This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A top ruling Chinese Communist Party official who headed Beijing’s representative office in the former Portuguese enclave of Macau has died after a fall from his apartment block, the government said.
China’s cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said Zheng Xiaosong, the director of the central government’s liaison office in the gambling hub, died on Saturday night after “falling from the building at his residence in Macau because he was suffering from depression.”
“The central organization department and the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office dispatched comrades in charge of this matter to Macau on Oct. 21 to offer condolences to the family of comrade Zheng Xiaosong,” the office said in a statement on its website.
Zheng’s death came on the eve of a reported visit to neighboring Zhuhai by China’s president, Xi Jinping, to open the world’s longest sea-bridge connecting Zhuhai, Macau, and the former British colony of Hong Kong across the Pearl River estuary.
A source familiar with the workings of Chinese politics said Zheng hadn’t been in his post for very long, and was known to many as the former secretary of late former foreign minister and vice premier Qian Qichen, a key diplomat in the administration of Jiang Zemin.
But the source said Zheng’s death may be more closely linked to the recent detention of his predecessor at the Macau liaison office, Li Gang.
“Just before director Zheng’s [death], his predecessor … Li Gang was disciplined by the party, although I don’t think he was subjected to a criminal prosecution,” the source said.
“It seems today’s officials … are all suffering from depression.”
The number of reported untimely deaths of Chinese officials appears to have risen since Xi launched his anti-corruption campaign on taking power in 2012. Analysts say the campaign has been highly selective, focusing on rival factions within the ruling party.
In 2015, Beijing ordered a probe into deaths of its officials from “unnatural causes” following a rise in the number of reported suicides among them, calling on government departments and agencies to compile data on deaths, including place, circumstances, and apparent causes of death of Communist Party and government officials who have recently died of “unnatural causes.”
Reports must detail whether the person was confirmed to have committed suicide. If so, details of how, where, and why must be given, the order states. Details of any subsequent investigation must also be given, according to directives posted in the public domain at the time.
If suicides are listed, the reasons behind them must also be listed. Respondents must pick from a list of seven possible factors contributing to a reported suicide, including “stress,” “depression,” and “party discipline,” the directives said.
The order was issued by the Communist Party’s organization department, which is in charge of personnel and recruitment.
United Front work
Long Zhenyang, a former editor of a Hong Kong newspaper backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, who fled the city to seek asylum in the United States citing political persecution, said the director of Macau’s liaison office is expected to play an important role in the party’s “united front” work to boost Beijing’s overseas support and influence.
“The office … is responsible for carrying out united front work through various organizations that it doesn’t directly control,” Long told RFA. “That includes overseas political figures, including democratic representatives,” Long said.
“This is because Macau is a gambling center; it is a platform for international united front work, which is all done in Macau,” he said.
“But there are also a lot more opportunities for corruption there, for example with regard to elections for representatives to the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.”
“All of that has to be approved by the liaison office, so it is a kind of protective political umbrella. It also controls mainland Chinese-invested companies,” Long said.
He said official suicides are fairly common since Xi began his round of political purges in the guise of the anti-corruption campaign.
“Against such a background of political purges, nobody’s sudden death should be seen as remarkable,” Long said. “If you look at other departments and agencies; they have mostly now already been purged once, and now they are gradually being purged a second time.”
An employee who answered the phone at the Macau Central Liaison Office on Monday declined to comment on Zheng’s suicide.
“I don’t really know much about this; I only just got here,” the employee said. “We haven’t engaged with the media on this matter. Where did you get this phone number?”
“I don’t know anything about this; I am just an employee. How would I know anything about stuff that goes on between leaders?”
Calls to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and to the State Council press office, rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
Opening ceremony for bridge
According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper, Xi is expected to attend the opening ceremony of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge on Tuesday, but won’t be crossing over to the Hong Kong side, although marine police will patrol in Hong Kong waters during his visit.
Party newspaper The People’s Daily confirmed on Monday that Xi would make “an inspection visit” to Guangdong, including a visit to Zhuhai.
The SCMP cited official sources as saying that the opening date for the 55-kilometre (34-mile) bridge was announced at short notice because of security requirements for Xi.
Construction of the bridge began in 2009 and has been dogged by delays, budget overruns, corruption prosecutions, and the deaths of construction workers.
Guangdong resident Chen Fenming said local police had stepped up surveillance and detention of local People’s Liberation Army (PLA) veterans in the city ahead of Xi’s visit.
“Central government leaders are coming here because of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, so they have locked [my brother Chen Fengqiang] up just like that,” Chen told RFA. “This is totally arbitrary.”
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Lau Siu-fung for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng, Qiao Long, Jing Yuan, and Hwang Chun-mei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.