Rural women are responsible for the lion's share of the decline. Unlike in most countries, Chinese women have a higher suicide rate than Chinese men do and in rural areas women may be two to five times more likely to kill themselves than in cities.
What changed? In short, globalisation and labour market opportunities. The Economistpublished a graph showing how the dramatic decline in suicide coincided with more Chinese leaving rural areas to seek urban employment. They used data from Tsinghua University. I have updated the graph with more recent data below.
As more Chinese have left farms in the countryside to work in factory cities, the suicide rate has plummeted. This may be shocking to many people in rich countries. That is because many people who enjoy post-industrial prosperity worry about “sweatshop” conditions and exploitation in factories. They may also have an idealised opinion of rural peasant life, while a dark view of factory life popularised by Karl Marx is still surprisingly popular.
Marx thought that factory work was worse than farming because workers would be alienated from the product of their labour and exploited. Philosophy professor Nancy Holmstrom of Rutgers University shares his outlook. “The lives of subsistence peasants may be limited, but materially adequate and stable,” she claims. She believes that factory work has made workers worse off.
The fact that rural Chinese commit suicide at higher rates than urban Chinese would suggest otherwise. So would the fact of China’s dramatic decline in suicide as more and more rural Chinese choose to work in cities.