Being a Chinese party member, along with its undoubted benefits, is also becoming an increasingly hazardous occupation. That’s shown by a recent rash of officials committing suicide, including four in just the past week and a half.
Li Wufeng, a deputy director with the State Council Information Office, leapt from his Beijing office on March 24. Then a senior Chongqing police officer, once hailed as a model crime fighter, was found dead after hanging himself in a hotel room on April 4.
Earlier this week, meanwhile, an official in Zhejiang province, in charge of a district in his city where a recent building collapse caused a fatality and injuries, was found after he committed suicide. And a top official responsible for dealing with citizen grievances took his own life by hanging himself in his office in Beijing, according to various Chinese media reports.
Last year 54 officials died from “unnatural deaths,” including overdrinking and accidents, with 23 committing suicide, according to a report in the China Youth Daily on Friday. Of those who took their own lives, the newspaper report said many had been suffering serious depression. (A study by The Lancet in 2000 estimated that China’s overall suicide rate was 23 per 100,000, with a total of 287,000 suicides per year.)
That connection—between suicide and depression—is an obvious one, and it has been cited as a possible contributing cause in at least two of the four recent cases. The South China Morning Post reported that the Chongqing police officer, heralded as a hero for his efforts to fight organized crime under the watch of Bo Xilai, the princeling now imprisoned for corruption, had been suffering from health problems and depression, according to local police.
And 59-year-old Xu Yean, the deputy director in the State Bureau for Letters and Calls—the organization responsible for dealing with complaints made by ordinary citizens—also was dealing with depression, according to financial magazine Caixin. Xu had been afflicted with tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, and the magazine cited unnamed sources close to Xu’s department claiming he “had not been in a good mood in recent months.”
But depression isn’t likely the only thing causing government officials to take their own lives. There’s reason to suspect it may well be related to Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s ongoing crusade against corruption.
Take the deputy director of the complaints bureau, who was discovered dead on Tuesday. It turns out that in November, another former deputy bureau chief in the same agency was being investigated for “serious violation of laws and regulations,” which in Party-speak usually means corruption, according to a notice posted then on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection’s website.
“The bureau and its branches have often triggered controversy for its corruption and power abuse problems,” reported the English edition of the party-controlled paper Global Times on Friday. “The possibility that corrupt officials commit suicide when facing judicial investigation cannot be ruled out,” Yang Weidong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, told the newspaper, while cautioning that it was still too early to tell.
Last year—the first full year of Xi’s antigraft drive—saw more than 180,000 officials investigated and punished for corruption and abuse of position, and state media have been touting it as a victory against dirty practices. But it also no doubt has put tremendous pressure on many Chinese civil servants.
Observers within China are starting to pick up on the potential pattern. “Has everyone noticed this strange phenomenon: a lot of officials that are under investigation have committed suicide recently,” wrote a blogger called Da Caidao on Sina Weibo this week. “Whatever the reason, no doubt anti-corruption efforts will undoubtedly continue to increase, that’s an indisputable reality.” Wrote another blogger on Sina Weibo last week, with morbid humor: “Official deaths, they all are depression-induced suicides, [but] with special Chinese characteristics. Ha Ha.”