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China worker suicides: a lost generation?

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

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, 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.