The news is appearing over the wires around the world. The CBC reports on Zhang Shuhong, CEO of Lee Der Industrial, the factory responsible for making the millions of Mattel toys now subject to a recall because of lead in the paint:
The head of a Chinese toy manufacturing company whose products were the target of a massive recall in the U.S. because they contained lead-tainted paint has committed suicide.
Zhang Shuhong, who ran the Lee Der Industrial Co. Ltd., was found hanged in his warehouse Monday morning.
His death comes days after the Chinese government announced a temporary ban on exports by the company.
The business was facing bankruptcy, and Shuhong was under immense pressure. Still, I found this line curious:
It is common for disgraced officials to commit suicide in China.
OK, I thought this was a Japanese thing. But then with the state-controlled media, who knows if the phenomenon is under-reported. Still, I wanted to know where this statement came from. It wasn't backed up with any statistics (unlike in Japan, where suicide statistics are collected and published).
Reports making no statement with regards to Chinese suicide rates among businessmen or officials:
Reports making the statement that Chinese suicide among businessmen or officials is "common", or "not uncommon", without referring to a source:
So I remained puzzled. A handle of news source repeat the same statement: "It is common for disgraced Chinese officials to commit suicide" or "It is not uncommon for disgraced Chinese officials to commit suicide".
No one said suicide rates were rising, or quoted a number of suicides among officials. Just that it was "common".
So what learned authority is the source of this assertion? I think I found it. Consider these three paragraphs from the AP report, as used by CTV:
The head of a Chinese toy manufacturing company at the center of a huge U.S. recall has committed suicide, a state-run newspaper said Monday.
"The boss and the company were harmed by the paint supplier, the closest friend of our boss," a manager surnamed Liu was quoted as saying.
Liu said Zhang hung himself on Saturday, according to the report. It is common for disgraced officials to commit suicide in China.
There is that unconnected sentence again. Now I poked around Google and found this variation of the AHN report in the SERPs:
The report also said it is common for company officials to commit suicide if they are disgraced. The newspaper said that Shuhong was at the factory before ...
Now the article is no longer available. But it seems that it was the state-run Chinese newspaper that was the source of the statement about how common it was for "disgraced" businessmen to commit suicide.
At that my ears perk up. Just why would the propagandists in China want this notion widely disseminated? Well, it drives the responsibility for the trouble in Chinese exports onto the shoulders of dishonourable businessmen and entrepreneurs, who then conveniently shuffle off this mortal coil when the government closes in on them and their shady operations.
I still can't find a report that compares the rate of suicide among senior executives in China versus Japan. Or even a definition of what it means for suicide to be "common". (See addendum below. The numbers provided by the World Health Organization do not support the notion that suicide is particularly common.)
That suicides for disgrace were common would take the focus away from the role the government plays in all this. Only one report, The Standard out of Hong Kong, explicitly made mention of this:
Chinese officials attempted to recover some credibility by acting quickly to punish the companies involved.
A week after the recall, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said Lee Der's export license would be revoked.
A spokesman for the government watchdog said allegations of fake lead- free paint were being investigated, and that China and the United States should work closely together to guarantee the quality of consumer goods.
Some claim Zhang was merely the scapegoat for a wider problem of quality control that can be traced to unscrupulous raw material suppliers and corrupt government officials.
Workers said the source of the paint supplied for the toys should also be investigated.
Disgraced businessman taking responsibility for his mistakes, or a scapegoat who is now conveniently dead, in a manner so common as to not invite serious investigation by the government eager to remain unconnected to the question of Chinese export problems?
Addendum: Comparative suicide rates for males ages 45-54, per 100,000, as reported by the World Health Association:
Now this is aged-based and not data organized by job function (i.e., "disgraced businessman"), but in general in suggests that suicide in general is hardly common in China in the gender and the age group likely to be most affected by disgrace-prompted suicide. But I should also note that while all the other country provided consisted of national averages, Chinese suicide rates were broken down into broad groupings. The number above consists of urban rates, which you would expect to emphasize suicides among business people and government officials. And yet the number is much lower than elsewhere, including, in particular, lower than Japan and South Korea.
All this begs the question about why an offhand statement delivered by a Chinese government mouthpiece, with no supporting documentation, and that now I've shown is highly suspect, is being reported as fact by so many in the media.
Maybe despite the numbers, it is common for businessmen and officials to commit suicide. But everything suggests otherwise.