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Leaps of Despair as China Embraces the Free Market

The suicide rate is rising fast. Many residents are unprepared for change in a society that had been considered free of class divisions.

November 13, 2005|Evan Osnos | Chicago Tribune Staff Writer

BEIJING — From 10 stories below, only a leg was visible, dangling over the edge of the roof.

A woman had climbed on top of the office building before lunch, and by late afternoon she was seated but still threatening to jump. The people below numbered about 300 on the opposite sidewalk, all faces skyward.

There were men in business suits and kids in school uniforms, a construction worker, a doctor, hotel clerks and rock musicians, middle-aged men with small dogs, migrant workers, a bird owner, a man in a beret and a woman with a freshly bought kite.

"Maybe it's a family problem or trouble with her work unit or something personal," speculated hotel clerk Han Qinglan, 48, her arms folded, a single package of dried noodles resting in her bicycle basket. "Since she couldn't solve the problem herself, maybe she resorted to this."

There was something for everyone on the roof of 27 Nanwei Road that afternoon, each view offering a different refraction of a society that once called itself classless and now veers between the highs and lows of a headlong rush to the free market.

One man noted that he never saw this sort of thing during the time of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Another added that people wouldn't resort to suicide if the children of powerful leaders "shared some of their property and fortune."

It was the kind of macabre street drama that happens almost anywhere. And as people do in their neighborhoods, they offered unsolicited advice, seeing in it what they wanted and revealing as much about their own lives and trials as about the nameless jumper.

Two boys in matching school tracksuits and red neckerchiefs straddled their bikes. "If she had gliding equipment," the boy in the Boston Red Sox hat said to his friend, "she could probably make it all the way down unhurt."

If the crowd seemed unruffled, it could be because the scenario is increasingly common in China. Suicide has emerged as the leading cause of death for Chinese ages 15 to 34, as more young people slip through the fissures in a swiftly changing society and economy. The number of suicides has climbed far faster than China's only prevention hotline can handle.

"Our response rate is 10% to 15%. That means someone has to call eight or 10 times to get through, and I'm distressed about that," said Dr. Michael Philips, a Canadian researcher who moved to China in 1985 and now runs the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center. Philips wants to open nine more centers throughout the country.

The calls to the hotline convey the side effects of a national growth spurt: bankruptcy, extramarital affairs, competition at universities, healthcare costs, downsized state companies, desperation.

On this afternoon, word spread across the sidewalk that the woman above had a housing complaint of the kind that is common in a city overhauling itself. But nobody knew much. Some figured she was a penniless migrant worker. Others thought only a middle-class professional who had lost everything would be driven to such extremes.

Two firetrucks had been summoned, and firefighters set up a giant inflatable rubber pillow, with an orange square in the middle like a bull's-eye. At times, the woman could be seen gesticulating with two negotiators crouched on a nearby roof.

The windows of the white-tile building, which housed China's Center for Disease Control, offered a dollhouse view of the office plants, filing cabinets and fluorescent bulbs inside. Looking up, one woman wondered aloud whether the workers were getting anything done this afternoon.

For many years, suicide was a source of shame in China, obscured in medical statistics and whispered among relatives. But that is changing, and cases now routinely appear in newspapers and on television. Some people are more sympathetic than before.

"She is probably tired and hungry and has no other option," said a middle-aged man in a red sport coat who chose not to give his name. "How can you not be sympathetic? If you don't have a similar experience, you cannot understand what it's like.

"This is the second time I've seen one on this building," he said. "They'll probably have to knock it down."

Before pedaling off, Han, the hotel clerk, took a final look up.

"People like this just need further education," she said. "An intellectual would never do this."

To some, her choice to step out on the ledge was a selfish demand for attention and resources in a country that sanctifies self-reliance. Ma Chao, 20, a neighborhood security guard wearing a black suit and tie, said: "It disrupts the normal social order, and she should pay for the police and other services she has used. I don't think she'll jump. It's not worth it. I heard she has a post-doctorate degree."

A man in a denim shirt on a bicycle rode by, glanced up and mumbled, "She should go ahead and jump. China has enough people, and we won't miss her."

It was soon rush hour, and the street clattered with the sound of bus brakes, scooters and bicycle bells. At 5:35 p.m., a green mail truck honked its way through the crowd and came to a stop in front of the post office, directly across from the building's front door.

"Maybe someone already sent her some money," said the boy in the Red Sox hat.

Tucked among the sports scores and city reports the next morning, the Beijing News reported that "Ms. Jia Su Li, age 42, agreed to step down from the roof of the Center for Disease Control around 6:20 p.m. yesterday."

She was an employee at the White Chrysanthemum Flower Washing Machine Group, the paper said, and she was hoping to get $48,000 in additional compensation for a few rooms of a dormitory that will soon be demolished. She did not succeed.

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