Washington — China's Communists always have been quick to execute political dissidents as a warning to follow the party's ideological line. Now the regime summarily executes people for being bad at capitalism.
Zheng Xiaoyu was put to death the other day not only for multitudinous sins but also to reassure foreign markets that China's manufacturing industry will no longer mindlessly poison some of its customers. With Zheng's execution, Mao Zedong's revolution has reached the stage of becoming a focused exercise in marketing - skillfully gathering profits abroad to make the party rich and powerful at home.
Mao promised socialism with Chinese characteristics. His political heirs have delivered a fierce capitalism with Chinese characteristics. The party struggles to rein in the free-enterprise monster it has created through its quasi-ideological emphasis on wealth and consumption. To counter emerging threats to global market share, the government produced - what else? - a five-year plan to eliminate health hazards from its food and medical exports. It reinforced the message by executing the unfortunate Zheng.
Zheng, 62, rose through party ranks to become the head of the State Food and Drug Administration. According to prosecutors, he also became inordinately rich from the bribes he took as his agency approved untested medicines and adopted procedures that eventually allowed the export of toothpaste, pet food and cough syrup that contained poisonous industrial solvents.
The official Xinhua news agency did not say how Zheng - sentenced on May 29 - was killed on July 10. So we do not know if he was shot in the back of the head, as is customary. Nor do we know if his family was then presented with a bill for the cost of the bullet that killed him. This cruel twist has long been standard practice for dissidents in China, which carries out more court-ordered executions than the rest of the world combined, according to human rights groups.
Mao proclaimed the victory of his revolution in 1949 by saying that "the Chinese people have stood up." Nearly three decades ago Deng Xiaoping ordered the Chinese people to sit down and get to work in factories. They obeyed with breathtaking determination and skill.
President Hu Jintao now concentrates on protecting China's reach into foreign markets that buy more than $1 billion worth of the nation's exports every day. Hu must respond to the freedom of choice possessed by the world's consumers, who are on notice about health hazards in a tiny fraction of China's exports.
The dramatic change in the national mindset produced by Deng's admonitions to get rich was apparent throughout a recent visit to China. A senior military official interrupted a conversation on world politics to marvel that "when China's stock market went down sharply in February, markets around the world went down and everybody reacted." I had never heard a national stock-market plunge described with pride before.
What is not talked about freely is the corrupt interaction between the new entrepreneurs and the party officials whose permission is needed for almost every phase of commercial and industrial activity in China - the kind of transactions that finally caught up with the recently departed Zheng.
A leading real estate developer talked breezily over lunch about the system of bank loans, mortgages and market research that fuels China's economic boom. When I asked about the party's involvement in granting permits and setting land prices in urban areas, the response was brief, evasive and a change of the subject.
But the government's own concern makes clear that corruption is rampant enough to become the Achilles' heel of the party's monopoly rule.
"In Mao's time it was disgraceful to talk about money," recalled a former senior party official who disagrees with Hu's marketplace approach to politics. "Mao believed money would destroy the revolution. Now money is the new ideology. If you want to get rich, you only have to walk along with the Communist Party and obey it."
Despite predictions by President Bush and others that economic engagement would inevitably bring democratic reforms to China, free-market conditions have not forced political liberalization there. The party feeds on the boom it has helped create. Leaders reward their children and other relatives with choice jobs and investment opportunities.
It is the boom's side effects - primarily official corruption - that can come to pose a threat to communist rule. Flagrant abuses of power discredit the party with a people who value morality and decency in public life. One well-publicized execution may reassure markets abroad, but it is unlikely to defuse China's own internal tensions.