YINGKOU, China - To hear Chinese authorities tell it, Wang Zhendong is a danger to society, the worst kind of person, one who took advantage of his fellow citizens' naivete and trust. Last month, a court gave him the death penalty for his crimes.

Wang's misdeed: selling overpriced ant farms to the public.

As China moves fitfully from a planned economy to a free-market system, cracking down on fraud, embezzlement, and other financial schemes has become a major priority for the government. Among the cases taken most seriously are ones that harmed common people.

In Wang's case, for instance, investors shelled out 10,000 yuan, the equivalent of about $1,300, for cardboard boxes full of black ants, purportedly rare ones sometimes used in China to make medicines and wine but actually worth about $25.

Over two years, more than 36,700 residents of 12 towns in China's northeastern Liaoning province were tricked out of more than $40 million, and many lost their life savings. At least one investor committed suicide.

"This crime has seriously disrupted the financial order, social environment, and the interests of ordinary people," said Wang Xinquan, vice director of financial affairs for the province.

In China, where more than 60 types of crimes - including economic ones like tax fraud and bribery - are punishable by death, the government has been criticized for its broad application of the death penalty. Some estimates put the number of court-ordered executions at as many as 10,000 a year. In 2005, Amnesty International logged 1,770 executions, or about 80 percent of the known total worldwide.

Last year, China sought to lower the number of executions by enacting a law that requires all death sentences to be reviewed by its supreme court; last week, the country's chief justice affirmed that the court would uphold only an "extremely small" number of such sentences.

But at the same time, it defended use of the punishment for financial crimes, which the government says rose 11 percent last year as unscrupulous people sought to take advantage of the booming economy.

In recent months, two former employees of China Construction Bank - Zhou Limin, who was a branch manager, and accountant Liu Yibing - were put to death by lethal injection for stealing almost $52 million from customers by offering bogus accounts they said would earn high interest rates. And Li Rongxing, an oil executive, was given the death sentence for embezzling more than $4 million and taking $620,000 in bribes.

Supreme People's Court President Xiao Yang told the audience at a criminal law conference in November: "It is necessary to use the death penalty in China to punish criminals who commit extremely serious crimes in order to safeguard state security, public interests, and smooth operation of economic construction."