Mysterious Suicides in China's Leadership

A spate of suicides among officials in China has caught the country’s attention. Beijing’s censors have quickly moved to end speculation about the deaths, indicating the Communist Party’s sensitivity, but everyday people remain suspicious.

The body of Xu Yean, 58, of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, was discovered on April 8th in his Beijing office. He was the fourth high-ranking official to take his own life in recent months. 

The week before, Zhou Yu, a police official in Chongqing, was found hanged, in a hotel. Said to be suffering from depression, he was involved in the high-profile investigation of the now-imprisoned Bo Xilai, the former boss of that metropolis. In January, Bai Zhongren, a former president of the heavily indebted China Railway Group, killed himself. State Council Information Officer Deputy Director Li Wufeng, considered China’s top internet cop, jumped to his death from the sixth floor of an office building on March 24th.

Minor officials have also been taking their lives. All told, there have been at least 54 “unnatural deaths” of Chinese officials since January of last year. Of these, 23 are listed as suicides. Drinking and accidents contributed another nine deaths.

It is not clear whether the 23 acknowledged suicides exceed the average for the Chinese population as a whole, but it is apparent that Beijing is concerned about the high-profile deaths. The Central Propaganda Department issued media instructions to not report without authorization the “accidental death” of Li Wufeng, and news of Xu Yean’s demise was scrubbed.

Beijing’s strategy is to deny such deaths are suicides, suppress news, or when all else fails blame “depression.” Most Chinese, it appears, are not buying the official explanations. As one poster on Sina Weibo, the microblogging service, explained, “A new rule for officials who have committed suicide: Every single one must be depressed, every single one must be unhealthy.”

What is unhealthy is the Communist Party’s increasingly corrupt political system. Take Xu Yean, for instance. His bureau, according to Yu Jianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is one of the most venal in Beijing, extorting bribes from officials across China. The office is supposed to give ordinary citizens a means to complain about local tyrants, but it has become a moneymaking machine for central officials, who bury complaints in return for large payments. One of Xu’s senior colleagues, Xu Jie, was relieved of responsibilities last November and placed under investigation for “serious violations” of party discipline, code for corruption.

Most reports state Xu Yean was not publicly named as the subject of a probe, but the South China Morning Post cites a source “close to the CCDI”—the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Investigation—indicating he was a target nonetheless. “Everybody is in the same boat,” said thesource. “Someone in Xu’s position is not immune.” 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping in fact says no one is immune from his corruption probes and that he is going after both “tigers” and “flies,” party lingo for officials high and low. Few in China actually believe that Xi is trying to rid China of that evil, however. After all, the Communist Party has become completely infested, and the president appears to be targeting only political adversaries, such as the infamous Zhou Yongkang, the former security czar, using “corruption” as an excuse.

Yet Xi’s purges are wide-ranging, touching hundreds of officials, and they have gone so far that former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao are now asking him to slow the effort, in part because he is threatening their extensive patronage networks and also because his investigations could shake the foundations of the party itself.

At this moment, it looks like fear pervades Chinese officialdom, and that some officials are choosing the easy way out by taking their own lives. As the purges continue, we can expect more unnatural deaths—and perhaps even political instability.

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