BEIJING - Over the past three years, a growing number of high-ranking officials in China have committed suicide, according to data from the Legal Weekly journal. In just the last two months alone, three officials -- Qi Xiaolin, Deputy Secretary of Guangzhou’s Municipal Public Security Bureau, Zhang Wanxiong, Vice-President of Liangzhou Court of Justice in Gansu Province, and Ke Jianguo, director of the People's Procuratorate of the Anti-Corruption Bureau in Sichuan Province -- have taken their own lives.
As demonstrated by the Legal Weekly report, most of the officials who commit suicide are between 45 and 56 years old, work on legal and political affairs, and almost all the deaths were officially declared as being “caused by depression.”
The reaction from the public? Ridicule. "Were you not dead, your leader couldn’t possibly sleep well!" was one of the comments on the Internet.
That an official announcement becomes a public laughing stock is familiar these days in China -- another sign that the government’s credibility is facing a severe challenge. Indeed the Chinese government’s lack of credibility is itself self-inflicted. More specifically, the fundamental cause for ridicule around these suicides is that official disclosure of information is often simplified and clumsy. Fearing media and public reaction, they use bland excuses such as a “result of depression” as the cause of death. This is obviously not enough.
In any modern and civilized society, governmental officials belong are a group of people with relatively little privacy. The public are entitled to know of their promotions and downgradings, the ups and downs of their careers, and even their health, and needless to say their life and death also.
Officials responsible of political and legal affairs are at the hub of our social structure. They play prominent public roles. Their fates are not to be perfunctory and the truth of their deaths should be publicized. This is in line with the tradition of respecting the deceased. It is by investigating the causes of why these officials chose to end their lives that we will pay homage to their deaths.
The social pyramid
Even if an official truly committed suicide because of depression, the government should react by allowing and encouraging a complete investigation by the press. This is the most effective and simplest way of demonstrating the government’s credibility. One does not fall all of a sudden into a state of depression. The victim’s colleagues and families would have noticed it. Through press investigation we will discover whether the deceased had faced particular pressure and what sort of official environment he or she was working under. Such disclosure can help in finding out the cause of death and allow for public recognition.
Only the press can go beyond individual cases and clarify whether or not the suicide rate of political and legal affairs officials is indeed higher than the average in China. Were that the case, it is obviously abnormal. The government should respond with a targeted analysis of the phenomenon, and undertake a psychological intervention within this group of officials.
The public views officials who work on political and legal matters as belonging to the top of the social pyramid. That they can get depressed does not correspond to the public’s understanding of their social status and living conditions. This is why the government owes the public a more convincing answer.
Chinese authorities ought to stop shielding political and legal officials from public scrutiny. In China, those who work on public security matters have enjoyed the privilege of press immunity, which runs counter to the stated priority of the new Chinese leadership to combat corruption.
Not only should this group of officials not be protected from press exposure, they should be the primary focus of journalistic attention. The government should use this new wave of officials’ suicides to change its old ways.
Death should never be the source of someone's amusement, and the government’s credibility is the most important of public goods. Instead in China death is the butt of jokes and the credibility of its leaders is treated like a scrap of second-hand carpet.