Hannah Crowther

China executes the middlemen

on 26 November 2009

Two people were executed in China this week for their role in the contaminated milk scandal which resulted in the deaths of six children and 300,000 falling ill, in another instance of the arbitrary application of the death penalty.

China is extremely unusual in having the death sentence for crimes other than murder and rape: 60 different offences merit the death penalty under Chinese law. Despite the six children who tragically died as a result of the contamination, Geng and Zhang were not convicted of homicide. Zhang was executed for the rather more innocuous sounding “endangering public safety by dangerous means”, and Geng of producing and selling toxic food.

Whilst it would be wrong to trivialise the seriousness of Geng and Zhang’s actions, and their consequences, do we honestly believe they were the driving force behind the scheme, culpable beyond all others to the point where they forfeited their right to life? Zhang was a cattle farmer, and Gheng sold the protein powder to the larger companies. It seems more likely that, as in so many death penalty cases, the punishment was metered out to those too weak or poor or lacking in influence to save themselves.

Reprieve has worked on numerous cases of ‘non-triggermen’ – where the defendant facing death was merely an accessory, and the person who actually committed the murder received a lesser sentence. Robert Lee Thompson became the 23rd person to be executed in Texas this year, when he was killed for his part in a robbery in 1996. The man who shot the victim, Sammy Butler, received a life sentence. Thompson was executed despite a rare recommendation from the parole board that he be spared, after Governor Rick Perry chose to ignore their advice and uphold the sentence.

In 1998, Derek William Bentley received a posthumous pardon under English law, forty-five years after he was hanged at aged nineteen. Bentley was an accomplice in a burglary which resulted in a murder, but the actual killer escaped the death sentence because he was only sixteen at the time. 

As is so often the case, it does not appear to be those at the top of the chain suffering the full wrath of the law. Sanlu Group – formerly the largest milk producer in China (now bankrupt), is widely acknowledged to have known about the contamination but continued to supply the milk – even sending out free supplies to parents who expressed their concerns. The scandal was only made public when Sanlu’s New Zealand partners became aware of a problem.

Of the four members of Sanlu’s management team who have been convicted for their role in the scandal, one received a life sentence, and the others received between five and fifteen years in prison. Others implicated merely lost their jobs. Can we really accept that Gheng and Zhang were the ringmasters of all, and not merely convenient scapegoats for corporations looking to any means, no matter how immoral, to turn a profit?

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