On Tuesday, China executed Zheng Xiaoyu, the head of its State Food and Drug Administration, an event that, like it or not, contrasts sharply with our response to similar behaviors by our own FDA head.

Zheng was convicted of accepting about $850,000 in bribes from eight companies to approve untested medicines. The court said some drug companies used false documents to apply for approvals, and that six fake medicines were approved. Reuters reported that,

During his tenure, dozens died in China from fake or bad drugs and food products. In one of the most notorious cases, in 2004, at least 13 babies died of malnutrition in Anhui province after being fed fake milk powder with no nutritional value.”

According to the U.S. FDA, at least 40 people in Panama died in September 2006 after ingesting cough syrup containing Chinese-made diethylene glycol that was mislabeled as glycerin, a more expensive product.

The Chinese government spotlighted both the process and the execution to show they are serious about corrupt practices that endanger lives and, equally importantly, trade. Even though human rights groups claim that China executes more people than any other country, this punishment was unusually harsh and swift. Zheng was the highest-ranking Chinese official executed since 2000, and only the 4th senior official executed since China opened its doors to the outside world nearly 30 years ago. Apparently following a directive from the highest levels of Chinese government, the People’s Daily, the party’s official newspaper, ran a commentary that said:

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.”

No kidding. Which is what makes the next part of the story so striking.

In a provocative piece published at the end of May, the Corporate Crime Reporter compares the crimes and punishments of Zheng and Lester Crawford. Crawford, a veterinarian with a Ph.D in Pharmacology, served for several years with the Department of Agriculture and the FDA, then was finally nominated by President Bush to lead the FDA. He was controversial even before his nomination for refusing to allow over-the-counter sales of “Morning After” emergency contraception pills, even after FDA scientists had recommended that the over-the-counter sales be approved. He served for only two months before resigning and pleading guilty to charges that he lied to Congress and violated conflict-of-interest laws for hiding his ownership of stock in companies “significantly regulated” by the FDA.

Crawford was sentenced to 3 years supervised probation and approximately $90,000 in fines. He took a job at a Washington lobbying firm, Policy Directions.

Of course, the real issue is how seriously governments enforce the firewall between regulators and the regulated. In areas like medicine, healthcare, and foods, regulations are there to protect patients and consumers. When the barrier is breached, innocent people are often harmed, sometimes irrevocably. For example, Mr. Crawford’s conflict of interest conviction stemmed from his leadership of an FDA Obesity Working Group that made recommendations that affected organizations he held stock in, including Pepsico and Sysco.

Still in the early stages of industrial development and standardization, and recently stung by reports of substandard and sometimes dangerous quality in their exports (in a small minority of products), the Chinese government made a high profile example of Zheng. It would be difficult to believe that his execution didn’t send a message to other Chinese officials, and won’t act as a deterrent.

But here at home, Mr. Crawford’s case was hardly noticed. He received some unpleasant publicity and then slipped into a cushy lobbying job that will undoubtedly pay him handsomely to take advantage of his FDA and Agriculture Department relationships.

It is hard to know whether or not the Crawford and Zheng cases are anecdotal. My sense is that they’re not. They both send important messages.

But it is not hard to imagine that it is just this sort of difference in attitude—tolerance vs. non-tolerance of the violation of a public trust—that can determine how a nation ultimately performs as the competition among nations intensifies.

When the ancient Romans discovered that a public servant had violated the public trust, they sewed the culprit into a bag with wild animals and then threw it in the river. I’m not suggesting that we resort to executing the officials who take advantage of us, but it is certainly tempting and there’s a nice river that flows through downtown Washington.