n December 8, Liu Weidong, the 54-year-old deputy mayor of Tai’an, Shandong Province, was found dead by hanging in a local scenic area. The police later confirmed that Liu had killed himself.
The same day, Yu Xuejun, former mayor of Kaiping, Guangdong Province and then director of the garden and forestry bureau of Jiangmen, jumped to his death from the top of an 18-story building. The police have, for now, ruled out the possibility of foul play.
According to incomplete statistics gathered by the Chinese edition of NewsChina, a total of 36 senior officials had committed suicide by late 2016.
This was a high figure, but not a shocking one. Since 2009, news of Chinese officials committing suicide or disappearing has increasingly made headlines. According to Zhu Zhuohong, a director of the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who studies the mental health problems of officials and government employees, China saw a total of 209 senior officials commit suicide or go missing from 2009 to 2015, with the numbers in the last two years somewhere between four and six times that of previous years.
Zhu told NewsChina that the most popular courses that his institute offers to government employees are on how to reduce pressure. Although the public often relates the suicide of officials to their supposed corruption, Zhu warns that depression plays a major role.
Falling from Grace
According to Xu Yan, a psychology professor from Beijing Normal University who often provides psychological guidance to government employees, the rate of suicide by officials has caused concern since 2005 when Wang Tongzhi, then director of the local organization ministry (an important government department that plays a major role in determining officials’ careers) of Shanxi Province, committed suicide by jumping from a hotel in Beijing where he was attending a government conference. The police confirmed that Wang’s death was not related to any crime, but was due to huge pressure from work.
In 2009, after 13 senior officials killed themselves or went missing, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and the central Organization Ministry began to offer professional psychology lectures.
“The lectures were kept secret,” Xu Yan told NewsChina. “But we have concluded from the lectures that many officials’ suicides were not due to fear of any punishment for corruption, but due to mental health issues.”
But China’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign, begun at the end of 2013 and which has placed intense focus on every aspect of official life, seems to have intensified the stress on officials. In 2014 alone, for example, around 60 officials reportedly committed suicide, and 51 did so the following year. Nearly 60 percent of them chose to jump to their deaths from high buildings or bridges, as Wang Tongzhi and Yu Xuejun did.
“The method of suicide is closely linked to their environment. Most of the officials worked in cities and did not want to implicate their family members by killing themselves at home, so jumping to their death becomes the best choice,” Xu said, reminding officials’ family members to keep a close eye on anything unusual, for example, whether or not they are suffering from serious insomnia.
Many psychologists have warned that a growing number of officials are caught in depression. Among the 36 senior officials who were reported to have committed suicide in 2016, for example, 12 suffered from severe depression, according to media reports.
“Ms Xu, do you see that window? When I look at it, I want to jump from it,” an official told psychology professor Xu Yan several years ago. She still clearly remembers the incident.
“He was very serious when telling me about this. He was not joking. I think it was what he was really thinking at that moment,” Xu said.
Zhao Guoqiu, chief psychologist at the Public Security Bureau of Zhejiang Province and a mental health intervention expert for China’s Ministry of Public Security, told our reporter that many of his patients have been government employees, one of whom had jumped to his death in 2013.
“My 30 years of research shows that government employees have a very low sense of happiness and a high rate of psychological disorder and tiredness,” Zhao said. “And 25 percent of the government employees are suffering from insomnia,” he added.
His words were backed up by a study by the Sixth Hospital of Peking University which showed that 13-15 percent of Chinese people had serious mental problems, and six percent of this group suffer depression. However, among the government employees surveyed, six percent suffer from depression alone, never mind other mental problems.
In 2012, the Psychology Health Center for Central Government Employees conducted a mental health survey of 2,500 employees from 20 central government departments, which showed that 63.3 percent of the respondents said that they were under moderate or worse pressure.
The same year, another survey about the mental health of Chinese employees conducted by the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, indicated that government employees were among the unhappiest groups studied.
“Heart attacks, strokes, cancer and depression are the four most common serious health problems among the government employees,” Zhu told NewsChina. “Although no figure has yet indicated whether or not their rates are higher than those of other working groups, those four diseases are related to pressure,” he added.
Although no research has so far confirmed which form of pressure contributes the most to suicide among officials, their work life is believed to be a major source of pressure. According to Zhu, it is much crueler than in other organizations or companies. “The officials are in a strict hierarchy similar to a pyramid and everyone inside it has to fiercely compete with others to climb higher. Furthermore, the age requirements on promotion [where officials have to be promoted before a certain age] have intensified such competition,” he explained.
The tightly competitive hierarchy also means many officials conceal their health problems. Zhu revealed that many of his official patients are not willing to go to the hospital, fearing that it would impact their promotion if their disease was made public. Many of them instead turn to traditional healers or even feng shui masters, to little avail.
Xu Yan has experienced officials’ fear of exposing weakness. She told NewsChina that many of her patients ask to talk somewhere private and Xu often promises to keep their discussion secret and not to record or take photographs during the consultations.
“Some officials would rather send their secretaries to me than come in person. Some would even see a doctor at their own expense [instead of having it covered by their work-provided insurance] in order to conceal their condition,” said Zhao Guoqiu, the psychology expert from the Ministry of Public Security.
An insider who has talked to many high-ranking officials but refused to reveal his name told our reporter that several years ago, a provincial official he knew even secretly received a liver transplant under the guise of a tourist trip. Despite the steep medical fee, he covered it at his own expense, since he feared that details of his illness would be leaked to his political enemies once recorded in the social insurance database.
The official was not alone. In January 2016, Xu Zhubao, a deputy governor of Shandong Province, received permission to resign. Some unofficial sources revealed that his “resignation” was due to purposely concealing his disease.
Many anonymous insiders in Shandong told the sources that Xu would not have been promoted to deputy governor in the first place if he had reported his disease to his seniors. There are no regulations about officials’ health and promotions, but Chinese officials widely believe that disease is a serious obstacle to promotion if made public, especially higher up in the hierarchy. And like other signs of weakness, any health condition can easily become a weapon in the hands of one’s political or office enemies.
“Officials have to face all sorts of sharp contradictions, and some of their work may conflict with their world view. The unhealthy officialdom brings about some mental health problems which aggravate existing conditions unless soothed or alleviated,” Chen Changwen, director of the Sociology Society of Sichuan Province, told media.
The nationwide anti-corruption campaign is also a source of pressure on officials, if not the biggest, according to Zhu, especially for those who have taken bribes, embezzled money, or kept mistresses.
A popular joke online is that many officials will “instinctively” come to the windows if they hear a tapping sound at night, fearing that it is the CCDI coming to “invite them for tea” – a euphemism for a trip to the police station. “It is highly related to officials’ psychological health – some officials stayed calm even when being sentenced to life imprisonment. But others would collapse after a whisper of investigation,” explained Zhu.
The public has grown increasingly intolerant of the widespread corruption in officialdom, and so any official suicide is seen as linked to it. After an official kills himself, comments online flourish such as “Looks like the CCDI is scarier than death” or “He or she [the person who committed suicide] may be a scapegoat for the big ‘tigers’ [high-level corrupt officials.]”
As soon as Yu Xuejun jumped to his death, for example, rumors spread online that Yu had been the most trusted follower of a higher-level official who was already under investigation for corruption.
But no matter how outlandish the rumors, the government departments stay silent, making the stories more credible.
“Even though they don’t know the real cause, many people cheer when an official commits suicide. This is grossly disrespectful to the dead, since they’ve been deemed corrupt or guilty automatically,” one official told NewsChina. He had been a colleague of Ma Lijun, the former deputy director of the traffic bureau of Hubei Province who leapt to his death from his office building this May.
Zhu believes that this way of thinking, where all officials are lumped together as bad apples in a rotten barrel, makes every official anxious and stressed. Other experts and media outlets have noticed the problem. Following the growing number of suicides, they appealed to the government to publish information about the death in a timely fashion to mute rumors and speculations.
“If an official commits suicide for purely personal reasons, it’s unfair not to publish the cause of death; if there are some ‘complex’ reasons [official corruption], the departments involved should take this as a clue and keep on investigating. Silence only enlarges the distance between the government and the public and impairs official credibility,” commented Shanghai-based news portal The Paper following the news in April that Tang Tiansheng, director of the Food and Drug Administration of Guilin, Guangxi, had fallen to his death from the eighth floor of a local hospital.
Under Chinese law, criminal cases are generally canceled and the investigation halted if a suspect dies. But this has been questioned by many experts who believe that suspending the investigation leaves the truth uncovered, and is particularly unfair to the dead and their families if they are innocent.
“In order to stop people making unfair judgments, we have to both crack down on ‘tigers and flies’ [corrupt officials at both high and low levels] and offer proper and correct guidance to public opinion,” Zhu commented.