By Ananth Krishnan – India Today – (Read Original Story Here)
On a November morning, elite investigators of the Communist Party of China (CPC) arrived at the Beijing home of a People’s Liberation Army General. Zhang Yang — for years one of the top-ranking PLA generals who served on the Central Military Commission (CMC) under former leader Hu Jintao — had for several weeks been questioned by investigators for corruption, although he hadn’t been formally charged. But when the investigators showed up at his Beijing home in November, they found he had hanged himself.
What is perhaps most surprising about the suicide of General Zhang is that it was by no means rare. Between 2012 and 2017-the first term of Xi Jinping, who in October began his second five-year stint in office after emerging at the 19th Party Congress as China’s tallest leader in decades-158 Chinese officials have committed suicide, according to official figures. Insiders say the actual number may be far higher, considering the officially “natural” deaths of many officials who were being investigated or were under detention.
This is perhaps the biggest spate of suicides of top Communist Party officials in China since Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when tens of thousands took their own lives after humiliating ‘public struggle’ sessions by Red Guards.
Since 2009, at least 243 officials have killed themselves, according to a study conducted by the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). What is striking is that 85 of these were in the four years before Xi’s ascension in late 2012, or around 21 per year. In the four years since, during which a mass corruption campaign dominated Chinese politics and thousands of officials were purged, that number doubled. In this time, 158 suicides, or 39 a year, were recorded.
“It is stressful to be a CPC official these days, and there is definitely a trend of an increasing number of suicides,” notes Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong who has studied the party’s corruption crackdown. Wang adds that “many of those who kill themselves are under some form of investigation, and one reason, people speculate, is that if they take their own lives, the investigations stop”, and they can thus protect their associates, families and their assets.
The jump in suicides coincides with the sweeping corruption crackdown unleashed by Xi and supervised by his right-hand man, Wang Qishan, who headed the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) until October. Under Wang, Party Central has expanded the scope of investigations as well as the CPC’s unique practice of probing officials which is called “Shuanggui”, a reference to a designated time and location where officials are kept while being investigated through an extra-judicial process reserved only for party members.
While under investigation-which usually ends in conviction, as the CCDI rarely begins cases until and unless a dossier of usually impossible-to-overturn charges is readied – officials are not imprisoned but kept at home, as was the case of the PLA general, or in hotels or undisclosed locations used by the CCDI. In this time, they are in a black hole-for months, their families do not know where they are detained, until they are finally transferred to a prison and the legal process begins, although the party verdict has essentially already been reached.
Shuanggui, noted a December 2016 Human Rights Watch study on the opaque system, relies on “getting confessions by placing those accused under huge psychological stress”. “The indefinite isolation of Shuanggui-which itself can amount to torture-causes detainees’ minds to collapse after three to five days and answer everything you ask,” a CCDI officer was quoted as saying in the report.
The study quotes a former CPC official, Yang Zeyu,who was put under Shuanggui in December 2015. “The judge in charge of my case told me, in private, that right now we have to fight corruption, so we need to employ these illegal and extraordinary channels. Otherwise, we cannot catch the bad guys.”
According to one of the few official studies into suicides of party officials, more than 243 officials have killed themselves since 2009. According to the Institute of Psychology at CASS, the average number doubled in the period after 2013, to around 40 a year. The number peaked at 59 in 2014, coinciding with the height of the crackdown. The opacity of China’s system means the real number is possibly higher. The study found that of the 243, 140 killed themselves by jumping off buildings, either at their workplace or at home, and 44 hanged themselves. Twenty-six consumed poison, 12 drowned and six cut their wrists. Most were in the 45-55 age group, suggesting they were relatively experienced or senior. Not all were under investigation. Most were male. Only three were female-including a customs director accused of corruption, a director of a foreign affairs department in Anhui province, and an official in northeastern Shandong.
The PLA, which has emerged as one of the targets of Xi’s corruption crackdown, has also grappled with a string of suicides. Most notable was the hanging of General Zhang, who was the third senior officer to take his own life under a cloud of suspicion. Major General Chen Jie, a senior political commissar in the PLA’s southern command, died after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. His death followed a naval officer, Senior Captain Li Fuwen, jumping off the roof of a naval complex in Beijing.
Xi is now planning to overhaul the investigative apparatus, with the CCDI this year replaced by a more powerful National Supervisory Commission.
What this means for the Shuanggui system is unclear; some have suggested that moving the investigatory body out of the opaque CCDI to a national-level commission could bring some transparency. Wang Qishan-who retired in October from the Politburo but has been named as a delegate for the March annual parliament session suggesting he could still have a role in government-could retain some control over its functioning.
“Setting up the commission could be positive but I would be sceptical,” says Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch. “The CCDI is mostly transforming an unlawful abusive system to something that is codified in law but equally abusive. This does not mean more fairness or transparency but more top-down control.”
The Shuanggui system may be a key facilitator in Xi’s shock and awe corruption campaign that has struck fear in Chinese officialdom, but the fight against corruption will not leave a lasting impact until the opaque system is reformed, adds Wang. An independent judiciary that could check party power-and give those accused a fair trial-a free media and a transparent criminal justice system would, as Wang notes, in the long run be more powerful assets than Mao era-style purges.
But as Xi tightens his grip in his second term, odds are that the party might not share that view.