BEIJING — On June 24, Liu Yajun, a senior Chinese aviation official in Guangzhou, climbed a fence close to the railway tracks. And when a high-speed train came, he threw himself in front of it.
You may expect people to be shocked and horrified when they learned that the 50-year-old Liu had given up his powerful position and family to die in such a violent way. He was promoted to chief of Central and Southern Regional Administration in February last year. The office reportedly has jurisdiction over southern China, including Guangdong, Hunan and Hainan provinces.
But actually many were not. There seems to be a suicide trend among Chinese officials and Liu was just one in a cluster of suicides of officials that had come to public attention.
It was reported that several hours after Liu was crushed, Yang Xianke, a 40-year-old vice-magistrate in a country in Gizmo province, in southwest China, leapt to his death from the top of a seven-floor government office building.
Last December, six officials reportedly died “unusual” deaths, a euphemism for suicides. Since January, at least three other officials had killed themselves by jumping off high buildings. In more than a dozen high-profile suicides over the past couple of years, Chinese officials have also ended their lives by cutting themselves or shooting themselves with a gun.
Some people have reacted to the spate of suicides with humor.
“Based on the past experience, depression will be the best official explanation after an official commits suicide,” said a newspaper commentator after Liu and Yang died, tongue in cheek. Because the departments concerned may already know that these suicidal officials suffering from depression is not people’s main concern, they will also exonerate the dead comrades from suspicions of economic crimes, based on their “preliminary findings”, the newspaper said.
And this is exactly what happened to Liu. The police have confirmed depression as the cause of his suicide and aviation authorities indicate they have not found Liu involved in corruption.
So did his death just coincide with ongoing graft investigations of civil aviation officials? Since January, four senior civil aviation administration officials have lost their positions because of corruption charges, including a deputy minister of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, Yu Renlu.
Psychologists believe 90 percent of people who commit suicide have been suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder, with depression as the most common form of the disease. However, when Chinese officials commit suicide, people tend to believe it’s corruption that ultimately pushes the man over the edge.
They suspect the death seekers might have ended their lives to escape punishment. It’s reported that most corrupt officials commit suicide while they’re being investigated. But only few do so due to guilt or shame.
Some are believed to have died to cover up bigger corruption scandals. In November, Wu Xiaoqing, 57, a former senior judicial official, hanged himself in a detention center in Changing, in southwest China, that was swept by an anti-graft storm recently. He had faced bribe-taking charges involving 3.57 million yuan (about $526,000) and HK$100,000. Besides, he also had 5.18 million yuan that he couldn’t account for.
One netizen gave three reasons why Wu had killed himself: it was already impossible to continue living; to die was better than to live; or he might have endangered people still in power if he didn’t die. His motives to kill himself remain a mystery to many.
Another explanation for officials’ increased vulnerability for suicide is that although the intentions of those suicidal officials entangled in corruption to kill themselves may be fleeting, regular prevention methods may not work for them because of their reluctance to seek professional help and share their secrets.
It’s probably true some officials have ended their lives due to mental disorders. After the Wenchuan earthquake in Southwest China in 2008 that killed thousands, several local officials in charge of relief operations committed suicide because of tremendous workload and emotional trauma.
Experts say that besides corruption charges, Chinese officials may also be forced to commit suicide due to complex office politics and demanding pressures on them to perform better.
But until the system becomes more transparent and cleaner, the public may continue to react to officials’ suicides with sarcasm and suspicion.
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