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Chinese Food and Drug Official Executed for Accepting Bribes

July 10, 2007 at 2:39 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The execution of a corrupt food and drug regulator in China. We have a report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITV News Correspondent: Executed today, just six weeks after sentencing, the former head of China’s food and drug administration who took more than 400,000 pounds in bribes to license poor quality and fake medicines.

Police raid a counterfeit pharmaceutical factory in Guangdong province. Officials often turn a blind eye to backstreet factories like this. Zheng Xiaoyu’s rapid execution was a message from the central government to Chinese and foreign consumers who worry that medicines made in China could be ineffective or even lethal.

YAN JIANGYING, State Food and Drug Administration, China (through translator): The few corrupt officials of the state food and drug administration are the shame of the whole system, and their scandals have revealed some very serious problems. I think we need to reflect seriously on what lessons we can draw from such cases; we should step up our efforts in food and drug supervision to ensure safety for the people.

DAVID FERNYHOUGH, Hill and Associates: The further you get away from Beijing, the more opaque things get. And at a provincial and municipal level, the corruption, the influence of the people who are involved, quite often officials themselves are involved, involvement of state-run enterprises, it makes it a very, very, very difficult environment.

Fake anti-malarial drugs

LINDSEY HILSUM: At Guilin Pharmaceutical in southern China, they're worried about their reputation and their profits. They make World Health Organization-approved drugs for malaria, each blister pack carefully marked with a hologram. But the counterfeiters have now made 14 generations of hologram, each one more difficult to distinguish from the real thing. And fake Guilin anti-malarials are turning up all over Southeast Asia.

YU ZHEMIN, Guilin Pharmaceutical (through translator): They use laser technology. You can't see the writing from the front. It has to be torn apart and put under strong lights to read.

LINDSEY HILSUM: In northern Cambodia, near the border with Laos and Thailand, malaria kills. Children are susceptible, especially now in the rainy season. Those who've come to the provincial hospital are getting the proper treatment, but often poor families can't afford the transport.

This woman told me all her children have come down with malaria after working in the paddy fields. She crossed two rivers to get here. But sometimes, she said, she just buys whatever drugs are available in the village.

Every day, the medical assistant rides out into the countryside to treat minor ailments and provide health education. He knows the damage fake drugs can do.

AN THY, Medical Assistant: I think very dangerous. The patients do not only lose the money, but also their health. The illness becomes worse, and then finally die. I think that these people should be the criminal people, because they kill the people, yes, intentionally, they kill the people.

Cheap drugs are likely fake

LINDSEY HILSUM: He showed me the village store where medicines are sold alongside vegetables, candles and cooking utensils.

AN THY: This one is Domestine. It's an anti-malarial medicine, this one, from China.


AN THY: Yes.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Steroids are here, antibiotics and sleeping pills. The cheaper the drug, the less likely it is to be real, and people often ask for the cheapest available.

The owners of village stores like this know nothing of the drugs they're selling. They've no idea whether they're real or fake. And the problem's especially acute in remote areas, where people are very poor, in Southeast Asia and increasingly in Africa. The manufacturers of the fake drugs are making millions, and investigators say, on many occasions, the trail leads back to China.

China reviewing medicine licenses

LINDSEY HILSUM: Last year, Cambodian health workers found counterfeit Guilin pharmaceutical anti-malarials. The fakes on the right have slightly different packaging; we can't say for sure where they're made.

DAVID FERNYHOUGH: We've seen a huge amount of Taiwanese money going into China backing the manufacturer of counterfeits. And we are talking hundreds of millions of dollars going into the saving up of manufacturing, bribing officials to prevent the raiding of what's happening, setting up the networks and exploiting those networks, paying off the freight forwarders, the customs officials to get the product from where it's being manufactured out into the international community.

LINDSEY HILSUM: As more unsafe drugs and foodstuffs are smuggled to Europe and the U.S., China's reviewing the licenses of 170,000 medicines, many approved under the former drugs boss. But fake pharmaceuticals are part of a growing and increasingly sophisticated organized crime network, which one execution and a few raids are not going to break.