Do human interest stories (often rather dreadful ones for those involved) have a particular fascination for a Chinese audience?
Sometimes it has seemed like that recently, as tales of the experiences of unfortunate individuals take on wider public prominence.
One possibility is that China’s burgeoning internet culture plays a key role, opening up a vast new ecosystem in which news can be distributed, dissected and discussed.
Another question – and one that WiC has debated before – is whether the pace of social change in China is putting the spotlight on individual cases that somehow seem more relevant to a nervous, wider audience.
Whatever the reasons, two more widely-discussed stories are dominating internet debate this week. Neither are uplifting tales. The first involves the sudden death of a pretty 25 year-old auditor; the other, the dramatic escape and recapture of a ‘mental patient’, who claims to have been committed to an asylum by his former employer.
Pan Jie appeared to have everything going for her. She was young and had graduated from prestigious universities. Last October she secured a sought-after job at a big accounting firm. But within a year she had died of acute cerebral meningitis brought about by the flu.
It might have been just another tragic story without much wider significance if it weren’t for the record Pan kept on her weibo microblog. “Before dying, she had turned to the internet frequently to complain about feeling tired and about her poor health, conditions she believed resulted from overwork,” explains the China Daily.
According to reports, her employer denies the death was related to long working hours.
The media hasn’t shared that view. “Based on her symptoms and her low white blood cell count, it’s reasonable to conclude that overwork led to a weakened immune system, which makes her more vulnerable to infections,” neurosurgeon Wang Guisong told the Shanghai Daily. Pan’s friends said that she was working 120 hours a week.
Parallels were also being drawn with the suicides of blue-collar Foxconn factory workers last year.
“‘Death from overwork’ is not only threatening ordinary workers on production lines,” writes the state-run International Herald Leader, “but is also spreading to the ‘white collar’ class.”
Rising prices, competition for jobs and anxiety over an uncertain future were all cited as reasons why young people might agree to work overtime – even when already feeling ill.
Xu Wu’s tale is more Kafkaesque. On April 19 the 43 year-old made a daring escape from a Wuhan mental asylum. He then made his way 1,000 kilometres south to try to get his mental health record overturned by a local doctor (plus speak to a local newspaper, it seems).
But to no avail: eight days later Xu was recaptured and shipped back to Wuhan.
Xu’s case has also generated a wider level of public interest. In 2006 he sued his employer, a state-owned steel firm, for failing to pay him his proper salary. When he felt that he hadn’t received adequate compensation in Wuhan, Xu travelled to Beijing to petition his case. There he was detained and shoved into a mental health institution (reportedly run by the steelmaker).
The diagnosis was ‘paranoid psychosis’ but Xu alleges that this was a false assessment designed to keep him quiet.
In fact, both the Global Times and the China Daily have pointed out that similar cases have happened before, and an unusually indignant People’s Daily called for a mental health law, as well as greater transparency on the criteria by which mentally ill patients are committed.
The ironies of Xu’s story weren’t lost on prominent blogger Li Chengpeng either: “I’m curious why a steel plant would have its own public security bureau [police force] and mental hospital,” he wrote. And then a little more cryptically: “[Soviet premier Nikita] Khrushchev also said that anyone who doubted the Soviet Union’s bright future was mentally ill.”
Li used the tale to draw a more general conclusion: “I think China has made a lot of material progress in recent years, but no progress in [our] mental state. We are not happy, in fact, not happy from top to bottom.” His analysis may explain a couple of other statistics that WiC has carried in recent weeks. In Gallup’s Global Wellbeing survey, 71% of Chinese respondents described themselves as “struggling”, while a recent Bain survey found that half of rich Chinese (i.e. those with more than $10 million in wealth) had procured foreign passports or were considering it – a statistic that reveals an alarming lack of confidence in the homeland that has made them rich.
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