Because of strict residency laws in China, the number of individuals classified as “migrant workers” numbers in the hundreds of millions. Denied the legal right to inhabit the cities in which they work, they are often left with no choice but to leave their parents and children behind in rural areas as they live on meager wages in makeshift habitations on the outskirts of major cities.
This set of circumstances has brought about a dual tragedy: neglected children, as evidenced in a group suicide of four “left-behind” children in rural Guangxi Province earlier this year, which shocked the Chinese public—and the desperation of the aged, who suffer from illness, hunger, loneliness and depression, as the children who would otherwise look after them toil in the cities.
Chinese demographer Liu Yanwu has studied suicides among the elderly, a phenomenon he says has “reached a terrifying point” in the last six years.
Bottles of Pesticide
Before he downed a bottle of pesticide, the 69-year-old Lin Muwen burned the traditional “afterlife money” for himself in a barbecue, fearing, as fellow villagers would later recount to a state-run youth publication, that his children could not be relied to carry out the custom for him. “This way he got some dignity,” a villager said.
Many villagers told Liu, the demographer, that “none of the elderly die of natural causes” in their community.
That was in 2008, when Liu and a research team conducted fieldwork in Jingshan County, Hubei Province, where, according to a “conservative estimate,” 30 percent of the seniors kill themselves. Liu’s work has been featured in many media in China, including the state-run China Youth Daily, which recently ran a feature about his findings.
Over a 400-day period, Liu, a lecturer at Wuhan University’s sociology department, investigated more than 40 villages across 11 provinces. The elderly have been committing suicde at a sharp rate of increase since 1990, he says.
According to Liu, suicide has become a normal way for senior citizens in impoverished rural areas to end their lives, especially for those suffering from illness.
While a research report by Hong Kong University indicates that China’s suicide rate has been cut in half since the start of the decade, Liu is not optimistic.
“China’s overall suicide rate is declining,” Liu told a China Youth Daily reporter, but he said that for the nation’s rural elderly, suicide is still on the increase as a “unique way of coping with the pain of an aging modern society.”
Grim Economic Realities
Liu’s findings stand in stark contrast with the Chinese regime’s stated focus on reviving the traditional teaching of filial piety, or respect for elders. In 2013 Chinese legislators passed a 9-point law that ordering children who visit their aged parents.
Since the 1990s, a program called “The Top Ten Most Virtuous Sons and Daughters” had provinces across China select their most filial offspring for a nationwide competition.
But it’s not just a dearth of tradition that is driving so many aged Chinese to a self-inflicted death. The ugly side of China’s rapid economic development looms large in a society where hundreds of millions of migrant workers leave the countryside to seek work in the factories of China’s growing cities.
In many cases, these workers make hardly enough to feed and clothe themselves, let alone provide for their younger and older family members they left behind. In addition, a draconian residential ordinance, the infamous “hukou” system, all but confines rural families to their ever-less productive land. Rural children brought to the cities are barred from entering public school; the elderly parents of migrant workers do not enjoy healthcare benefits.
According to villagers Liu spoke to, the decision to take one’s life comes down to cold, hard economic considerations—if a senior comes down with an ailment that can’t be treated on his own income, chances are he’ll choose his family’s prosperity over his own life.
Even village doctors tend to agree and see suicide as a normal reaction to serious illness.
The Right Time to Die
Those who make this desperate calculation typically wait for a calm period in the family to commit the deed—no dying right after an argument, and certainly not in the home. For couples commit suicide at the same time is considered particularly inauspicious.
Once, the research team interviewed an old woman who ended her life three days later. The team found that her family members were laughing and joking during the memorial service. An old person surnamed Cai cheerfully listed out the most reliable means for killing oneself: herbicide, rope, and water.
At the same time, few truly wish to end their lives.
According to Liu’s research, the majority of suicides by rural elderly are caused by the toil of everyday life or painful illness; emotional breakdown is the result, not the cause.
In one morbid case, a worker took a seven-day leave to visit his dying father. A few days later, the old man’s condition improved. Instead of celebration, however, the son was worried about the time needed for the burial and asked: “Aren’t you going to die? I can only spend seven days here.”
The father killed himself in time for his son to complete the burial and return to work within the week.
In some cases, the act is not really voluntary. In the winter of 2011, while travelling in the village of Yincheng, Hubei Province, Liu Yanwu came across a paralyzed old man. The man’s children, discussed when to stop serving their father food and water, hoping that he would die well ahead of the Chinese New Year so as to not leave a bad stench in the home during the holiday period.
Overhearing the conversation, the old man stubbornly “fought for his life.” Through incessant curses and complaints, he made it until the new lunar year to draw his final breath.