BEIJING – A former department head at China's drug regulation agency was sentenced to death Friday on bribery charges, as U.S. regulators ordered a recall of three more Chinese-made products deemed dangerous to children.
The developments were the latest in widening concerns about the safety of Chinese goods both at home and abroad.
Cao Wenzhuang, a department director at the State Food and Drug Administration, was given the death sentence with a two-year reprieve on charges of accepting bribes and neglecting official duties, said his lawyer, Gao Zicheng.
While the sentence was unusually harsh given the charges, such suspended death sentences are usually commuted to life in prison if the convict is deemed to have reformed.
Cao, who oversaw the pharmaceutical registration department, had been secretary to Zheng Xiaoyu, the head of the agency, in the 1980s. Zheng was sentenced to death in May for taking bribes to approve substandard medicines, including an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths.
In the pharmaceuticals department, Cao, 45, had the power to approve pharmaceutical production in China from 2002 to 2006.
He was charged with accepting $307,000 in bribes from two medical companies, which were based in Jilin and Guangdong provinces and were seeking approval to sell their products. He also was charged with neglecting his duties in approving drugs.
In its judgment, the Beijing No. 1 People's Intermediate Court said the death penalty was warranted given the "huge bribes involved, and his refusal to confess ... and reluctance to return the money," the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
But he was given a two-year reprieve because he provided evidence that helped with the investigation of other cases, Xinhua said. It gave no details.
"Cao does not admit to taking any bribes," Gao, the lawyer, said in a telephone interview. It was not immediately clear if Cao would appeal.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced Thursday three recalls, covering jewelry that the agency said could cause lead poisoning. They also covered a magnetic building set and plastic castles with small parts, which it said could choke children.
About 20,000 sets of Essentials for Kids Jewelry, sold by Future Industries of Cliffwood Beach, N.J., were recalled because the metal jewelry sets contain high levels of lead that can be toxic if ingested by young children, the agency said.
Additionally, 800 Mag Stix Magnetic Building Sets sold by Kipp Brothers of Carmel, Ind., and 68,000 Shape Sorting Toy Castles sold by Infantino LLC, of San Diego were pulled because they posed choking hazards to young children.
The U.S. agency routinely issues such recalls. Since a large share of products sold in the U.S. are made in China, the majority of the recalls involve Chinese-made products.
The orders add to the lengthening list of recent U.S. government actions to ban, recall or restrict Chinese imports — from juice to toothpaste — because they are suspected of containing high levels of toxins.
China has responded by stepping up enforcement of health and safety rules in the export industries that drive its economic growth. But Beijing also heatedly defends its record as a supplier of reliable goods, and has complained that safety warnings may be driven by protectionism.
The Health Ministry said inspectors across the country seized five types of diet supplements containing banned substances such as phenolphthalein, a potentially cancer-causing laxative.
"The capsules were harmful to the health of the consumer," the ministry said on its Web site Thursday. It did not give the amount seized, but said there will be a recall and the health licenses of the companies have been revoked.
The country is currently overhauling its chaotic food and drug safety mechanisms, which are handicapped by competition between government agencies, murky laws and corruption.
Under Zheng's 1998-2005 tenure as top drug regulator, his agency approved six medicines that turned out to be fake, and the drug-makers used falsified documents to apply for approvals, state media have reported.
His death sentence was unusually heavy even for China, which is believed to carry out more court-ordered executions than all other nations combined — and likely indicates the leadership's determination to confront the recent scares involving unsafe food and drugs.
On Thursday, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate Court also handed down verdicts for four other drug supervision officials involved in corruption cases.
Xinhua said Wang Guorong, former secretary-general of a think tank in charge of setting up drug standards, was sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes.
Li Zhiyong, another official in the think tank, along with Lu Aiying and Ma Teng, two officials with the State Food and Drug Administration, were given jail terms of up to 15 years on graft charges, Xinhua said without giving details.