One of my frustrations living in China for three years was not being able to get accurate information.
Sometimes the cause was badly worded surveys, other times it was suspect research and, of course, government whitewash.
Recently, a news article, "Suicide among elderly increases" (Aug. 4), and an op-ed, "Cut suicide rate by aiding rural elderly" (Aug. 6), published by that country's leading English language newspaper, China Daily, caused me to scratch my head in wonder.
The earlier story is based on the research of sociologist Liu Yanwu from Wuhan University. According to the account, Liu has spent six years studying the issue of elderly suicide in China.
Liu found that the suicide rate among the rural elderly has increased from 100 per 100,000 to 500 per 100,000 in two decades.
That's an extraordinary and, frankly, unbelievable increase, which Liu attributed to "a poor quality of life." In his follow-up commentary, Liu wrote that 80 percent of the suicides committed in rural areas are among the elderly. He also opines that addressing the elderly peoples' problems are "a major task in the country's long-term battle to curb the rising suicide rate in the country."
Now here's the problem. While Liu offers convenient ad hoc explanations for his findings, including decline of filial piety, and the failure of the pension system to adequately compensate individuals, the methods by which he arrived at his conclusions are never mentioned. In fact, the only hint as to how he got his data are narratives of trips he took to various rural villages.
The Economist ran a June story about suicides in China headlined "Back from the edge -- A dramatic decline in suicides." The information in that story directly contradicts Liu's statement that the suicide rate in the country is rising.
While that magazine does not specifically identify the overall rate of elderly rural suicide in China, it does imply that the highest rate of suicide in the country as a whole is among rural men aged 70-74. But that rate is only 41.7 per 100,000, or about 12 times lower than Liu suggests for the elderly demographic as a whole.
Occasionally, the Western media fasten onto a "Chinese" story giving credence to bad science. When I was in Beijing in 2010, several highly publicized suicides at the world's largest electronics company, Foxconn, led Chinese reporters to suggest an epidemic was occurring.
Sources in the West, including The New York Times and Bloomberg, picked up on the story, and several years later CBS' Money Watch did a follow-up, castigating the company, which makes iPhones and iPads and also works for Microsoft, IBM, Samsung, Amazon, HP, Dell and Sony.
What was generally not reported anywhere in the rush to blame Foxconn and its supposed insensitivity to its workers, was that the company actually had a lower rate of suicide, percentage-wise, than the country as a whole, even during the reported epidemic.
Then again, sensationalizing suicides and fingering corporate malfeasance is not limited to China. Our needs to fit explanations to facts, even if they don't fit, explains why when I lived in France, French media exaggerated suicides at France Telecom.
The French telecommunications giant has more than 100,000 employees and there were widely disseminated reports in 2009 about suicides there. As in the Foxconn case, the suicides were not particularly out of line with national averages.
Earlier this year, the English newspaper the Guardian, building on the earlier phony hysteria in France, reported a "second wave of suicides" at Telecom, a supposed "fresh spate."
Reporting about suicide has a man-bites-dog appeal that makes it hard for editors to resist the allure of publishing sexy conclusions about suicide causes and potential preventions. Without good research support, however, media should approach suicide stories gingerly.
Patrick Mattimore taught high school psychology for many years in the Bay Area and was a web columnist for China Daily. He lives in Thailand.