Updated at 01:40 P.M. EST on 2014-04-10
A top official at the ruling Chinese Communist Party's complaints department was found hanged this week, China's Caixin magazine reported on Thursday, amid suggestions that he may have been linked to a corruption probe.
Xu Ye'an was deputy head of the State Bureau for Letters and Visits, an agency that is routinely swamped with millions of complaints about official corruption and wrongdoing every year.
Xu, 58, was found dead in his office at the agency on Tuesday morning, the Caixin report said, citing sources within Xu's department.
It said the details of his death and the possible reasons for his apparent suicide remain unclear.
"According to our understanding, Xu's health had been poor lately and he was suffering from tinnitus in recent months," the report said, referring to a condition that causes ringing or buzzing in the ears.
"The exact reason isn't clear, but he was always in a bad mood."
Xu had served as deputy chief of the bureau since 2011, and some observers are linking his death to the ongoing investigation of his fellow deputy chief, Xu Jieyin, by the ruling Chinese Communist Party's central commission for discipline inspection for "serious violations of discipline," a charge often used to refer to corruption allegations.
A broken system
"The petitioning system has the function of the central leadership's [line of communication] to ordinary people," Yuan Yulai, a lawyer from the eastern province of Zhejiang, said in an interview on Thursday.
"It was a way for higher levels of government to get hold of a lot of accurate information," Yuan said.
"Actually, that channel [of communication] is now blocked, and no one can get through, and there is probably some corruption involved."
He said corruption in the petitions system might involve payments made by officials lower down the government structure to complaints officials higher up, who would then "cancel" a complaint after it was lodged.
Xu's death comes just days after the sudden deaths of two other prominent Communist Party officials: Li Wufeng, deputy director of China's government information department, and Zhou Yu, a senior police official in the megacity of Chongqing, who apparently committed suicide.
Zhou, a key figure in disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai's crackdown on organized crime, was found hanging in a hotel room, a police statement said.
Official reports said Zhou had been "depressed due to poor health." His body was cremated on Monday.
Taking the blame?
Beijing-based veteran journalist Gao Yu said the string of official deaths is likely linked to the huge psychological pressure of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive, which she likened to a political campaign rather than a government policy.
"There has been a spate of suicides by officials of deputy ministerial level and below, which gives us an idea of the huge psychological pressure caused by these campaign-style anti-corruption drives," Gao said.
"They aren't transparent, so all of their problems are solved by dying," she said. "It could be that corrupt officials are escaping the strong arm of the law through death."
Since taking power in November 2012, President Xi Jinping has vowed to take down high-ranking "tigers" and lower-level "flies" in his anti-corruption campaign.
However, political analysts say that officials with friends linked to the president's political allies are unlikely to be touched by the crackdown, and reports suggest many are liquidating their assets and moving overseas.
According to Gao, deputy ministers are often used as scapegoats for the misdeeds of their bosses.
"Rectitude is all about the party's image," Gao said. "There is the problem of the protective umbrella, and many deputies are used as fall guys to take the blame."
"This means that the more powerful an official, the less accountable they are. Lower down, officials carry more responsibility," she said.
"This is a phenomenon peculiar to a single-party dictatorship."
China scored poorly in an annual global corruption index published last year by Transparency International, which measures perceptions of corruption around the world.
Mainland China ranked 80th out of 177 countries, the group said on its website.
China has pledged to revamp its system for lodging complaints, ordering that legal and judicial cases should be settled by the courts, while the country's army of petitioners are being encouraged to make further use of the online system.
In July, a petitions website set up by Xu's bureau crashed on its first day of operation, amid widespread speculation that the sheer number of petitioners had overloaded the server.
Those who do pursue complaints against the government—often for forced evictions, loss of farmland, accidents, or death and mistreatment in custody—say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten, and harassed by the authorities if they try to petition a higher level of government.
Many petitioners are middle-aged or elderly people with little or no income who rent ramshackle accommodation in Beijing's "petitioner villages" and live in constant fear of being detained by officials from their hometown, who run representative offices in the capital for the sole purpose of reducing the number who complain about them.
Liu Feiyue, Hubei-based founder of the rights website Citizens' Rights and Livelihood Watch, said he believed the petitioning system itself could have contributed to Xu's death.
"People who work long-term in the petitions and complaints system have bad consciences, because they come across huge numbers of illegal actions, and many complaints officials are directly involved in sending petitioners home, locking them up, or beating them up," Liu said.
"They have even locked them up and left them to die, or beaten them to death, so their consciences are very troubled, so it could be that [Xu's] suicide had something to do with all that."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
CORRECTION: The updated version of this story points to a possible link between Xu's death and an investigation against his deputy.