HOMELESS PEOPLE AND SUICIDES IN CHINA

HOMELESS IN BEIJING

Hundreds of homeless people can be found in Beijing south of Tiananmen Square in Qianmen, where mazelike neighborhoods are being bulldozed and grand shopping promenades erected. Jonathan Ansfield wrote in the New York Times, most of them are---migrants from the countryside, whose chances of escaping their predicament have dimmed with the faltering economy. Many of the migrants are elderly or disabled people who came here after their relatives left their villages in search of jobs along the coast. Others are petitioning for redress for a host of alleged wrongs, including the seizure of land for development. [Source: Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, March 3, 2009]

“The police and official city management squads conduct regular sweeps to chase the vagrants out. They crack down especially hard in periods like this week, when annual parliamentary sessions are getting under way at the Great Hall of the People...But after each raid, people creep back into pedestrian tunnels and covered walkways to sleep. [Ibid]

One of the homeless is Zhang Xianping, a 26-year-old man paralyzed from the waist down. “The young man said his brother and sister, who cared for him, had left their home in the mountainsof Guizhou for work in factories far away. Despondent, he traveled to Tiananmen Square, planning to catch a glimpse of it before he planned committed suicide. Then he met another homless man who coaxed him not to kill himself. Now he sells books and wind-up toys on the streets. [Ibid]

Help for Homeless in China

Jonathan Ansfield wrote in the New York Times. “The national government, in fact, has made provisions to help the homeless. In 2003, the government abolished a network of abuse-ridden camps where vagrants could be legally detained and replaced them with relief stations that provided short-term room and board and tickets home to those who requested them. [Source: Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, March 3, 2009]

“The authorities, however, were given leeway to force vagrants with no capacity or with limited capacity for civil conduct into the shelters. But many homeless people avoid the relief stations, saying they believe the main goal is to ship them home. [Ibid]

“In a survey of the stations in the capital completed in 2006, Li Yingsheng, a sociologist at Renmin University in Beijing, found that 20 percent of the migrants said they were there involuntarily.” Before the Olympics in 2008, many homeless in Beijing were taken to shelter 30 miles from the city. Some taken there said they were not released until several weeks after the Olympics were over. [Ibid]

Blogger Help for Homeless in China

Zhang Shihe. a 55-year-old blogger who works as a marketing expert and calls himself Laohu Miao, or Tiger Temple, has set up a website to help Beijing’s homeless. Jonathan Ansfield wrote in the New York Times, “Zhang began his campaign for the homeless in late 2007, after he peeked behind a wall screening a demolished block of homes and found 32 squatters. The group, mostly men, lived in knee-high sleeping compartments, assembled from the rubble, that they called the Stars Hotel. Zhang befriended them and began cranking out multimedia posts about the group, which he named the drifter tribe.

“When the authorities demolished the Stars Hotel last winter, Zhang drew from his modest $600-a-month salary to buy the vagrants quilts and coats. As this winter approached, he decided to try for a longer-term fix. He enlisted help from 10 Web-savvy volunteers and began soliciting donations on his blog...A few donors offered jobs; others sent clothing, bedding, furniture, even items for peddling. Cash donations have topped $4,000, enough to rent a row of rooms with stone floors in a building that resembles an army barracks.

But Zhang keeps his residents focused on the goal of sustainability. Instead of encouraging the hawkers to leave the streets, for instance, the volunteers are buying them carts so they can sell more goods. He has tried to tone down his criticisms of the treatment of the homeless in his blog to avoid further confrontations. The Communist Party really doesn’t like it when the things it’s not doing, other people are doing well, he said.

Brother Sharp, China’s Homeless Internet Phenomena

Cheng Guorong, a homeless man in the city of Ningbo in eastern Zhejiang province, became an Internet phenomena and for a while called the “coolest man in China”. Kent Ewing wrote in the Asian Times, “His rugged good looks, captured in photographs by Ningbo residents enthralled by the possibilities of his life story, prompted comparisons to film stars such as Takeshi Kaneshiro and Ken Watanabe. He was called the “Beggar Prince” and the “Handsome Vagabond”, but the name that eventually stuck and transformed him into a mythical cyber hero was “Brother Sharp”. [Source: Kent Ewing, Asia Times, May 8, 2010]

“Brother Sharp, who appears to be in his mid thirties, became widely admired for his penetrating gaze and the “beggar chic” style of layered clothing he wore - blue cotton pullover, black leather jacket and black overcoat, all of these rather soiled items apparently picked up off the streets of Ningbo. And, the ever-present cigarette in his mouth or between his fingers only further enhanced his image as a rebel without a cause.”

“China's most popular shopping portal, taobao.com, introduced a Brother Sharp fashion line, with a jacket inspired by the tramp's motley wardrobe priced at nearly 9,000 yuan (US$1,318). The mainstream media picked up his story, and speculation about his background became rife. Was he a university graduate who had given up on socialism with Chinese characteristics? Was he a jilted lover? Perhaps both? The stories multiplied.

“As it turns out, however, Cheng is nothing like the Brother Sharp depicted on blogs and in Internet chat rooms; he is a schizophrenic who had been separated from his family with no idea of how to get back home. After his wife died in a car accident 11 years ago, Cheng left his home in the city of Shangrao in Jiangxi province, which borders Zhejiang, to become a migrant worker. At some point, his family lost track of him. Now, thanks to his unwanted fame, they are reunited.

American Becomes a Hero in China for Giving French Fries to a Homeless Woman

In May 2012, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “An American student has shot to Internet fame in China after buying a packet of French fries for a homeless woman in Nanjing. Photos of her enjoying the food with the student---a Southern California native named Jason Loose, who is now endearingly known as “American French Fry Brother” by many Chinese Internet users---have been forwarded hundreds of thousands of times on Sina Weibo, China’s popular micro-blogging service. The images have set off a new round of soul-searching in China since they were posted. Many Chinese citizens believe that their country’s blind pursuit of wealth has created a moral vacuum, causing feelings of indifference toward the suffering of strangers. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2012]

“Loose, who has been studying at Nanjing University for nine months, was caught off-guard by his sudden popularity. “I just gave some food that isn’t really even healthy to an old woman and talked with her for a few minutes,” he said of the McDonald's fries when reached by phone today. “I don’t see much that’s newsworthy about that.” “There wasn’t much money in her collection bowl, and it was really hot out,” recalled Loose, whose hometown is Thousand Oaks. “I walked past her and thought that maybe she could use some food and some company.” The two talked about her poor health, her home in rural Anhui province, and the weather. She said she was thirsty, he recalls, so he poured her some spring water. He left after about 10 minutes “I asked what's her favorite food to eat?” he said. “Her answer was “not French fries.“

Loose did not find out until the following day that an onlooker had photographed the encounter and posted the images online. He opened his own Weibo account soon afterward. Although he has written only 17 posts, he already has over 9,000 followers. Comments on Weibo reflect admiration for Loose’s charity, and question why the Chinese aren’t often seen performing similar acts of kindness. “Truly wish this was a fellow countryman,” wrote one user. “Chinese people, let’s all learn from this,” wrote another. Yet some users accused Loose of putting on a show, and others questioned his taste in food. One user responded with a tongue-in-cheek nationalistic swagger. “American Imperialism won’t even spare our old ladies,” he wrote. [Ibid]

“In an online question-and-answer session with Loose organized by Sina Weibo, Internet users sought further details about the encounter. “Being a foreigner in China itself attracts attention, but you also sat with a beggar. At the time did a lot of people gather around you?” asked one user. “This is something I didn’t notice,” replied Loose. While Loose is slightly baffled by the attention, he hopes to use his new-found fame to highlight the altruism of many Chinese people he knows. “I have had a great experience over here, and this has been a part of that experience,” he said. [Ibid]

Suicides in China

According to an article in the China Daily about 287,000 people commit suicide each year in China, resulting in 3.6 percent of the country's annual deaths, the latest official statistics show. Seventy-five percent of suicide cases occurred in rural areas, three times number of suicides committed in cities, according to statistics posted on the website of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. [Source: China Daily September 8, 2011]

"China's suicide rate reflects a trend different from other countries," said an article posted on the website. The number of suicides is 25 percent higher for females than males in China, but in developed countries male suicide rates are three times higher than female suicide rates, said the article.

A survey jointly conducted by the Chinese CDC and the Beijing-based Huilongguan Hospital ranks suicide as the fifth leading cause of death overall and the leading cause of death for people aged 15 and 34 in China. About two million Chinese citizens attempt suicide each year, and the figure has increased by 60 percent in the past 50 years, according to the CDC.

About 26 percent of the world's suicides take place in China. Every year around 2.25 million people attempt suicide in China; around 287,000 succeed. This works out to a rate of 23 per 100,000, more than double the rate in the United States. The rate used to be higher. In the early 1990s China had the second highest suicide rate in the world behind Hungary. According to one study there were 343,000 suicides in China in 1990.

China is one of a few countries in which more women (58 percent of the total) commit suicide than men and in which rural residents die by their own hand in greater numbers than their urban counterparts. Suicide is now the leading cause of death for people between the ages 15 and 34. The rural suicide rate is three times higher than the urban rate. Poverty and access to pesticides are cited as reasons why.

Hanging and drinking poison or pesticides are the most common ways to commit suicide in the countryside. One AIDS victim who figured he would commit suicide before he wasted away told Reuters, “Given the choice between hanging myself or eating pesticides, I’d prefer to hang myself.”

A hotline for suicides was not set up in China until the early 2000s.

High Rate Suicides Among Females in China

China is the home of the 56 percent of the world's female suicides. The rate of suicides for females in China is 33.5 per 100,000 compared to 7.1 per 100,000 in the rest of the world. The rate is particularly high among rural women between the ages of 15 and 39. Women kill themselves at double the rate of men. In most countries the suicide rate is much higher men among than women.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for rural women in the country. Some end up as nameless and unclaimed bodies that are fished out the Yellow River and then thrown back in because nobody has claimed them.

About three times as many rural women kills themselves as urban women. Most rural women and 58 percent of all women who attempt suicide ingest liquid pesticide. Pesticides are favored because they are readily available, cheap and effective. Some pesticides are so strong that a couple of tablespoons can kill a person in two hours.

Xie Lihua, an editor of an education magazine for rural women, told the Independent that doctors in rural Hubei province "said suicide looked like a contagious disease there; people just took their lives very lightly. People talked about this family's daughter or that family's daughter-in-law drinking pesticide very naturally, as if not a serious matter."

Women Who Have Attempted Suicide in China

Xie described one 38-year-old woman who killed herself with a bottle of pesticide apparently from the trauma of taking care of an eight-person household by herself while her husband was having an affair. After she died her 16-year-old daughter became responsible for taking care of the family. After a year of thankless labor, scolding and criticism she "joined her mother." Before drinking a bottle of pesticide, she made cloth shoes for her brothers.

Another woman refused to marry her idle brother-in-law after her husband died as is the custom in many parts of rural China. The woman left her village and remarried but the marriage feel apart because they could not have any children. Depressed she returned to her mother-in-law's house and committed suicide the next day.

Some women attempt suicide on impulse. The Washington Post described a woman in a village in that got into an argument with her husband because she couldn’t sleep because he was watching television. She stomped out of the house and grabbed bottle of pesticide and began gulping it down.

“I just drank a little bit, but it burned my throat and my mouth,” she told the Washington Post. “I took it without thinking anything deep. I just felt wronged, and I acted rashly. I never thought of the two children, not a bit. I thought of nothing.” The woman’s mother-in-law heard the argument, found the woman and knocked the pesticide bottle from her hands. The woman ended up in the hospital, forcing her family to pay a medical bill that amounted to a third of their annual income.

Reasons for Female Suicides in China

Common reasons for the suicides include unfaithful husbands, disputes over money. Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Michael Phillips told the Independent that he believed that one third to one half of female suicides "are impulsive acts that do not have an underlying major depression." Philips also believes that seeing people on television living better lives than one's own may also be a factor in the suicides.

By some estimates 80 percent of the suicide deaths are the result of conflicts between husbands and wives. Many victims are trapped in abusive marriages or live with domineering in-laws or are upset over abortions. Girls and young women are often pushed around by their fathers, brothers and mothers in law. Many young girls are virtually sold in marriages. Wives are often little more than servants in their husband’s household.

Xie told the Independent, "Suicide is not a new problem, it has existed for a long time. In traditional Chinese culture, rural women do not value themselves and are not valued by others. They take their lives very lightly. If they meet some unsolvable problems, they solve it by taking their own lives."

One reason young rural women are especially prone to attempt suicide, a Chinese expert on such matters, told the Washington Post, is that young women “are unprepared for the great shock of the life, such as family conflict and a fast-changing social environment. Most women who commit suicide have a poor education..and are strongly influenced by traditional thoughts of the old China.” One study found that a high percentage of women who attempt suicide have an average of only five years of schooling and live in households with a median income of only $13 a month. Most said they were unhappily married and, 42 percent said they had money problems and 38 percent said their husbands beat them.

One British sociologist told Reuters women between 15 and 19 years "appear to be having the most difficulty adjusting to socio-economic change. These women are often suffer tremendously in caring for their family from a young age, and live a fairly lonely existence in a harsh matriarchal society.”

Drop in the Number of Suicides

The number of suicides has been dropping steadily for the past two decades and now stands at fewer than 195,000 a year, compared to 287,000 a year in the 1990s. [Source: Alice Yan,South China Morning Post, December 16, 2011]

Dr Michael Phillips, one of China's top psychiatrists, told the South China Morning Post the reasons behind the dramatic drop in mainland suicides are complex, involving multiple factors. "Nobody can predict whether the suicide rate goes up or down, and there are just many, many factors that work together to result in the suicide rate," he says. "What are the major ones? My guess is economic improvement ... there are a lot fewer people living in poverty right now."

There are still some differences between China and Western countries. Drinking pesticide remains the most common method of committing suicide on the mainland, and the suicide rate is now equal for men and women, with the rate in rural areas now double that in urban centres. In addition, most Western doctors would not believe, Phillips says, that one third of mainlanders who kill themselves and two thirds of those who attempt suicide, do not have a diagnosable mental illness. In the West, 90 per cent in both categories have active mental problems.

Suicide Prevention

Dr Michael Phillips is one of China's top psychiatrists and has played a key role in suicide prevention efforts that have helped save the lives of an estimated 2 million mainlanders. Phillips, better known on the mainland as Fei Lipeng ,is based in Shanghai, and executive director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Research and Training in Suicide Prevention at Beijing Huilongguan Hospital. He is also treasurer and China representative at the International Association for Suicide Prevention. [Source: Alice Yan,South China Morning Post, December 16, 2011]

In 2002, Phillips and two mainland colleagues published an article in the medical journal The Lancet that rocked the psychiatric world, at home and abroad. Based on mortality data for 1995-99 provided by the Ministry of Health, "Suicide rates in China, 1995-99" estimated that the mean annual suicide rate was 23 per 100,000, with 287,000 suicides a year, making the mainland's suicide rate one of the highest in the world.

The article said that the rate among women was 25 per cent higher than in men, mainly because of the large number of suicides among young women in rural areas. This was in sharp contrast to Western countries, where three times more men kill themselves, compared to women. The mainland's suicide rate in rural areas was three times higher than in urban centres, with most taking their lives by drinking pesticide.

"There are about 100,000 suicide deaths less every year compared with 20 years ago, and in total two million people have been saved. It's hard to determine my role in this, but I would say I definitely made a contribution," he says. "It's impossible to take part in such a huge project in other countries. That's the attraction of my job."

For 10 years, Phillips has been unsuccessfully trying to promote a national suicide prevention plan to the central government. It is designed to engage multiple institutions, including the education, health, public security and agriculture authorities, and to be implemented in several steps.

Phillips says one essential step is to carry out long-term "panel studies" to make teenagers "more psychologically resilient". They would be divided into small groups to interact and learn how to deal with stresses. Other steps include removing the stigma from patients with mental problems, providing a high-quality mental health service, assessing those who are saved from suicide attempts, improving social networks, tightening up on access to pesticides and establishing associations for the families of those who have killed themselves.

Phillips says putting the plan into practice would require money and high-level researchers, and it is difficult for him to get either on the mainland. He says he has never been granted funding from the central government and that all the funding he has received for his projects over the years has come from overseas. "The authorities say the suicide rate has been reduced a lot and this issue is not their priority," he says. Phillips also plans to keep an eye on the implementation of the China Mental Health Law once it is passed. The law has been stuck in the draft stage for 26 years, but is now being considered by the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

Image Sources: Bucklin archiveshttp://www.bucklinchinaarchive.com/ ; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: photo.huanqiu.com http://photo.huanqiu.com/creativity/unlimited/2010-11/1254288.html ; YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2012

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