China’s killer crisis in the countryside

Photo: Jason Kuffer/CC BY-SA 2.0

A woman in China killed her four young children and herself. Suicide in China’s rural provinces is becoming more common and raises questions: did poverty push her to do it? Who is to blame? Why are those living in rural provinces ignored by modern society?


Yang Gailan, a 28-year-old woman living in a poverty-stricken village in Northwest China (Gansu Province) killed her four children at the end of August. She then committed suicide. Emergency treatment failed to save her, then her husband Li Keying took his own life.

Yang never went to school and married Li when she was 19. They had four children and the eldest one was only seven when he was killed. Yang was responsible for 12,000 square metres of land. Ideally, three men should have looked after land of that scale. Additionally, they were responsible for growing vegetables and rearing cattle. The children frequently skipped meals because of her responsibilities.

No-one was able to support her because Li was out working in the city, however she earned just ¥4,000 ($600) a year. Her elderly grandmother was bed-ridden and her father was able to do just simple tasks because of his mental difficulties. Daily farm work and taking care of her children took up her time. What worried Yang the most before her suicide was that she would not have time to take her 7-year-old daughter to school when she started this month.

Another pressure was that villagers had stripped her rights to take a basic living allowance from the government. When people need support subsidies in China never go direct to your account easily, but are a kind of resource that requires fighting for. A Gu Shan village, where Yang lived, adopted a method where receiving funding was based on a vote.

During the vote, Li’s income from the short-term jobs in the city was evaluated as $2,998 per year and then another family in the village “won” the allowance. The trust between Yang and her neighbours and the only hope of improving their lifestyle was consequently broken. According to the China Youth Daily, the family received more than $400 a year in government welfare payments. Two years ago, they found that her family’s income surpassed $350 per person per month, raising her above the poverty line. They cut her benefits. Who is to blame?

Harsh criticism and strong reactions from netizens

News of Yang’s murder-suicide went viral on Chinese social networks. Many commentators labelled Yang as a remarkably sympathetic figure, drawing widespread attention to the hardship, inequality and hopelessness that infuses the country’s vast, and economically redundant countryside. This story did not arouse the public’s attention until an article named “Ants in the flourishing age” spread fast across the Internet. The article criticised the indifference and unfairness in Chinese society and the vanity projects of the Chinese government.

Some thought Yang’s behaviour was excessive because they found it hard to believe that poverty could drive a person to murder. Others said they had seen poorer families that never hurt anyone. Some members of the press wrote that this extreme event cannot represent China’s entire society. Unfortunately, only a few people understood she was suffering and showed sympathy.

The article was deleted shortly after it was published and many reactions and comments around this tragedy disappeared. On the evening of September 15th, there was nothing under the search of the word “Yang Gailan” in Weibo except a sentence “According to regulations and policies, the result of ‘Yang Gailan’ is not allowed to show.”

According to statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the number of suicides in China makes up about 1/4 of the global total. And within this number the rate for women is higher than that for men, a difference from patterns seen in western world. Meanwhile, the same figures for China’s vast rural countryside are estimated as double that of the cities. It is obvious than Yang’s case was not as unusual and  extreme as many people believed.

Resources for Chinese people living in the countryside are always in short supply. They do not have organisations or channels  to represent them, or even draw people’s attention to what is happening. They are not a hot issue in the media and most people forget them after turning off the TV or turning away from the web. The government-controlled media is on the search for massive events: not something that is ignored or out of sight.

Due to imbalances and a lack of transparency across its provinces, China is a country ruled by people; not legislation  Most of the time, it is people rather than strict laws and regulations who are managing people and the system. Supervision in China means “many people are watching.” When people die in the invisible countryside the government is unable to offer basic services and infrastructure. Those affluent and educated members living in cities don’t really care. This is the vicious circle in modern-day China.