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Spate of suicides by Chinese officials tied to anti-graft drive

XIAOGAN (China) — A growing list of Chinese officials have committed suicide in recent months, a trend that some researchers suspect may be linked to an anti-corruption campaign that President Xi Jinping began at the end of 2012 and has been the toughest in decades.

China's President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

China's President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

XIAOGAN (China) — A growing list of Chinese officials have committed suicide in recent months, a trend that some researchers suspect may be linked to an anti-corruption campaign that President Xi Jinping began at the end of 2012 and has been the toughest in decades.

About 30 officials have killed themselves so far this year, sometimes as investigators closed in, said anti-corruption researchers and local news reports.

In the most recent case, a former deputy Communist Party secretary in Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia region of China, slit his wrists in his government office on Monday, the state news media reported.

While the data are incomplete — there are no official figures — the numbers suggest that the suicide rate among the country’s mid- to top-level officials is at least 30 per cent higher than the overall suicide rate in urban areas, statistics from Hong Kong researchers showed.

“A lot of officials have varying degrees of corruption problems and now the risk of being investigated is always there,” said Mr Qi Xingfa, a researcher at Shanghai’s East China Normal University who studies suicide among officials. “They are reading about a case in the paper in the morning and by afternoon the official is in detention. It’s really frightening and people don’t know if they will see the end of the day. After a while, the guilt of corruption may lead an official to kill himself.”

Experts caution against pinning the suicides on any one cause, noting that multiple factors may contribute to any one case. But most agree that the numbers are striking.

“Officials are members of society, too, and there may be all kinds of reasons for them to kill themselves,” said Mr Ren Jianming, director of the Center for Integrity Research and Education at Beihang University. “They may fall victim to depression and social pressures. But I think that recently the anti-corruption movement has been a major reason. I have never seen anything like it.”

Punishment often means long prison terms and, perhaps worse, public shame in a culture where officials have traditionally enjoyed exalted status and where loss of face is a potentially unbearable fate.

Mr Liao Ran, a senior programme coordinator for East Asia at Transparency International, a Berlin-based non-governmental organisation, said: “The attitude is still leniency to those who confess, severity to those who resist.” Torture is not uncommon, said former officials and rights activists, though most suspects confess before that occurs.

Reports in the Chinese news media said about 30 officials have committed suicide since January. Mr Liao has counted 37 suicides by officials during the same period.

Even the lower number equates to a rate of about 6.9 suicides per 100,000 officials per year. That is 30 per cent higher than the overall suicide rate in urban areas of China, which is 5.3 per 100,000, revealed a paper by Professor Paul Yip and others at the Center for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong.

Fear of punishment and disgrace may be only part of the reason for the high rate. Under Chinese law, the death of a suspect ends the legal investigation. Researchers believe that in some cases officials are killing themselves to protect their wives, children and parents, hoping their families will survive and not lose their wealth. Mr Xi has said he will pursue his campaign against “tigers and flies”, or high- and low-level corrupt officials, to the end.

“Yes, they are scared of being prosecuted,” Prof Yip said. “At the end, they feel they have so much money, ‘If I am gone, at least my family, my wife, my children, at least they will be okay’.”

Suicide also forecloses the possibility of the almost inevitable confession, which may implicate political or business associates, who may take revenge on the family, Mr Liao said.

Others say a suicide may give less protection to the family. “It creates a double tragedy. The first tragedy, it loses a life. Then the survivors have a lot of guilt. ‘Did I not do enough? Was there anything I could do to prevent it?’ And that’s universal,” Prof Yip said. THE NEW YORK TIMES

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