Magazine article The Spectator

The Hero of Nanjing

Magazine article The Spectator

The Hero of Nanjing

Article excerpt

China has 200,000 reported suicides a year. On a vast road bridge across the Yangtze river, one man is trying to stop them

The Nanjing Yangtze R iver B ridge is four lanes wide and four miles long, a monument to Maoist endeavour clogged with the traffic of China's economic boom. And every weekend, at one of its two towers, you can see Chen Si. He is 42 years old, with spiky black hair, a rasping cough from cheap Nanjing-brand cigarettes, and a baseball cap bearing the slogan 'THEY SPY ON YOU'. Around his neck is an oversized pair of binoculars, through which he watches the crowds unceasingly. In the past six years, according to his blog, he has saved 174 people from suicide.

Mr Chen used to be a functionary at a transport company. He read one day in a newspaper that Mao's famous bridge was now a suicide spot, and shortly afterwards began to go there whenever he wasn't working and pull down suicidal people as they attempted to climb the railings. He has become celebrated - a concerned citizen taking a stand in a country with 200,000 reported suicides a year, and few good ideas about how to stop them. In Guangzhou, 700 miles south of here, officials tried to stop people jumping to their deaths from a steel bridge by having the structure smeared with butter.

But as I looked at him standing sentry at the south tower, Mr Chen's project seemed almost as absurd. How could he possibly pick out the suicidal on a four-mile-long bridge?

And was he serious with those binoculars, especially with visibility reduced to 50 yards or so in the storm? I introduced myself, and he waved me off. 'Not now, ' he snapped. 'I'm working.' Then the binoculars shot up to his eyes.

Eventually, Mr Chen did talk to me.

He never told me what I really wanted to know - why was he out here? Why had he reduced his life to this one repeated act of standing guard? Perhaps because he didn't know himself. Instead he told me about his hair, which he has had to start dyeing after stress turned much of it grey, and his recurring nightmare, in which he runs to stop a suicide and always arrives a moment too late.

He can spot a suicide case, he has said, from the way they walk: 'From the crowd of people, I'll single out those who look depressed, those whose psychological pressure is great.

Their way of walking is passive with no spirit and no direction.'

Chen blames China's frightening suicide rate on the pace at which change has taken place. Families have fractured as young people travel far and wide in search of work, and the elderly are left alone. The single child policy means the responsibility of caring for ageing parents is not shared with siblings.

'When I was young, we had little to eat, but the suicide rate was low, ' said Chen. 'Now we all have meat but people cannot deal with the stress.' Suicide is now the leading cause of death for Chinese men between the ages of 15 and 34.

After our chat, Chen fired up his rackety moped and weaved between the walkers on the pavement to the north tower. On the pavement, he has spray-painted messages containing his mobile phone number;

from the railing, he has hung banners reading 'Value Life Every Day!'

In his absence, a man in green overalls appeared at the south tower, lurching and seemingly drunk, and began climbing the railing, 150 feet over the Yangtze. A bystander tackled him and dragged him to the ground. A crowd gathered, confusion built, and the man began to cry. And then someone - perhaps they checked one of the messages sprayed on to the pavement - called Mr Chen's mobile. …

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