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Human Rights & Social Issues

The mystery shrouding China’s Communist Party suicides


Are Xi Jinping’s Party reform efforts putting undue pressure on officials? Reuters

Being a government official in China is not for the faint of heart, the thin-skinned or the fragile of mind.

A recent state media report has reverberated online and in the Communist Party press by revealing that at least 54 Chinese officials died of “unnatural causes” in 2013, and that more than 40 percent of those deaths were suicides (in Chinese).

For some, those numbers raise questions about the burden placed on officials as a result of the Party’s anti-corruption crusade. But others see the recent rash of suicides as further evidence of the lack of political openness in China.

The latest victim was Xu Ye’an, the deputy chief of China’s national-level Bureau for Letter and Calls—the agency that handle petitions from disgruntled citizens. According to local media reports (in Chinese), Xu killed himself in his office, those the circumstances of his death remain unclear.

Then there was Zhou Yu, a senior police official in Chongqing and a major player in the anti-gang crackdown there a few years ago. He was found in a hotel room having apparently hanged himself (in Chinese).

There was also the deputy director of a neighborhood construction management office in a small city in Zhejiang province, who was responsible for overseeing building inspections at a time when an entire apartment building collapsed, was reported to have committed suicide in disgrace (in Chinese).

That Chinese officials have had to deal with pressure is nothing new.

A survey in 2009 found that more than 80% of Party officials reported psychological fatigue and mental imbalance (in Chinese). High-level officials even went so far then to tell the Party-run People’s Tribune about the “five ways to death” facing those who worked in the government: “without fortitude, you’ll scare easily; without a good physique, you’ll die from overwork; without capacity for liquor, you’ll die from drink; without a good disposition, you’ll be worried to death; without a good heart, you’ll die from being angry.”

What is different is that these strains on the rank-and-file appear to have gotten even more oppressive amidst Beijing’s demands that cadres labor harder, govern more effectively, and behave better. As one essay last week noted (in Chinese), the emphasis for officials these days is on “‘work, work, work,’ ‘assessment, evaluation, assessment,’ ‘management, management, management’.” Cadres, according to the author, now resemble “men used as beasts.”

Are Xi Jinping’s Party reform efforts putting undue pressure on officials? Are the suicides the result of corruption investigations, and if so, is Beijing intentionally pushing a handful of officials over the brink as an example to others? Or is there some other dynamic at work?

Official accounts typically attribute the suicides to depression or mental illness. Unfortunately, a lack of transparency over the deaths makes it impossible to judge the truth of those claims.

When cadres commit suicide, an unsigned commentary recently posted on the Sohu news portal notes (in Chinese), the authorities adopt “an unhelpful official silence…usually blocking nearly all the news channels. The propaganda department and other government agencies are of one voice, referring to the late cadre in question in laudable terms. And reporters who want to interview the bereaved family are blocked from doing so.”

Another commentary, this one published by the state-run China Youth Daily (in Chinese), points out that the public is left to fill the information void with speculation. “When people cannot know the real reason for officials to commit suicide, it is inevitable that they guess the worst”—namely, that the cadre in question was corrupt and, confronted with exposure, took his or her own life. Some online have theorized that at least a few of the “suicides” might actually have been involuntary – an understandable hypothesis in a country where officials have been known to die while being interrogated on corruption charges.

Some commentators have insisted that the officials are public figures, and that therefore the public has a right to know the circumstances around their deaths. For if the intention of this news coverage is to make a point about the consequences of corruption, then being more transparent can only help in that crusade.

“Everyone loses when officials commit suicide,” the Sohu commentary argues, “no matter whether [the cause is] political, personal or societal.” Allowing light into “this relatively closed political system,” it continues, would also allow the opportunity for corrupt officials to be removed—or at least exposed to the point where they would feel that stepping down from office would be better than stepping away from the world.

Unfortunately for these critics of present policies, there’s little chance that these proposals will find much favor soon, especially when Beijing is slapping down attempts by citizen activists to hold officials directly accountable to the public, instead of through the Communist Party first.

But even if they are not persuaded of the public’s right to know, Xi and his comrades do need to take the public’s reaction to these suicides into account—especially if they want to reform the way citizens think about the Party’s ability to handle its own problems.

Russell Leigh Moses is the Dean of Academics and Faculty at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies. He is writing a book on the changing role of power in the Chinese political system
Source: WSJ China Real Time Report  – “The Mystery Shrouding China’s Communist Party Suicides”

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