Suicides rising as China’s corruption crackdown expands

Local government officials celebrated the “Chinese dream” in lavish style last September in Wuxi, a city of 6 million people in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. They were commemorating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and Jiang Hongliang, the deputy secretary of Wuxi’s municipal committee, was one of local dignitaries in attendance.

Six months later, the dream ended for Jiang Hongliang. On March 31, tourists found Jiang’s mangled body at the base of a 350-foot-tall pagoda, from which he had apparently jumped. When a McClatchy reporter visited the pagoda a few weeks later, the pavement where Jiang fell was still stained with what appeared to be his blood.

Suicide among troubled Chinese government officials is hardly new. It dates back to the imperial era. But as Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to weed out bureaucratic corruption over the last two years, there’s been a marked spike in “unnatural” deaths involving officials. Scores have been found dead.

Over three days in late March, three officials in addition to Jiang reportedly killed themselves in various parts of China. Three more killed themselves in April. On Monday, a Shaanxi province local government official leaped to his death from an office building.

While not all of these suicides can be attributed to Xi’s anti-graft crusade, many of them can be. Experts say some officials may be choosing to end their life instead of facing harsh police interrogations and prison time. Some may hope their deaths will put an end to official inquiries, sparing family members from government attempts to recoup any ill-gotten gains.

“For some of these officials, it is a rational, thought-out decision,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations who has written about the rash of Chinese government suicides. “They see the benefit of suicide as higher than the cost.”

According to Huang and others, corruption is endemic in all levels of Chinese government, which employs 11 million people. For decades, people have been attracted to low-paying civil service jobs by the prospect of earning “gray income” by doling out favors.

Such jobs have lost their shine since late 2012, when Xi rose to power. Upon taking office, Xi warned that corruption, left unchecked, could doom the continued rule of the Communist Party.

Since then, thousands of officials – including more than 100 high-ranking ones – have been rounded up in graft investigations. Those who remain fear becoming the next target – so much so that top Chinese leaders have grown worried about “policy paralysis” caused by listless, fearful bureaucrats.

Experts say there’s no doubt that mental illness has played a role in some suicides. After Shaanxi food and drug official Tang Youquan was found dead at the base of an office building on Monday, state media quoted a colleague as saying, “He indeed was ill for a long time. He had depression.”

On Chinese social media, many netizens scoff at such official explanations. Some have even suggested that agents of the Communist Party are staging suicides as part of a wider political purge, a theory that most China experts dismiss.

Andrew Wedeman, a political scientist who specializes on Chinese government corruption, said that he would be cautious in even drawing links between reported suicides and the anti-graft campaign.

“It’s hard to tell if all of them are linked,” said Wedeman, who directs the China studies program at Georgia State University in Atlanta. It is also difficult to determine if the suicide rate among officials has spiked significantly, given the lack of a baseline data prior to 2012, he said.

Other China watchers, however, say it is clear there’s been major uptick. In 2014, there were reports of 72 Chinese officials committing suicide, according to the Knowlesys online monitoring service. By comparison, only 112 officials committed suicide during an entire nine-year period leading up to 2012, according to a study by Qi Xingfa, a politics professor at Shanghai’s East China Normal University.

“All this clearly points to an increase in unnatural deaths,” said Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations. He noted that, earlier this year, the Chinese Communist Party launched a nationwide survey to ascertain the apparent increase in official suicides.

Xi’s anti-graft campaign is being carried out by one of his most powerful lieutenants, Wang Qishan, who heads the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection. Wang and his organization have the power to investigate and detain members of the Communist Party, something officials are aware of when they choose to join the party.

Suspects who confess to corruption tend to receive lighter punishment, although they are stripped of their party membership. Those who refuse to confess face longer sentences and the prospect of torture. “This is certainly one of the factors that could lead officials to commit suicide,” said Huang.

Another factor is a curious provision in Chinese law. According to Qi Xingfa, the law stipulates that if an official dies while under investigation for corruption, the case is automatically dismissed. This provision, according to Qi, has created “the formation of an officialdom suicide culture,” whereby suspects know they can protect family wealth by ending their life.

To date, Xi’s campaign has targeted both “tigers and flies” – high- and low-level officials. Last November, the South China Morning Post reported that the deputy commissar of the People’s Liberation Navy, Vice Adm. Ma Faxiang, committed suicide by leaping from a naval building in Beijing. As of March, some 30 People’s Liberation Army officials had been taken down by corruption allegations, according to state media.

Why Jiang Hongliang committed suicide is unclear. News reports in Jiangsu province said that, a day prior, he was active in a major meeting in Wuxi and showed no signs of stress.

Despite such reports, it is known that Jiang, 56, was in the middle of a power struggle spawned by Xi’s anti-graft campaign.

During much of his career, Jiang served under Mao Xiaoping, the Wuxi mayor who was expelled from the party in 2012 for allegedly taking nearly $100,000 in bribes. Jiang also served under Yang Weize, who was party secretary in Wuxi before taking the top party post in nearby Nanjing. Earlier this year, the party stripped Weize of his position, four days after accusing him of corruption.

Both Yang and Mao were allies of Zhou Yangkang, China’s former national security czar, who was born just outside of Wuxi. In late 2013, Zhou became the first member of the Politburo Standing Committee to be investigated for graft. He was formally charged with bribery, abuse of power and the intentional disclosure of state secrets in April – the highest-ranking Chinese official to ever face such allegations.

On March 30, the man tapped by the Communist Party to lead Wuxi’s Municipal Committee, Li Xiaomin, took office. When Jiang killed himself the following day, it led to obvious speculation in Wuxi that Li was preparing to purge him.

The location of Jiang’s death also raised eyebrows. The Wenfeng pagoda rises above Longbeishan Mountain National Forest Park, a bucolic spot in Jiang’s hometown of Yixing, about two hours from Wuxi.

According to news reports, security cameras captured Jiang ascending the pagoda on his own. Tourists found his body just after the noon hour. Gruesome images of his body, with his legs splayed in two directions, soon flashed across Sina Weibo, China’s main social media platform.

“It was very pitiful the way he died,” said one local shopkeeper interviewed by McClatchy who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the death.

The shopkeeper noted that Jiang had previously served as secretary of Yixing’s municipal committee and had helped beautify the park and pagoda. She said she could imagine him surveying the scenery, in his last moments alive, taking some pride in his accomplishments.

McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.