China worker suicides: a lost generation?

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?

What has changed, some analysts say, is the workers themselves. Today's Chinese Foxconn employees are a "second wave" of migrant workers, much different than their predecessors who first moved from China's hinterlands to coastal areas for better jobs, say commentators.

In China they're part of the "post-80" and "post-90" generations, named for their birthdates. They're stereotyped as more ambitious, more self-centered, more impulsive, and more vulnerable to pressure than their elders. That's not always a good fit with a highly regimented, impersonal, jumbo-sized factory jobs like those at Foxconn.

Such youth are typecast as "little emperors": pampered, only children resulting from China's one-child policy, and born after the Cultural Revolution that defined their elders in a crucible of chaos. The Foxconn employees who fell from buildings were aged between 18 and 24, putting them right at the transition from the post-80 to post-90 generation.

The post-90 generation, raised on an exploding Internet culture, has come in for special attention — as well as scorn — for their embrace of Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean pop culture, including the Japanese "culture of cute," and for their supposed promiscuity.

They've been called the "brain-damaged tribe," after a type of garbled "brain-damaged" script some use on blogs, instant messages and chat room services like the popular QQ.

A 2008 survey of 800 students at Wuhan University found post-90 youths to be more "open-minded" than their elders but "less able to cope with frustration," according to a report in Xinhua.

Paul Yip, from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, put the change in workers themselves at the top of his list of factors behind the suicides, along with a stressful work environment, lack of government oversight, the mass media, and neglect of workers' mental well-being. "We have a new cohort and generation here," said Yip.

"The so-called post-80s or post-90s babies, when they grew up in the countryside and studied in school, they were given a lot of flexibility and freedom," said Yip. "But when they go to Foxconn, their whole lifestyle, everything changes. This causes a lot of stress."

"Twenty or 30 years ago, the environment was much worse, but those people were tough, willing to work for it and to earn the money," Yip said. "But these young people, they are not that tough. They don't want to come to the city to face hardship, they want a new life. But their new life turns out to be working 12 to 14 hours per day. They are not prepared for this situation."

An open letter from nine Hong Kong and mainland sociologists made similar points. "Many second generation migrant workers, unlike their parents’ generation, have no thought of returning home to become peasants again. In this respect, they have started out on a road to the city from which they won’t return."

"When there is no possibility of finding work by which they can settle in the city, the meaning comes crashing down: the road ahead is blocked, the road back is already closed. The second generation of
migrant workers are trapped."

Yip says the Chinese media may have also fueled a contagion effect of copycat suicides.

He said the media, particularly in more freewheeling southern China, has in recent years been pushing the limits on government censorship in reporting suicides and other news that was once off-limits.

"I think the mass media itself is one of the problems that may have triggered it [the spate of suicides]," said Yip, while emphasizing that the work environment was also critical. He said it's unclear how big a role media played since most Foxconn workers likely got news online or from coworkers.

At Foxconn's annual shareholders meeting on June 8, according to the website Huanqiu.com, celebrity CEO Terry Gou himself mentioned the media's possible role in a contagion effect, also called the "Werther effect" after a reputed spike in copycat suicides after the 1774 publication of Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther," a romantic classic in which the protagonist kills himself.

Some commentators have dismissed that theory as an attempt by Foxconn to dodge its responsibilities.

But the "suicide cluster" phenomenon and the triggering role of the media is well-documented. A World Health Organization guide on reporting suicides for the media cites some 50 studies since the 1970s establishing a link between media coverage of suicides, especially a celebrity suicide, and copycats that follow.

One of the experts invited by Foxconn to inspect their campus in April and give advice was Yeh Ya-hsing, chief of the mental health division at Taiwan's John Tung Foundation. She said working conditions need to be improved at the factory, but added that generational change also played a part.

"It's very complicated. I don't think it was just work pressure," she said of the spate of suicides. (Yeh said Foxconn covered the expenses for her trip.)

She likened China's post-80 and post-90 kids to Taiwan's "strawberry tribe," youth born in the 1980s or later who are so named because they're seen as softer and less resistant to pressure than their elders.

She said the new generation is much more creative than their elders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, but that Taiwanese kids have the advantage of living in a freer society with more opportunity. "The gap between what they dream of doing and what they actually can do is smaller in Taiwan," said Yeh.

She said she doesn't know to what extent Foxconn workers were exposed to media reports on the suicides. But Foxconn workers she talked to said they spent up to four of their off-hours a day online, and that the company gave free internet time to workers who excelled. The Foxconn suicides did appear to be a classic case of "contagion," Yeh said, and media can help minimize the problem.

Yeh and other experts are careful not to scapegoat the media for such suicides. But they have long urged journalists and editors to be cautious because graphic reporting, such as splashy front page
coverage and photos, can be a trigger that pushes already suicidal readers or viewers over the edge. Such reporting can provide a ready-made model, a step-by-step plan to follow, and a method to the troubled and vulnerable, they say.

Hong Kong and Taiwan, with their sensational, often gory tabloid coverage, offer plenty of examples. Charcoal-burning shot up in the region as a suicide method after Hong Kong cases received sensational media coverage in the late 1990s. A specific island in Hong Kong became a preferred "suicide destination" after lurid media reports. And a Hong Kong movie star and famous Taiwan entertainer inspired a rash of copycat suicides after killing themselves in 2003 and 2005.

But Yuen-Ying Chan, director of the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, rejected the notion that the media played any significant role in the Foxconn suicide streak. She said working conditions at the factory were the "crux of the issue," as well as generational change and the "rising expectations" of new workers, and other factors. "It's a complicated issue, I don't think there's any one reason," she said.

If there was a media role, it was "minimal," she said, given the Chinese government's media controls. "Today, people communicate via text messages with the one or two cell phones they own," Chan wrote in an email. "Anger, frustrations and despair could be easily communicated at warp speed. If there's any contagion effect, personal communication, instead of mass media, would have played a bigger role."

The Chinese government took action to curb media reports on May 27, according to the South China Morning Post, whether out of concern for copycat suicides or simply following its typically heavy-handed approach to information control.

That evening, provincial and central government propaganda officials banned media outlets from doing any more reporting on the Foxconn suicides, instructing them to use only the state-run Xinhua wire service's reports, the Post said. The John Tung Foundation's Yeh said she believes the government gave the orders in order to try to prevent further suicides.

And the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Yip suggested this may be one area in which China's busybody censors might actually have had the right approach.

"That might be the best way to do it — out of sight, out of mind," said Yip. "In Hong Kong, we have to argue with news reporters about what they should put in their reports [on suicides]. They say 'you're violating my freedom of expression.' I say 'no, we're protecting a wonderful group of people.'"

A Foxconn spokesman in Taiwan did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.