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A New Trend in the War on Corruption

Between August and October this year, China witnessed the death by suicide of three junior government officials. Their deaths came as China intensified its campaign against corruption. Why did these officials kill themselves? Shao Daosheng, a researcher with the Sociology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Science gave this insight to the Shanghai-based Xinmin Weekly.

Reporter: As a researcher of many years standing into China's war on corruption, you will be well aware of the recent phenomenon of government officials taking their own lives while being investigated for corruption. Would you like to comment?

Shao: Yes. The three officials whose deaths have been attracting attention were all top-ranking local figures. They comprised a party chief together with the heads of a local tax bureau and a bank. They held the sorts of positions that have been linked with a high incidence of corruption. Since they killed themselves once they were made aware that they were under investigation, it is not possible to be sure at this time if they were corrupt or not and it would not be appropriate to brand them as corrupt.

However the small turnouts at their funerals might well be telling. Only their personal friends and relatives were there, not a single representative from their units came to pay their respects.

In my opinion the suicides of these top local officials must be seen in a different light to those of ordinary citizens. I am afraid that their deaths must be viewed against a background of serious corruption in society.

If the Party does not maintain its emphasis on tackling corruption, if society does not take stronger measures to protect itself against corrupt officials and if the war on corruption continues to net only the small fish, will we see more officials under investigation take their own lives?

Perhaps not. Scrutiny by the anti-corruption authorities may not necessarily strike fear into the hearts of wrongdoers. Any official who believes he or she would soon be off the hook thanks to a network of connections would be most unlikely to contemplate suicide.

It should also be pointed out that these particular officials who lost their lives were in fact extraordinarily able people. They had a wealth of experience coupled with flexibility and outstanding skills in finding their way through the bureaucratic maze.

Take the Party secretary for example. Local people are in agreement about his abilities. He spoke well and could do so for hours without the need to refer to notes. He had an excellent memory for facts and figures. Here was a man of ideas with a powerful intellect. He had a strong personality and exercised strict discipline among his staff. All in all he was regarded as the most capable Party Secretary ever in that particular locale.

What could drive such a talented individual to take his own life? Forced into a corner? Nowhere to go? One might speculate that he knew that this time there could be no escape no matter how hard he tried and that punishment was inevitable owing to the magnitude of his crime.

As for the death of the local tax bureau head in Henan Province, I just cannot accept the story that's going around that he killed himself because of gossip. Would you really believe that? What on earth then is the truth? It is waiting to be dug out by further investigation.

If we look at the phenomenon from a different perspective, it does show that China's war on corruption is having an impact. It is becoming more and more effective and it is achieving results.

Reporter: I do understand what you mean. Nobody today could deny the fact that the Chinese Communist Party is paying more and more attention to the war on corruption. After the 16th National Congress of the CPC, the Party stepped up its attack on corruption among senior officials.

Some senior officials came under the spotlight of investigation and faced with such pressure apparently took their own lives to avoid punishment.

Yet, many people must be wondering if the suicides of these officials might be better understood in terms of a desire to protect family, friends or professional associates. What do you think?

Shao: It certainly would be reasonable to take that point of view. Why? Well it would be in keeping with the cultural traditions of the Chinese people. In addition it tallies with what has been coming to light recently.

It is very much in the Chinese traditions to value the family most highly. Irrespective of the situation the family always comes first. Concern for family welfare can extend beyond the children to the grandchildren.

Corrupt officials may well be thrifty individuals with simple daily lives at odds with the thousands or even millions stashed away in the bank for their children and contingency plans already in place to kill themselves should their activities be exposed. The concept is that their deaths would atone for everything leaving the money safe as a final family legacy for the wives and children they leave behind. This particular motive cannot be arbitrarily discounted in any corruption investigation.

These days, corruption is becoming a more and more complicated affair. One feature that stands out today is organized corruption. There is a new tendency for corrupt officials to form themselves into an unholy alliance bound by life-and-death rules. Some take an oath similar to what might be expected in the dark world of the secret society. The vow is to absorb all the blame and not expose the others if discovered.

The individual accepts the punishment in the expectation that the others will take care of his family. But if he betrays his co-conspirators not only can he expect retribution to fall on his own shoulders but he will also know that he is putting his family at risk.

Therefore it is my view that these officials were not driven to take their own lives out of a sense of remorse for a life steeped in iniquity. Nor were they overcome by regret at letting down the Party, the people and society. On the contrary their supreme sacrifice was to enable their families to reap the benefits of the ill-gotten gains they had accumulated and to protect the interests of their co-conspirators. Their deaths can be seen as acts of defiance in the face of the war on corruption.

Reporter: So should something be done to prevent things like this happening again? Do you have any suggestions?

Shao: You're right something needs to be done.

The departments involved in tackling corruption must be constantly on the alert as they encounter new challenges. Let us consider how best to tackle the issues.

Firstly, investigations should be conducted discretely. Today's networks of contacts cast their webs wider than in the past and it is becoming a problem to avoid alerting those under investigation.

Secondly, investigations should proceed at a faster pace. When credible evidence is found any officials falling under suspicion should be placed under careful surveillance immediately.

Thirdly, once suspects have been taken into custody they should be closely supervised with counter-suicide measures in place.

Last but not least, the suicide of a suspect should not signal the end of the investigation. On the contrary this should continue until all the details are brought to light especially when the family is in possession of huge sums of suspect money. Once the investigations have discovered the truth of the case, corruptly obtained funds should be returned.

(China.org.cn translated by Zheng Guihong, November 17, 2003)

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