BEIJING — A series of mysterious apparent suicides by Chinese officials in the past three weeks, including of two senior figures, has sparked debate and questions among ordinary people here, as well as a fresh round of online censorship.
Was President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive putting so much pressure on his ruling Communist Party that some members were being driven to take their own lives? Was it all just a coincidence? Or does a life of deceit and hypocrisy eventually take its toll?
Chinese media reported Thursday that 58-year-old Xu Yean, a deputy director in the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, was found hanged in his office earlier in the week.
Xu’s department handles the petitions and complaints of ordinary citizens against local government officials. Although Xu had not been publicly linked with any corruption investigation, a senior colleague was fired and placed under investigation last November for a “severe violation” of party discipline.
Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), was quoted as saying on social media at that time that the department had become one of the most corrupt sectors of the government, often using its power to extract bribes from local officials to silence complaints.
He Gaobo, a local official responsible for building safety in the city of Fenghua in the eastern province of Zhejiang, was found dead in another suspected suicide on Wednesday, five days after an apartment building collapsed in the city.
Local media reported the building had been declared unsafe months before, but no action had been taken to repair it. Three people involved in the building’s construction have been arrested in connection with that case, media reported.
Last Friday, senior policeman Zhou Yu was found hanged in a hotel room in the central Chinese city of Chongqing. Zhou had been a major figure in a crackdown on organized crime in the city under the leadership of Bo Xilai, a senior Communist Party leader who was imprisoned for corruption. He was reported to be depressed about health issues related to diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver.
A senior official at state-owned power generation company Datang was also reported to have died in suspicious circumstances on March 29, after being physically unwell and depressed, although the company denied it was suicide.
But perhaps the most sensational death of all was that of Li Wufeng, a 56-year-old known as China’s top Internet cop, who was reportedly involved in maintaining a system of online censorship known as the Great Firewall of China. He was said to have jumped to his death from the sixth floor of his office building on March 24 after constantly being in a “bad mood,” local media reported.
He attended the Senior Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2007, according to the International Business Times.
China’s Central Propaganda Department swiftly issued a directive ordering local media not to report on his “accidental death” without authorization and to delete any “speculative and accusatory comments” online, according to a Web site, the China Digital Times, that monitors such directives.
Similar, the story of Xu Yean’s death on Thursday was deleted from Chinese media Web site Caixin after a few hours.
Some netizens mocked official boilerplate explanations for many of these deaths.
“A new rule for officials who have committed suicide: every single one must be depressed, every single one must be unhealthy,” one user posted on Sina Weibo microblogging site.
Others wondered whether Xu simply knew, or saw, too much.
“Maybe in his position he saw too much of the dark side, and all his hope died,” said another user.
This is not the first time that a spate of suicides among officials has caught the public’s attention. In 2011, a report by Global People magazine listed work pressure, frustrated promotions, emotional problems and alleged corruption as some of the reasons officials were taking their own lives.
But the recent crackdown on corruption under President Xi appears more extensive than previous efforts and is reported to have significantly depressed the sale of luxury goods and gift items in China in the past year.
The corrupt lifestyles of many officials have been exposed on social media by disgruntled mistresses.