BEIJING — Several apparent suicides by Chinese officials in the past three weeks, including the deaths of two senior figures, have sparked public debate and questions, as well as a fresh round of online censorship.
Was President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive putting so much pressure on members of the ruling Communist Party that some were 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 Xu Yean, 58, a deputy director in the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, was found hanged in his office this week.
Xu’s department handles the citizens’ petitions and complaints against local government officials. Although Xu had not been publicly linked with any corruption investigation, a senior colleague was fired and placed under investigation in November for a “severe violation” of party discipline.
At the time, Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted as saying on social media 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 a suspected suicide Wednesday, five days after an apartment building collapsed in the city.
Local news media reported that the building had been declared unsafe months before but that no action had been taken to repair it. Three people involved in the building’s construction have been arrested in that case, news media reported.
On April 4, senior policeman Zhou Yu was found hanged in a hotel room in the central Chinese city of Chongqing. Zhou was a major figure in a crackdown on organized crime in the city under the leadership of Bo Xilai, a senior Communist Party leader who has since been imprisoned for corruption. Zhou was reported to be depressed about health issues related to diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver.
A senior official at the state-owned power-generation company Datang was reported to have died in suspicious circumstances March 29, after being unwell and depressed, although the company denied that his death was a suicide.
Perhaps the most sensational death of all was that of Li Wufeng, 56, who was known as China’s top Internet cop and was reportedly involved in maintaining a system of online censorship known as the Great Firewall of China. Li was said to have jumped to his death March 24 from the sixth floor of the office building where he worked after constantly being in a “bad mood,” local news media reported.
Li 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 news media not to report on his “accidental death” without authorization and to delete any “speculative and accusatory comments” online, according to a Web site, China Digital Times, that monitors such directives.
In addition, the story of Xu Yean’s death Thursday was deleted from Chinese media Web site Caixin after a few hours.
Some netizens mocked official boilerplate explanations for some of the 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 had seen, 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, thwarted promotions, emotional problems and alleged corruption as some of the reasons officials were taking their own lives.
But the recent crackdown on corruption under 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.
Xu Jing contributed to this report.