Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Off With His Head

I'm not a big fan of the death penalty, but one has to admit that China's execution of the head of its equivalent of the FDA sends a pretty clear signal and offers an interesting contrast to what other countries -- say, the U.S.A. -- might do in a comparable situation.

Zheng Xiaoyu, the executed former official, was convicted of taking bribes to approve an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths. So it's not just a case of official incompetence, but of criminal corruption showing a reckless disregard for the value of human life. The execution sends a strong message that such behavior will not be tolerated -- not even from top government officials. Those responsible for the safety of the Chinese people (and, to the extent that others import things from China, for safety around the world) will, one suspects, pay close attention. I'm not saying that a long prison sentence couldn't have accomplished the same goal, and I'm not necessarily endorsing the death penalty here, but even death penalty opponents would have to recognize that China has sent a powerful symbolic message to its officials and to the world. It's certainly a powerful contrast to the lack of any responsibility for official misbehavior that we've seen in this country for the last six years.

There's also something valuable in having the execution now for a conviction that occurred in May. In America, when we sentence someone to death, we are really saying, "we might execute you in 8 or 10 years, after we get done wrangling about it." By that time, the original crime is a distant memory. Again, without endorsing the death penalty, I would just note that if you're going to have it, there's something valuable in carrying it out while the public is still engaged with the original crime. If the execution occurs only after everyone has moved on to other events, the public can't possibly get the same message that the original crime is being punished seriously.

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