Top Beijing Official's Suicide Highlights a Bureaucracy Under Pressure: Analysts

Wang Xiaoming reportedly suffered from depression, but the huge psychological pressure linked to public office in China may have played a part.

Chinese pedestrians walk past a propaganda billboard showing Chinese President Xi Jinping along a street in Beijing, March 2, 2018.

A top ruling Chinese Communist Party official in the Beijing city government has committed suicide, leading state media to conclude that he had suffered from long-term depression.

Wang Xiaoming, deputy secretary-general of the Beijing municipal government, was found dead on Monday after attending a work conference. He was 58.

State media said police had ruled out any criminal activity, although an investigation into Wang's death is under way.

Hospital diagnostic records show that Wang, who previously served as director of the Beijing municipal tax bureau, had long suffered from depression, media reports indicated.

Wang's is the latest in a series of deaths of high-ranking Chinese officials.

Last month, Feng Zhonghong, deputy mayor of Daqing city in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, died of unknown causes.

In January, former deputy head of the municipal People's Congress standing committee, Mei Zhenxue, died just four days after taking office, while Xie Yaoqi, deputy mayor of Heyuan city in the southern province of Guangdong, died at his home last December.

Beijing-based political commentator Zha Jianguo said pressures are intensifying on officials across China, who are struggling to find alternate sources of income to supplement their meager official salaries.

"Official salaries aren't very high in China right now," Zha told RFA. "In the past, they have always relied on their official power [for additional income] because there wasn't much oversight of officials, and a lot of them were able make money on their own account."

"Now, things are regulated much more strictly under [President] Xi's new regime for a strictly controlled party," he said. "It's much, much stricter than before."

"There is also the matter of surveillance of public opinion and online expression, which is also much stricter than it used to be," Zha said.

‘A hazardous job’

Shen Liangqing, a former state prosecutor turned rights activist in the eastern province of Anhui, said the pressures on officials gets worse the higher up the government ladder one climbs.

"A former classmate of mine who became an official committed suicide because of depression," Shen said. "I think that psychological pressure played a part in that."

"Chinese officials are actually in a hazardous job ... and it's not easy to keep on climbing the ladder, unless you already have [powerful] backing," he said.

"Most of them pay a heavy price, trying to stay out of trouble and desperate not to put a foot wrong," he said. "They also have to curry favor."

Shen said mental health issues are also widespread throughout the population, not just among officials.

"I remember back when I was carrying out party disciplinary investigations, there was a deputy head of the Zhejiang People's High Court who committed suicide, apparently due to depression," he said. "But it turned out that when he was committing suicide, [his boss] was already being investigated by the party disciplinary system."

"The party disciplinary investigation system is very harsh ... and officials are terrified of it, because they know very well that there is no rule of law in China."

China's parliament in March passed a law ushering in a new era of "national supervision" to replace an internal party disciplinary regime, sparking concerns of further human rights abuses.

Under watchful eyes

Nationwide supervisory commissions now monitor the conduct of staff throughout the Communist Party, People's Congresses, government departments, judicial agencies, state-owned enterprises, and government-backed institutions, including state schools and higher education.

The new system massively expands the number of people under the watchful eye of investigators charged with seeking out corruption and abuse of official power, merging the functions of the Communist Party's internal Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, administrative supervisory agencies, and some functions of state prosecution services.

The commissions have the power to question witnesses, interrogate suspects, search properties, freeze bank accounts, and seize suspicious assets, and may detain suspects for up to six months "at a designated location" with the approval of higher-ranking commissions, and prevent people from leaving China.

Rights groups warn that such arrangements allow for arbitrary and prolonged incommunicado detention without any meaningful oversight and increases the risks of torture and forced ‘confessions.’

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wang Yiwei for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.