China won't achieve a tenable drug regulation policy by hanging public officials.
The sentencing to death of Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of China's State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), is a throwback to the nation's ugly past that will do little to further its professed goal of building a fair drug-regulation regime.
Zheng was sentenced to death in a Beijing court on 29 May on charges of accepting bribes, two years after he he was sacked from the drug regulator. Given the secrecy of China's judicial process, it is difficult to assess his guilt or innocence. But accusations involving the bribery of hundreds of officials have shadowed the agency for years. It is good that the Chinese government is facing up to the problem and taking public steps to clean up its drug-regulation process.
But hanging a man and vilifying him in state-controlled newspapers does not inspire confidence that China is building an effective drug-regulatory process. If the sentence is carried out, it is more likely to confirm the pharmaceutical industry's worst fears that there is little chance of doing business fairly in a country where the rule of law remains patchy and subject to political influence.
Drug regulation is vitally important to China as it seeks to develop an internationally competitive drug industry of its own, while attracting investment from and collaboration with the rest of the world. The country rightly sees the establishment of such an industry as critical to both public health and the nurturing of innovation in the life sciences. In common with most other governments — but with rather better prospects of success — China regards the successful combination of research in biology and genetics, and innovation in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, as an important element of its plans for scientific and economic development.
From the global industry's point of view, the establishment of a sound regulatory regime in China is just as important. The world's leading drug companies see the country, with its burgeoning middle class, as a market of great potential. Yet participation in that market remains something of an enigma. All of the major drug companies have stepped tentatively into direct participation in research activities in China. They view the risks of investment in China as considerable, but the benefits will only reveal themselves if and when a reliable regulatory regime is established.
So everyone in the industry, at home and abroad, supports the professed aims of Beijing's drive to eliminate widespread corruption from drug regulation. But they are entitled to be suspicious of its implementation. Corruption has been widespread and no one believes that Zheng — supposing that the charges against him are proven — was the only, or even the worst, culprit.
Articles appearing in China Daily and elsewhere in condemnation of the official and his family have the smell of old-fashioned, stalinist scapegoating, more likely to sweep the problem under the carpet than resolve it. Genuinely fair regulation of drugs is a complex matter that depends on transparency and on sophisticated checks and balances — such as scientific staff who are paid by the government but can be seen to be independent — not on fear and arbitrary justice.
Hanging a man may create the public impression that the problem is being zealously tackled. Real movement towards fair regulation would involve steps a great deal less melodramatic that yet seem beyond China's grasp — steps towards a transparent drug-review process, functioning under open, public scrutiny.