Death of a Chinese entrepreneur sparks controversy over discipline authorities’ methods

The death of a Chinese businessman who was under questioning by the discipline inspection commission has garnered widespread attention. The public is asking, why did the private entrepreneur kill himself? Did the questioning and authorities put too much pressure on him? Was his confession coerced? Lianhe Zaobao China Desk looks into the matter and how the incident will affect the private entrepreneur community.
Cheng Yong was the largest shareholder of Changzhou Huali Hydraulic Lubrication Equipment Co Ltd. (Internet)
Cheng Yong was the largest shareholder of Changzhou Huali Hydraulic Lubrication Equipment Co Ltd. (Internet)

The president of a private company in Jiangsu’s Changzhou city recently jumped to his death, leaving a suicide note denying any involvement in the bribery case of an official who had fallen from grace. He asserted that he was under enormous pressure while cooperating with the discipline inspection commission’s investigation.

The incident attracted widespread attention and even made it to Weibo’s list of top searches at one point, as netizens debated over government-business relations and the investigation methods.

Why did the private entrepreneur kill himself? How will this incident affect the private entrepreneur community?

The wee hours

The official WeChat account of Changzhou Huali Hydraulic Lubrication Equipment Co Ltd (Changzhou Huali) posted an article on the morning of 11 November stating that the company’s president Cheng Yong had jumped to his death in the wee hours that day.  

Cheng’s suicide note and WeChat Moments were reposted along with the article. In the note, Cheng had asserted that he was questioned by Changzhou’s discipline inspection commission in connection with the case of Yang Kangcheng, former deputy mayor of Tianning district, and was under enormous pressure. 

Cheng Yong's suicide note. (Internet)
Cheng Yong's suicide note. (Internet)

He wrote: “I swear that I did not take his 8 million RMB (US$1.1 million) in cash and bribes. When I was in there, I only wanted to quickly pay and leave. I didn’t expect to be trapped in the situation. The interrogation room was unbearable.  

“The 8 million RMB payment and the bribes that I admitted to do not exist. I made a hasty confession so as to quickly end the questioning. The evidence was purely guesswork and it was a coincidence that they matched! What a coincidence!

“Maybe I am psychologically weak. Every day feels like a year and there’s still more to come. I’m too tired and will take my leave first. Goodbye!

“To my relatives and friends, I’m sorry to have failed your expectations and I’m sorry that I cannot be with you anymore. To my employees, I’m sorry, and farewell!”

An employee and a management staff of Changzhou Huali confirmed to news outlet Caixin that Cheng had passed away. The management staff said that Cheng’s family had reached out to the police after seeing his post on WeChat, and Cheng’s body was found on the morning of 11 November on the ground floor of a building near his residence. Both the employee and management staff confirmed that Cheng was questioned by the commission from 8 to 11 November. He was not detained but would be there from morning until late at night.

Quoting Cheng’s family members, Yicai reported that Cheng had met with officials from Changzhou’s discipline inspection commission for three consecutive days and only slept one to two hours every day during that period. The day before his death, he was called in by the commission and did not return home until 11 pm that night. He even apologised to his wife, and was clearly under a lot of stress. 

The articles posted on the company’s official WeChat account and Yicai have since been removed.

Cheng Yong’s background

According to its official website, Changzhou Huali is a machinery manufacturing company founded in 1984. It specialises in the production and development of hydraulic lubrication equipment. Changzhou Huali’s hydraulic lubrication products account for 14.97% of China’s hydraulic lubrication market and have been ranked first in China for market share for more than ten consecutive years. Its overseas clients include renowned brands such as Germany’s Siemens and MAN Energy Solutions, as well as Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors and Kobe Steel. 

Apart from being an entrepreneur, Cheng was also a member of the Chinese Communist Party, a delegate to the National People’s Congress from Zhengluzhen, and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of Tianning district.

Changzhou Huali Hydraulic Lubrication Equipment Co Ltd (Official website of Changzhou Huali)
Changzhou Huali Hydraulic Lubrication Equipment Co Ltd, a machinery manufacturing company founded in 1984. (Official website of Changzhou Huali)

Information on Tianyancha (天眼查) showed that Cheng was born in 1979. He was the largest shareholder of Changzhou Huali, directly holding 29.76% of the company’s shares.

Tianning district’s Chamber of Commerce reported in April this year that after Cheng took over the management responsibility of Changzhou Huali from his father in 2009, he initiated a series of transformations and expanded into the international market. He earned the recognition of foreign manufacturers by making repeated visits, refining business proposals and providing production records.

Apart from being an entrepreneur, Cheng was also a member of the Chinese Communist Party, a delegate to the National People’s Congress from Zhengluzhen, and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of Tianning district. He also served as the vice-chair of Tianning’s Chamber of Commerce and on the executive committee of the Tianning Federation of Industry and Commerce.    

Also involved in the incident is Yang Kangcheng, the official who had fallen from grace.

Some netizens felt that cases of corruption between local officials and bosses of private companies are aplenty, and Cheng might have chosen suicide due to fears of further investigation, and that his suicide note was just a way for him to cover things up.

Yang Kangcheng (Internet)
Yang Kangcheng, former deputy mayor of Tianning district. (Internet)

Public information showed that Yang was born in 1971 and had worked for a long time in Changzhou’s Wujin and Tianning districts. From July 2015 to May 2021, he successively served as mayor and party secretary of Tianning district’s Zhengluzhen. From June to September 2021, Yang worked at the research office of the Tianning district committee and at the district’s development and reform commission. He became a member of the district’s party group and deputy mayor of Tianning district in September 2021.  

Changzhou’s discipline inspection commission and supervisory authorities issued a statement on 21 June stating that Yang was suspected of serious disciplinary violations and was currently under disciplinary review and investigation. On 31 August, the people’s government of Tianning district issued a notice removing Yang from his post.

Differing opinions on reason for suicide 

Netizens’ reactions were split on Cheng’s suicide by jumping off a building. 

Some netizens felt that cases of corruption between local officials and bosses of private companies are aplenty, and Cheng might have chosen suicide due to fears of further investigation, and that his suicide note was just a way for him to cover things up. Others felt that Cheng might have been pressured into “a coerced confession” when questioned by the discipline inspection commission. 

There are also netizens who believe that Cheng might have wanted to end the matter quickly, but unexpectedly landed himself in even more severe consequences, and thus chose suicide amid regret and fear.  

In an article by we-media financial platform Yijiancaijing, Beijing Handing United Law Firm lawyer Zhang Qingfang stated that one possibility could be that the Changzhou discipline inspection commission had conclusive evidence that Yang was indeed corrupt, or that there was a bribe of 8 million RMB, but it could not gather enough evidence from Yang’s home to account for all the dirty money. Thus, it exerted pressure on Cheng to admit that he had taken over and managed Yang's money. Zhang added that this was not an isolated case.  

After Cheng’s suicide, a reporter from Dawan News (大皖新闻) called several offices of the Changzhou discipline inspection commission, but the staff denied knowledge of the matter, while one claimed that it was inconvenient for them to comment. 

A shot of Cheng Yong (centre) during a trip to the US in 2015. (Official website of Changzhou Huali)
A shot of Cheng Yong (centre) during a trip to the US in 2015. (Official website of Changzhou Huali)

Changzhou city’s official WeChat account “Zhong 5” issued a statement on 12 November that stated that the Changzhou city government is highly concerned with the recent news circulating online regarding Cheng's death. It said that the discipline inspection commission and supervisory authorities are thoroughly investigating the case, and that the city government values facts and would act in accordance with the law. 

How did the discipline inspection commission engage with the parties involved?

After Cheng's death, the spotlight is on the manner in which the discipline inspection commission carried out its duties.

An article from the People’s Daily's official WeChat account, quoted a Shanxi province official who had undergone such an interview in 2016. He said “agreeing to such an interview is totally different from a regular interview. The provincial-level discipline inspection commission leader was very stern when speaking.” 

The official claimed, “I could not sleep well that night. I kept thinking that I was indeed not as ‘perfect’ as I thought I was.”  

People carrying children rest outside a children's hospital in Beijing, China, 27 November 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
People carrying children rest outside a children's hospital in Beijing, China, on 27 November 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

With regard to the “forced” or “induced” confession that netizens are most concerned about, a 2015 article on China’s discipline inspection and supervision (《中国纪检监察报》) clearly stated that while obtaining evidence via interview, the rights of the person being questioned must be respected, and patient and detailed communication must be carried out. As much as possible, the feelings of worry and resistance from the person questioned are to be allayed, while gaining their trust.

The article added that there must not be any form of coercion to gain a confession due to a desire for quick wins. Insulting statements, and even more importantly, beating, berating and any form of physical punishment on the person questioned are prohibited.

Discipline inspection commissions in certain areas have put in place specific measures to avoid a coerced or induced confession. According to a 2015 report in Beijing Youth Daily, a person-in-charge of a district discipline inspection team in Beijing told a reporter that they would install surveillance systems in the interview rooms and ensure that there are no blindspots. The team even set up a surveillance room dedicated to monitoring the conduct of discipline inspection operations, in order to supervise both the officials carrying out their duties as well as the party being questioned. 

... the Cheng incident has given rise to another worry: would the entrepreneurs themselves be implicated should the local official fall from grace? 

Confidence of private businesses should not be affected

The incident of the suicide of a Changzhou private enterprise boss is one that could have a negative impact on other entrepreneurs. 

In recent years, due to the changes in the political and economic environment, Chinese entrepreneurs have been generally suffering from low confidence, with many choosing to “lie flat” (躺平, tangping) or even “run” (润, which has the same pronunciation as the English word “run”, referring to an exodus from China to other countries).

Hence, the officials have repeatedly talked about the need to protect the development of private businesses, stressing that “confidence is even more valuable than gold”. In order to reassure the entrepreneurs, the Hainan province in March even proposed that “if we can refrain from arresting private entrepreneurs that are implicated, we will. If we can refrain from charging them, we will.”

People visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China, in Beijing, China, 2 May 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
People visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China, in Beijing, China, 2 May 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Building relations with local officials is unavoidable for an entrepreneur starting a business in China. In the past, private entrepreneurs were most afraid of officials who “sought private gains while shirking responsibilities”. Now, the Cheng incident has given rise to another worry: would the entrepreneurs themselves be implicated should the local official fall from grace? Even when one is entirely innocent, would one end up being a sacrificial lamb in the course of the discipline inspection commission carrying out its duties?

Hence, the officials need to provide a clear and convincing explanation to the Cheng incident — regardless of whether he died out of fear of being convicted of his crimes, if he was pressured to jump, or if there were other hidden matters. The incident needs to be clearly investigated and revealed. 

If the discipline inspection commission did indeed break the rules in the course of the questioning, the necessary punishment should be meted out. Only then would private entrepreneurs be more trusting of the officials and of the future.  

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “民企老板之死”.

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