After the deluge

Two disasters, two suicides, many questions

shenzhen mudslide

The landslide hit 33 buildings

Selfish or selfless? An attempt at atonement or a final act of betrayal?

These are some of the questions Chinese netizens and media have been asking after two officials committed suicide following deadly industrial accidents at sites they were responsible for last month.

Ma Congbo, owner of a gypsum mine in Shandong’s Lingyi city, was assisting with rescue efforts on December 27 after a massive rockfall trapped 18 of his miners underground, killing the majority. The fifty-something then jumped into a well and drowned, China Daily reported.

Later the same day Xu Yuanan, 52, a former official in Shenzhen, jumped to his death (this time, from a building).

According to police and media reports Xu had, until recently, been responsible for Guangming New District where, on December 20, a hillside landfill site collapsed. This caused a torrent of earth and construction debris to flatten an industrial park below in a dramatic landslide. The death toll for the accident is likely to top 130.

The two accidents were a depressing end to 2015, a year that began with a stampede on the Shanghai Bund, killing 39 and also featured a ferry sinking on the Yangtze, which drowned 440 people. But perhaps the worst tragedy of the year was a chemical explosion in Tianjin which killed more than a 100 residents and destroyed the surrounding area’s buildings (see WiC292).

The decision of the two men to take their own lives is also an increasingly familiar one – according to media reports and academic research, the suicide rate among officials and senior executives has risen dramatically since Chinese President Xi Jinping launched his wide-ranging drive to clean up government three years ago.

Last January the problem was already considered so serious that the ruling Communist Party set up a department to investigate all the ‘unnatural deaths’ in official ranks.

Since then dozens more high-level businessmen and government employees have taken their own lives.

This week alone two more officials have jumped off buildings, though one of them appears to have been suffering from a long term illness. The suicide rates have spiked, academics say, because after years of lax oversight and temptation almost no one is truly ‘clean’.

Investigations into fatal accidents and corruption are also often brutal and long, meaning some simply choose to avoid going through the gruelling process even if they are not guilty of major wrongdoing.

Another upshot: cases are closed if the central figure dies. This means the official’s family and allies get to avoid the scandal of their relative being prosecuted and, in cases of bribery or financial corruption, they might get to keep some of the booty.

Ma and Xu could well have been looking at long-term prison sentences or even the death penalty depending on their culpability for the accidents.

In both cases the sites had been ordered to close over safety concerns and in both cases they continued to work, though for Xu both the closure order and the accident did come after he left office.

At the beginning of this month 11 other officials were arrested in connection with the landslide in Shenzhen and it was not clear if Xu was set to be included in that group.

Even so, many netizens expressed outrage that a figure with important information about the disaster was given the freedom to take his own life. “Why seven days after the accident was this man not in custody?” asked one. “His death means we are one step further away from the truth,” said another.

The official media were also critical, saying netizens who described Xu and Ma’s actions as noble were wrong.“Even if he had no direct responsibility for the incident he should have cooperated fully with the investigation to reveal everything and prevent this happening again in the future,” commented Beijing News on Xu’s suicide.

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