China.

In 2006 in Panama, some 100 people died after ingesting cough medicine contaminated with diethylene glycol, a toxic ingredient normally used in antifreeze. The cough medicine originated in China, and an investigation determined that the diethylene glycol was confused by Chinese factory workers with otherwise harmless glycerin. Also in recent months, U.S. authorities determined that counterfeit Colgate toothpaste, originating in China and containing traces of the same diethylene glycol, was stocked on the shelves of discount stores in several states, as well as in several U.S. institutional systems such as mental hospitals and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. (We should note that no deaths have been reported from the counterfeit toothpaste. Inmates in many U.S. prisons have developed more effective ways of killing each other than by brushing the teeth of their adversaries.)

To be sure, many Chinese products are known for their everyday low prices. But the crux of the issue is that in this world, while you do not always get what you pay for, you almost never get what you do not pay for. At some point, you are paying such a low price that you are buying antifreeze instead of real toothpaste.

Safety Warning: "Made in China"

The situarion with Chinese goods has come to the point where, in one recent news report in no less an opinion-leading publication than The New York Times, the author concluded that "the term ‘Made in China’ is now at risk of becoming a safety warning."

To the leadership of China, this is intolerable. From ancient times to the present, one of the supreme national goals of any Chinese ruling regime has been to maintain "social harmony." The current Chinese leadership cadre is no different than its forebears. The massive economic expansion of China in recent years, and the accompanying need to import and process seemingly endless volumes of basic industrial and energy commodities, has been its way of maintaining some semblance of social peace in the vast Middle Kingdom. Thus, literally hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens have migrated from rural, impoverished regions into rapidly growing cities to work at factory and service jobs that, while hard and demanding in their own way, offer at least some hope of economic improvement and social betterment. If Chinese goods begin to lose market share in the world trade system due to perceptions of lack of safety or quality, then there could be many unemployed millions in those new factory towns of China. And that would not be conducive to social harmony.

Mercantilist Workshop to the World

The Chinese leadership has adopted a national policy to industrialize the country and in effect, to become the workshop to the world. No one, by the way, has ever bothered to ask the world what it thinks of this development. Nevertheless, the Chinese are following what is essentially a mercantilist trade policy and accumulating large amounts of foreign exchange via their export industries. The foreign exchange is necessary for China to purchase the imported factors of production, such as oil, food, iron ore, copper, cement, and the like, as well as to spend on national projects such as the construction of infrastructure and building up the fast-expanding Chinese military machine. These developmental efforts, and all of the political goals of the Chinese leadership, are placed distinctly at risk if that nation’s goods acquire a reputation in world marketplaces as risky or unsafe due to fundamental adulteration of ingredients or lack of attention to basic health and safety standards.

The Late Zheng, "A Big Concern"

Thus did the Chinese authorities make an extreme and overt example of the late Zheng. The former bureaucrat was convicted of taking bribes worth about $850,000 during his tenure at the State Food and Drug Administration, as well as dereliction of duty in the nature of committing what communist scholars call "economic crimes against the state." During the time he was in power, Zheng’s agency reportedly approved the release of six medicines that turned out to be useless, if not harmful, including a so-called antibiotic that led to at least 10 deaths in China.

The L.A. Times article cited a profile of Zheng that appeared in the January edition of China Business Weekly magazine. The Chinese investigation portrayed Zheng as a man who "did not care much about money, yet who made no secret of his willingness to accept it in large amounts." Another Chinese news account described Zheng’s wife as a person who controlled him and who was "well-versed in using Zheng’s money." Whatever the personal or family motive may have been, it came out at trial that Zheng was paid as much as $25,000 to attend receptions held by pharmaceutical companies that his office regulated.


At the same time, however, the L.A. Times news report stated that Zheng outwardly represented exactly the type of official the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sought to promote and showcase. Zheng was the product of an elite education, a graduate of Shanghai’s well-regarded Fudan University. He joined the CCP in 1979 and rose rapidly through government ranks while receiving broad exposure to Western practices. Throughout the 1980s, Zheng held a series of jobs in the Chinese pharmaceutical industry, eventually becoming a regulator while serving as a delegate to the National People’s Congress. The L.A. Times quoted Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong, as commenting that Zheng "had the qualifications of an up-and-coming cadre [a senior party leader]…Yet he still fell prey to the path of corruption. That’s a big concern for the [Communist] Party."

After his arrest, Zheng signed a "confession" that was later released by the Chinese authorities. According to a translation in The New York Times, the confession read in part:

"The Party and people nurtured me, trusted me, and assigned me to such an important position. I didn’t live up to the Party’s expectation. I loosened ideological reform, loosened self-discipline, harmed the Party and the people, committed crimes, for which I feel regretful. Now I have to treat the issue seriously, conduct a thorough self-examination, confess my mistakes, and treat the punishment and education as an act of saving my soul."

Terrible, Swift Sword

Saving his soul? Zheng’s more immediate problem was just saving his skin. Despite its outward appearance as a booming land of dynamic economic expansion that follows a capitalist model, China is at the same time a one-party communist political state with a rigid, and occasionally merciless, criminal justice system. One crosses swords with institutional authority at one’s peril, because the Chinese legal system is designed to support the desire of state authorities for social harmony and public stability. Thus, justice can be terrible, swift, and delivered via the sword, particularly in high-profile or highly political cases.

China leads the world in the total number of executions performed per year, reportedly near 5,000, although the exact number is a state secret. Many executions are performed by gunshot to the head or chest, with the immediate family of the dead receiving a bill for the bullets used. The overall process is designed to make a certain point to the masses about the reach of state power. The bodies of many of the executed individuals are often immediately turned over to mobile medical labs, where vital organs (heart, kidneys, liver, corneas, even skin) are harvested to be used in medical transplant procedures. That gruesome rendering process is also designed to make a certain point to the masses.

Yet even by Chinese standards, Zheng’s punishment was fast and harsh. In all likelihood, Zheng’s execution reflects a deep anger and sense of betrayal among senior Chinese officials, mirroring the broad sentiment of large numbers of ordinary citizens concerning direct threats to their health and the growing, negative international trade fallout. The final opinion of the Chinese Supreme Court, upholding the death sentence for Zheng, called him "vile." Zheng’s sentence "was decided by the Politburo, so what can I say?" said one Chinese law professor who spoke to a reporter from the L.A. Times. The Politburo? That is the highest level of political decision making in all of China. "This case is very sensitive," added the professor.

"Good Job!"

No doubt. It is very sensitive indeed. Within hours of the official announcement of Zheng’s execution, the highly regulated and well-monitored Chinese Internet system lit up. "Good job!" said one posting on, a major Chinese Web portal.

The L.A. Times reported on several examples of commonly expressed sentiment. "Our country will have no peace unless corrupt officials are killed. We should kill more!" said another Chinese Internet poster. "He deserves it," said Lgzxm2005. And a fellow, who calls himself "common man" on, opined that "Corrupt officials are like leeks in the field. We cut a bunch, more come out. Even if we killed every second official in China, nobody innocent would die by mistake." Another Chinese commentator declared that Zheng should have been force-fed the medicine he approved, while many other Internet posters wanted Zheng’s execution carried live on national television. Live TV? Now that is an interesting idea. See below.

Although Chinese officials often permit protests to occur both openly and via the Internet, so as to take the pulse of public sentiment, this degree of overt hostility to one particular symbol of the state bureaucracy cannot be reassuring to the senior communist ruling cadre. In many respects, the paramount claim that the rulers of China have to political legitimacy has been their ability to "deliver" some measure of economic growth to tens or hundreds of millions of citizens. Yet after years of breakneck development, trillions of dollars in new investment, construction of entire vast cities and the associated dislocations to people, culture, and the environment, it appears that there is a serious undercurrent of disaffection with the bureaucracy, if not with the stewardship of the CCP. The people seem to think that the Mandarins of the Chinese government are crooked. What a surprise!

Why Punish? Why Execute?

So something obviously has hit quite a nerve in China. Let’s connect some dots. A nominally corrupt pharmaceutical bureaucrat betrayed his position within the CCP and deliberately permitted bad drugs to get into the market. Even worse, the bad drugs killed a few people, and the public learned about it. At the same time, a slew of other bad Chinese stuff has been determined to be moving in the export stream, poisoning and killing people, as well as dogs and cats around the world. This is all very bad for business. It is embarrassing. The Chinese are losing face over this. And it is going to cost China some money to fix the problems.

So what should happen? Should the Chinese punish the offending bureaucrat? Sure. No society can put up with this kind of public corruption. In the U.S., we sent Vietnam War air ace, Navy Cross holder and former U.S. representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham to jail for 10 years for taking bribes. But should the Chinese kill their homegrown miscreant? Well, in this case, they sure did. And for what justification? What is the utility of the death penalty for a regulator-bureaucrat, so swiftly carried out and with the Politburo-equivalent of a Chinese Mandate of Heaven? Let’s look at it through Chinese eyes.

By executing Zheng, the Chinese have moved beyond all possibility of simply incarcerating and incapacitating him as an offender, let alone reforming him, if such is even a goal of China’s judicial and criminal process. The senior cadre, at the Politburo level no less, determined that this is a policy matter that goes far beyond simply personal reformation. The Politburo does not care one whit about "saving his soul."

At the same time, the death penalty for Zheng exacts a certain amount of retribution from his corrupt hide, in that his actions led to the deaths of others. In a broad sense, the eye-for-an-eye form of penalty sends a politically useful message of absolute government denunciation to would-be offenders and wannabe corrupt officials. It sets a very high bar of proportionality between Zheng’s type of crime and his extreme level of punishment.

So what we are seeing is a Politburo-driven, judicially sanctioned form of deterrence, in which the death of one man is intended to send a strong message to all others similarly situated. Executing Zheng certainly ensures "specific" deterrence, in that he will never again commit another crime against the state. But the key to Zheng’s death is the message of general deterrence that it transmits. No one should ever bring disrespect upon the image of the Communist Party. The Chinese leadership has to be hoping that the death of Zheng will exert a sort of "moral influence" that will foster, inculcate, and maintain proper habits of law-abiding conduct in the general population and certainly, within the CCP bureaucrats and cadre. Time will tell, although I have to wonder if life is in some respects imitating art.

Running Man

This situation in China recalls the 1987 movie Running Man, starring former screen star and current California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In this cheesy, yet wry and entertaining action thriller based on an early story by Stephen King, the world has gone crazy, which is always a good way to begin a movie plot.

Set in Los Angeles (Where else?) in the year 2017, American society has become a police state (What else?) in the wake of the global economy’s total collapse (Why not? It is probably due to Peak Oil, although the movie does not go into details). All of what passes for "mass entertainment" is transmitted via the government-controlled media. The most popular show on television is an elaborate game show called "Running Man," in which convicted criminals are given a chance to escape by running through a gauntlet of brutal killers, known as stalkers. The point of the show is for the contestant to survive being hunted down by a gaggle of nasty villains, while trying to make it all the way through a nightmarish maze. Anyone who survives the maze of stalkers and villains is given his freedom and a lifetime of unfettered pleasure in a condominium in Hawaii.

Sounds good, huh? Well, not really. Nobody walks away from the maze, because the evil masterminds just kill the winners anyhow. The real purpose of this kind of futuristic chainsaw reality TV (with choreography by no less an American Idol than Paula Abdul) is to channel public anger and frustration towards symbols of state opprobrium and to distract common people from engaging in open civic unrest. The "Running Man" game is all "just pretend." It is a way to mislead the public and promote…well, to promote social harmony. Hmmm…Kill a criminal and broadcast it to the world to promote social harmony? Where have we heard that before?

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

July 13, 2007