China said on Thursday the death sentence given to the former head of its drug and food watchdog for corruption was a warning to top officials at a time when the ruling Communist Party is seeking to win popular trust.
Zheng Xiaoyu, former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, faces execution after a Beijing court convicted him on Tuesday of graft and dereliction of duty.
He left the post before a recent wave of medicine safety scandals engulfed China. But state media have acclaimed the harsh sentence as showing the Communist Party's determination to purge corruption.
A commentary in the People's Daily, the party's official paper, said Zheng's fate was a lesson to other officials.
"As a case study of a party member and leading official breaking the law and committing crime, the Zheng Xiaoyu case offers profound lessons that all public servants, especially leading officials at every level, should take to heart," the paper said.
The warning was written by a "specially commissioned commentator" - an uncommon sourcing that suggests the editorial was at the direct behest of top leaders - and appeared in other major papers.
The handling of Zheng and harsh media warnings reflected government fears that in medicine and other lucrative sectors of China's economy, agencies often modelled on Western examples have failed to staunch abuses and give citizens effective protection, said Mao Shoulong, a public policy expert at the People's University of China.
"The key problem is how to monitor the market without giving room to abuse power over the market," he told Reuters.
"I don't think the government has in mind massive changes, but it clearly wants to improve official performance through a series of smaller reforms."
Zheng, 62, head of the agency from 1998 to 2005, took bribes worth some 6.5 million yuan ($A1 million)) from eight companies.
During his tenure, dozens died in China from bad drugs and food products. In 2004 at least 13 babies died of malnutrition in Anhui province after being fed fake milk powder containing no nutrition.
The safety of China's food has also come under the international spotlight after wheat gluten and rice protein containing toxic scrap was exported to the United States and used in pet food, killing some cats and dogs.
Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have worked to win public trust by promising to defuse discontent about inequality, corruption, poor healthcare and dangerous products.
They are preparing for a congress later this year that is expected to give Hu five more years as party chief.
The stiffly worded warning suggested that leaders wanted to scare off other officials from tainting the party's image.
"Any conduct that hurts the people's interests, any shirking or perfunctoriness, any dereliction of duty will not be tolerated and must be punished," the commentary warned.
"At every moment, give highest prominence to the people's interests."
Officials had to ensure that their families and staff did not abuse their closeness to power, it added.
China has executed, jailed or detained dozens of high-ranking officials for corruption in recent years, including the former party chief of Shanghai who is under investigation for abusing pension funds.
But many ordinary Chinese believe official graft is increasingly entrenched despite these high-profile cases."