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China worker suicides: a lost generation?

Amid hand-wringing and rising labor unrest, some blame generational change and the media.

Foxcoon workers
Workers look on from a Foxconn logo near the gate of a Foxconn factory in the township of Longhua, Guangdong province May 29, 2010. (Reuters)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — He had big dreams of success as a professional singer, loved Lady Gaga and Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou, and even took part in the company talent show.

But in reality, Lu Xin, 24, felt like just another cog in the massive Foxconn electronics production machine. He toiled on the lines with more than 300,000 others at a sprawling campus in the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen, working long hours with little glamor or diversion.

On May 6, Lu opened a window, walked out onto a sixth floor balcony, and threw himself to his death, according to China's state-run broadcaster CCTV.

"I came to this company for money," Lu wrote in his diary, according to CCTV. "[But then I realized], this is a waste of my life and my future. In the first step of my adult life, I took the wrong path. I'm lost."

Lu was one of 12 apparent suicide attempts — leaving 10 dead and two in the hospital — since January at Taiwan-based contract electronics giant Foxconn, a disturbing streak that has turned the world media's spotlight on this once obscure firm.

Now, some commentators are pointing to the gap between the soaring expectations of a new generation of Chinese youth and the harsh reality of the factories in which they toil as a factor in the deaths. Others are also wondering if the Chinese media itself helped inspire copycat suicides at the firm.

"The new generation is better educated, has higher dreams, more thoughts, and feels more suffering," according to a broadcast on the Foxconn deaths that ran on CCTV in May. The piece also highlighted a 24-year-old girl with aspirations of being a model who jumped to her death on May 11, just a few days after Xu.

"The previous generation only thought about how to improve the lives of their family; they were willing to 'eat bitterness' and restrained themselves," said the report. "The younger generation thinks about themselves more, so they can't endure as much as the old generation. Under the heavy workload, they become disappointed more easily, even losing all hope."

Experts say suicide is the tragic result of a complicated mix of factors, which can't be boiled down to any one, simplistic explanation. Many media accounts, for example, have focused only on allegedly harsh work conditions at Foxconn's factories.

Such conditions have long been highlighted by labor activists, as GlobalPost reported last year in the investigative series "Silicon Sweatshops."

But such work conditions are hardly new — they've been typical in China at least since the late 1980s, when Foxconn and other Taiwan and Hong Kong firms set up shop in the Pearl River Delta to crank out electronics parts for big Western brands. If anything, workers now have more support, with a suicide hot-line and care center at one of the Foxconn factories in question.

So why the sudden, apparently unprecedented string of deaths this year?