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Spate of Suicides by Chinese Officials Tied to Drive Against Graft

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Spate of Suicides by Chinese Officials Tied to Drive Against Graft



Graffiti referring to the suicide of Li Haihua. It reads, in part, "The prosecutor's office and city government are in cahoots." Credit Didi Kirsten Tatlow/The New York Times

XIAOGAN, China — Li Haihua’s rise from poor farming boy to one of the most powerful officials in this city of one million people took decades, but his demise took seconds.

A former deputy mayor, Mr. Li worked his way up through agriculture departments to become chairman of the city’s People’s Congress, which oversees local government. A position on Xiaogan’s Communist Party Committee cemented his power.

One day in July, about 9 a.m., he leapt from his 11th-floor office in the city’s futuristic-looking government headquarters, according to the Xiaogan police.

With his death, Mr. Li, 56, joined a growing list of Chinese officials who have committed suicide in recent months, a trend that some researchers suspect may be linked to an anticorruption campaign begun last year by President Xi Jinping, the toughest in decades. About 30 officials have killed themselves so far this year, sometimes as investigators closed in, according to anticorruption 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 is 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 percent higher than the overall suicide rate in urban areas, according to statistics from Hong Kong researchers.

“A lot of officials have varying degrees of corruption problems, and now the risk of being investigated is always there,” Qi Xingfa, a researcher at Shanghai’s East China Normal University who studies suicide among officials, said by email. “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 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 anticorruption movement has been a major reason. I have never seen anything like it.”

In Mr. Li’s case, investigators from the Hubei Province antigraft agency in the provincial capital, Wuhan, had been looking into his finances since February, according to news reports. The investigation was focused on real estate and agribusiness deals, some involving a younger brother who worked at a large food company, the reports said.

A former secretary of Mr. Li’s had recently been detained, as had others close to him. Investigators had planned to arrest him at a meeting the morning of his suicide.

He left a note saying he was suffering from ill health, the police said. But Pan Zefu, a journalist for The Paper, a new online publication specializing in corruption, wrote that former officials in Xiaogan said the note also asked the Communist Party to forgive him and protect his family.

Given China’s widespread corruption, many officials may have similar concerns. Mr. Xi has said he will pursue his campaign against “tigers and flies,” or high- and low-level corrupt officials, “to the end.”

About 32 senior officials a week were investigated or punished across China in the first half of this year, Wang Xiaoling, the head of the anticorruption agency in the southern city of Guangzhou, said in August, according to a report in the Yangcheng Evening News. The total may be in the thousands, and the campaign shows no signs of slowing.

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.

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

About 30 officials have committed suicide since January, according to reports in the Chinese news media. 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 percent higher than the overall suicide rate in urban areas of China, which is 5.3 per 100,000, according to a paper by 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 criminal 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.

“Yes, they are scared of being prosecuted,” Mr. 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 O.K.’ ”

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.

“This is about mafia,” Mr. Liao said in a telephone interview from Berlin. “If you are arrested and confess, then everyone knows that you will reveal the names and deeds of the network around you. Your family may really be in trouble.”

Others say a suicide may give less protection to the family.

“You think that if you die it will solve the problem, but our data suggests it will bring many problems, much sorrow, to the family,” Mr. Yip said. “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.”

In Xiaogan, many suspect Mr. Li may have taken his life in order to protect other officials, though they were careful to say that quietly.

“Whatever happened, it definitely wasn’t innocent,” said Huang Di, 22, an art student who was strolling in the city’s People’s Square on a recent warm August evening.

On a nearby sidewalk, someone had written in large black characters: “The prosecutor’s office and city government are in cahoots. They’re not investigating the case of the chairman of the People’s Congress, Li Haihua. Made him fall from the city government headquarters. This must be investigated to the end.”

At Mr. Li’s childhood home in Xingguang, a hamlet about a half-hour from the city where water buffalo lounge in ponds, neighbors remembered him as a quiet man who brought progress.

Most villagers refused to speak about Mr. Li, but at Xingguang Elementary School, Mr. Zhang, who did not give his first name, said he had grown up with him, and that Mr. Li had tilled land, fed chickens and chopped wood from a young age. Mr. Zhang credited him with having improved the school.

“The walls used to be propped up with sticks,” he said. “He got it rebuilt in 2008. We asked him to sign his name on it,” an honor, “but he refused.”

A family villa built a few years ago stands in a walled compound, the only one of its kind in the village. A black iron gate was padlocked from the outside. A dog barked when the bell was rung. No one opened the door.

Likewise, no one answered the door at Mr. Li’s apartment in Xiaogan.

His wife and daughter could not be reached. The authorities often relocate relatives of someone at the center of a delicate political problem to prevent unauthorized information from getting out.

City residents were divided on his plight.

“I feel sorry for him,” said Pin Xin. “These officials definitely have problems. They are corrupt. But the corruption is something they inherit. And there are so many people behind them pushing them to do it, to gain something for themselves.”

Others were less sympathetic.

“Li Haihua deserved to die,” said Liu Dong, a man with a crew cut in his 30s. “He was corrupt.”

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