Desperate Chinese are turning to mass suicide to get their government’s attention

by Robert Foyle Hunwick

BEIJING, China — The location was chosen for maximum impact: a downtown boulevard, famous for Beijing’s swankiest shops and its plushest hotels. Studded with these symbols of Western capitalist chic, Wangfujing Shopping Street could hardly be further from the more desperate concerns of rural China.

It was here that a group of about 30 men gathered on a warm spring morning and, in front of hundreds of shoppers, swallowed a quantity of pesticide. They fell to the ground en masse and, according to several eyewitnesses, foamed at the mouth.

As the men were rushed to hospital, startled crowds spread the news on social media, while the scene quickly returned to normal. Police issued a statement later that day that none had died; local reports explained they were taxi drivers from the northeast, who’d traveled to the capital to stage the protest. And there the official narrative ended.

But the fate of the men, and the extreme means of airing their grievance, reflects a tactic of last resort that’s far from uncommon. For some in China, suicide is the ultimate form of protest.

In Tibet, a cycle of clampdowns and radicalization, which began with a widespread uprising that embarrassed the government in 2008, has led to nearly 140 self-immolations in the last six years. These acts are prompted by fury at the repressive tactics of Chinese officials, according to Tibetan exile groups. The government says such acts are examples of “the Dalai Lama clique” exploiting vulnerable youths, blaming “forces abroad” that are “all aimed at separating Tibet from China.” Among the most recent was Yeshi Khando, a nun in her 40s, who set herself ablaze near a monastery in Sichuan province in early April. She is reported to have died. The fate of those who survive such protests is thought to be equally grim.

On the surface, Tibetan monks and disgruntled cabbies may not have much in common. Yet both groups were driven to abandon rational means, inflicting agonizing acts of self-harm to bring attention to their cause. The anthropologist Margery Wolf once observed of suicidal women in Mao’s era that, “In the West, we ask of suicide, ‘Why?’ In China, the question is more commonly ‘Who?’”

Tibetans-in-exile take part in a candlelight vigil following the self-immolation attempt by a monk to protest against Chinese rule in Tibet on Feb. 13, 2013.
Getty Images

Chinese suicide is often associated with an external antagonist — a tyrannical husband, a cruel boss — rather than personal issues (mental health, substance abuse). There is also a romantic tradition, from the doomed legend of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, to the honorable official and poet Qu Yuan, whose suicide by drowning is memorialized with each spring’s Dragon Boat Festival as a symbolic protest against the era’s corrupt rulers.

There’s always a narrow margin for overt sympathy in an authoritarian state — treat one group of taxi drivers sympathetically, and a hundred more might seek concessions of their own. Despite the outcry over a group of feminists detained for planning to distribute anti-harassment stickers on public buses, the gap between self-expression and dissent is growing ever closer in Xi Jinping’s China.

This doesn’t leave either side with much room to maneuver. Without an impartial judicial system, critics are backed into familiar corners, faced with the same obstacles: official indifference, inadequate legal protection, a lack of proper representation and the stifling of protest.

“When the pre-existing grievance mechanisms fail to work, some aggrieved laborers may take direct actions to protest against injustice,” said Dr. Jenny Chan, an expert on Chinese labor studies at the University of Oxford. “But suicide shouldn’t be used as a desperate means of resistance.”

The taxi drivers came from Suifenhe, a county-level city in Heilongjiang province near the Russian border. Four years ago, a new law stipulated that local drivers must be affiliated with a state-owned management company; those who left the business would be compensated (at least, according to law) but freelance drivers were prohibited. These operators typically charge large “management fees,” and with fuel costs, punitive contracts and punishing hours, many drivers struggle in a region that’s become well-known for its high unemployment.


There’s little they can do about it. While trade unions in China do exist, they are run mostly as window-dressing by Party-affiliated leaders. They might organize events or educate members on government policy, but unions don’t provide a forum for collective bargaining or for defending workers’ rights. In some cities, drivers have chosen to strike anyway. It’s one of the few options certain to command some respect from the authorities. But it’s a risky move. Local officials, judged on their record of stability, may not easily forget those who publicly embarrass them.

The alternative is the petitioning system, an age-old imperial idea that persists today. Centuries ago, the aggrieved would bring attention to acts of local injustice by taking direct action: blocking roads, kneeling in front of government offices or loudly gonging so that visiting mandarins might take notice. Failing that, they could take their case to the capital, filing their complaint with the “Letters and Petitions” bureau in Beijing.

Despite a dogged belief in the archaic system, it’s not very efficient. According to a 2004 survey of 10 million pleas registered annually by the China Petition Office, only one in every 500 were “resolved.”

While there have been several suicide bids this year in provincial cities — in Wuhan recent victims of a scam drank pesticide. And in Jinan, 10 protesters attempted to jump from a mall rooftop — those who have pursued complaints for months or years without result often choose Beijing to make their last stand, rather than their home provinces, which are further from public view. “Suicide is intensely personal,” Dr. Chan said. “And it is social.”

In August 2013, a group of 21, also from Heilongjiang,attempted mass suicide near the Beijing West rail station, after a railway company failed to provide their children with the public-service jobs they were promised. Four months later, 13 homeowners attempted the same over a failure to be compensated for demolitions. In two incidents in July last year, five petitioners drank poison in a police station, and five men and two women from Jiangsu, did the same outside the offices of the China Youth Daily newspaper. They were dissatisfied with the terms of their eviction. (Pesticides are the most common method of suicide in the country due to both their ubiquity and the unlikelihood of emergency treatment. For comparison: In the United States, more than 50 percent of suicides are by firearm.)

Sometimes, even members of the security apparatus charged with preventing these incidents can end up on the receiving end. Six former Heilongjiang police officers protested their unemployment by attempting suicide outside the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai in December. Theirs was a particularly sensitive location: locales around Tiananmen Square are heavily policed, and officers are equipped with fire extinguishers to deal with self-immolators. “I have chronic leukemia,” one of the group told Radio Free Asia. “There is no way out except to die fighting.”

Such despair is not limited to those who are persecuted directly — it can be found among those ostensibly living their own promise of the Chinese Dream, a recent political catchphrase conjuring national rejuvenation amid a lifestyle of “moderate prosperity,” that aspires to encapsulate the hopes of young Chinese. Pursuing this, many begin work in low-wage, low-status factory jobs in faraway cities, then find themselves unable to progress.

Participants dressed up to represent Foxconn workers take part in a protest against Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products in mainland China, outside an Apple retail outlet in Hong Kong on May 7, 2011.
Getty Images

Their plight was brought into worldwide focus after the 2010 “Foxconn suicides,” in which 18 employees attempted to kill themselves (14 successfully) in a single year. The tragedy exposed the fate of those who’d left the farm behind to “hurry toward your finest dreams, pursue a magnificent life,” as the Foxconn company’s handbook breathlessly puts it.

A detailed 2010 Asia-Pacific Journal survey by Dr. Chan and Dr. Pun Ngai about the Foxconn fatalities studied the militaristic working culture of the tech company’s vast Shenzhen production lines and concluded that, despite their educations, many migrants found the dramatic shortfall between expectations and reality simply overwhelming. “The vulnerable workers are subjected to unbearable stress and intolerable pain at times of crises,” said Dr. Chan, who compares the pressure to “a form of ‘murder.’”

As poorer from the countryside, factory workers are already outsiders, without urban-registration privileges, family or free time. But with the realization that their Chinese Dream would be impossible to realize, “Their only option was a very human one,” labor scholar Russell Leong told the survey: “To throw away or destroy their own bodies as a gesture of frustration – and of defiance.”

It is the potency of this “gesture” that unites these disenfranchised — be they monks, taxi drivers, farmers or factory workers — in their last act of empowerment. “For we who are called migrant workers,” wrote one dispirited Foxconn worker. “Our use of death is simply to testify that we were ever alive at all.”

This article is reposted from the GlobalPost with the agreement of Jenny Chan, who was interviewed for the article.

LA Advances Toward $15 Minimum Wage

by Bobbi Murray

raisewagecityhall4Fair wage advocates won a big victory Tuesday, when the Los Angeles City Council voted 14-1 to advance a measure that would gradually boost the base pay in the City of Los Angeles to $15 an hour by 2020. City Attorney Mike Feuer will now be asked to draft a minimum-wage ordinance that the council will vote upon to make the measure law.
The legislation begins by raising the current wage of $9 an hour to $10.50 in July of 2016—after that the hourly wage would go up each year by one dollar. The vote could lead to making Los Angeles the largest city in the nation to set a minimum wage standard above the federal level, one that will benefit some 600,000 employees in the city—some 40 percent of L.A.’s workforce. The decision also adds heft and momentum to efforts nationally to raise the minimum wage for the nation’s lowest-paid workers.
“That will be fantastic,” says Dan Flaming, president of Los Angeles’ Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit policy research group. “Our cost of living is 37 percent higher than the national average. We’re a low-wage city with a high cost of living.” The United States, with an hourly federal minimum of $7.25, ranks 11th out of the 27 countries in the developed world that set a minimum wage standard. The U.S. minimum wage makes for an hourly take-home pay of $6.25. Continue reading

Join The Fight for $15

$15DSAThousands of people across the country will be taking part in a huge strike for better pay and working conditions  on April 15.  From fast-food to home care, airport, construction, and Walmart workers to adjunct professors and other underpaid workers, folks from every corner of the country and the globe will be joining together across industries on Tax Day, April 15th, for the Fight for $15.

Will you stand with them this Wednesday? Find an action near you.

You and I know that it’s inevitable in the capitalist system for bosses to exploit workers. But it’s not just happening at the level of individual workplaces. Corporations must compete with each other or die, and that means avoiding expenses as much as possible. Low-wage workers struggle to make ends meet and, if they can navigate the deliberately complicated application process and the constant shaming that comes with public assistance, they get the support they need from taxpayers while their employers get off the hook for paying higher wages. That’s what I call corporate welfare.

All workers deserve a union to demand their fair share of the fruits of their labor, but in the meantime, let’s demonstrate that collective action can be society-wide, not just in one workplace. It’s good practice for building a movement for democratic socialism. Continue reading

Chicago’s Chuy Garcia Lost an Election, but won a movement



See the excellent piece by John Nichols on building a new movement from the Garcia race in Chicago at the Nation.

Raising Wages from the Bottom Up – part 2

By Harold Meyerson

$15DSAThree ways city and state governments can make the difference.

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine.

THE FIRST STRATEGY, PIONEERED by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and copied in multiple cities, is to condition city approval of new projects seeking tax abatements, public funds, or other municipal assistance on those projects meeting labor criteria that benefit the city’s residents: the payment of living wages, the hiring of women and minorities, the adherence to environmental standards—and the ability of workers in the project to join unions.

No one has done more to foster unionization through such policies than Madeline Janis, LAANE ’s founding director and now the head of Jobs to Move America, which seeks to bring the manufacture of rail cars and buses—an industry almost entirely offshored in recent decades—back to the United States and back to unionized American workers. In 2008, Los Angeles voters levied a tax increase on themselves to fund the construction of an ambitious rail system. When L.A.’s transit authority began looking for a rail-car manufacturer, however, virtually all were overseas. Even more problematically, the federal Department of Transportation conditioned its considerable financial support for such transit projects on conventional lowest-bidder criteria. Janis managed to persuade the department to add a “best value” criterion that gives points to bidders who hire veterans and workers from neighborhoods with high poverty rates. Able to choose a bidder by those criteria, the L.A. agency selected a Japanese manufacturer that pledged to build a factory in L.A. County and, with further prodding from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, not to oppose its workers’ efforts to unionize. Transit agencies in Chicago and Maryland have now adopted contract criteria similar to those in Los Angeles. Continue reading

Labor in the Fields of California

Immigrant Farm Workers Pull Leaves off Vines in a Coachella Valley Grape Vineyardby David Bacon
When hundreds of people marched to the Los Angeles City Council last October, urging it to pass a resolution supporting a farm worker union fight taking place in California’s San Joaquin Valley, hardly anyone had ever heard the name of the company involved. That may not be the case much longer. Gerawan Farming, one of the country’s largest growers, with 5,000 people picking its grapes and peaches, is challenging the California law that makes farm workers’ union rights enforceable. Lining up behind Gerawan are national anti-union think tanks. What began as a local struggle by one grower family to avoid a union contract is getting bigger, and the stakes are getting much higher.

The Gerawan workers got the City Council’s support and, on February 10, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education passed a resolution that went beyond just an encouraging statement. The LAUSD purchases Gerawan’s Prima label peaches and grapes through suppliers for 1,270 schools and 907,000 students. The LAUSD’s resolution, proposed by board member Steve Zimmer, requires the district to verify that Gerawan Farming is abiding by state labor laws, “and to immediately implement the agreement issued by the neutral mediator and the state of California.”

Verifying compliance, however, may not be easy.  In mid-March a hearing on Gerawan’s violations of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) ended after 104 days of testimony by 130 witnesses.  Continue reading

Raising Wages From the Bottom Up

Three ways city and state governments can make the difference.

Harold Meyerson

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. I

In 1999, while he was working at a local immigrant service center in Los Angeles, Victor Narro began encountering a particularly aggrieved group of workers. They were the men who worked at carwashes, and their complaint was that they were paid solely in tips—the carwashes themselves paid them nothing at all.

At first, the workers came by in a trickle, but soon enough, in a flood. Narro, whose soft voice and shy manner belie a keen strategic sensibility, consulted with legal services attorneys and discovered that while every now and then a carwash was penalized for cheating its workers, such instances were few and far between. “There were no regulations overseeing the industry,” Narro says. The state’s labor department conducted no sweeps of the carwashes to investigate what looked to be an industry-wide pattern of violations of basic wage and hour laws. When Narro took a new job at UCLA’s Labor Center, he had researchers survey L.A. carwashes. They reported that roughly one-fourth of the industry’s 10,000 workers were paid only in tips.

“She wouldn’t pay us on time, but she demanded the rent on time,” Sanchez says.

The workers who did get a paycheck weren’t raking it in, either. Wage theft was the norm in the industry, and the carwasheros (as the workers, almost entirely Mexican and Central American immigrants, have come to be called) had little recourse—especially since so many were undocumented. Oscar Sanchez, a tall, sober-faced carwashero who came to Los Angeles from Guatemala in 2000, recalls working a 10-hour day and routinely getting paid for five hours. Workers at his carwash, in South Central L.A., got no lunch breaks; the owner would “bring us burgers and we’d have to wash cars and eat at the same time.” The owner also had a mini-mart on the property, and rented the two rooms upstairs as living quarters for four of the workers—one of them Sanchez. “She wouldn’t pay us on time, but she demanded the rent on time,” Sanchez says. “When we fell behind, she said she couldn’t pay us because we owed her rent.” Continue reading


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,266 other followers