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China's Investigation Highlights Corruption in Health System

The Chinese government is investigating the former head of its food and drug administration for corruption after dismissing him on suspicion of accepting bribes. The high-level investigation has highlighted problems in China's health care system. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

China's state media have reported that the dismissed official, Zheng Xiaoyu, is being investigated following probes into the activities of two of his former department heads. One of his subordinates has been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Zheng was the first official to run China's food and drug administration when it was established in 1998. He was responsible for implementing national standards for drugs.

He was removed in June 2005 on suspicion of having taken bribes from drug companies in return for allowing them to bypass drug approval standards.

Joseph Cheng is a professor of political science at Hong Kong's City University. He says health care and drug administration are major sources of corruption in China.

"In this marketization processes there has been a lot of corruption because there has emerged vested interests and they want to use their power, their position in the public sector, to squeeze money, to squeeze wealth for themselves," he said.

China adopted in 2002 a single national standard for drugs. The centralization of the power to approve drugs eliminated numerous local standards but also led many pharmaceutical companies to offer bribes to officials for approving low quality drugs.

For decades after the Communist Party took over China in 1949, the country made dramatic strides in providing basic health care to everyone, at almost no cost to patients. However, in the past two decades, hospitals and clinics have seen state funding shrink, forcing them to charge patients, or close down.

There are hundreds of reports each year of impoverished patients being denied care, or of hospitals and pharmacies charging high prices for fake drugs. Fake food and drugs have killed scores of Chinese in recent years. In 2004, 13 babies died from malnutrition after being fed milk powder with almost no nutritional value. In November last year an antibiotic was recalled after it was linked to the deaths of 10 people.