Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Suicide, Taiwan, and the KMT

ESWN offered a rare criticism of the KMT yesterday with this post on a KMT ad that was juxtaposed with a story about a shopowner who had killed his daughter and son before turning his knife on himself. ESWN translated the ad and then the words of the blogger:

[translation: Governance: Blue is better than green. In 1990, there were 2,471 suicides when the KMT ruled; in 2006, there were 4,406 suicides when the DPP ruled (new historical high).]

Previously, the KMT has a series of such advertisements about governance. In the previous three days, they focused on economic growth rate, unemployement rate and rich-poor gap. This is what the 'blue' camp is good at. The 'blue' camp want to talk about the economy whereas the 'green' camp want to talk about referenda. It makes sense for the KMT to use these statistics as their weapons.

But today's theme shocked me. The KMT brought up the number of suicides! ... The conclusion suggested by the KMT as that since the number of suicides went up during DPP rule, 'blue' must be better than 'green.'

I don't mind about wranglying between political parties, with occasional dirty tricks. These political risks are the crosses the politicians must bear. But isn't it disrespectful to the dead to invoke their deaths as political weaopns? While a frequent issue in Taiwan is the economy, did all 4,406 persons commit suicide due to the ineptitude of the DPP? Many of them were probably lovesick, or troubled by chronic illness. Should the deaths of these people be blamed on the DPP?

It's funny -- and sad -- that the blogger who "leans blue" is shocked by the behavior of a political party that killed so many people in Taiwan. What do these people expect? That murderous record is the real reason for the harping on suicide.....as I noted once before:

Why the mention of suicide? The KMT has a problem: the first two leaders, Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, were out and out murderers. The Party killed tens of thousands in Taiwan, and millions on the mainland. This is a hard reputation to live down.

Nevertheless, it is trying. How? As Christian Schafferer points out in a recently given paper, during the anti-Chen campaign of last fall, the Hong Kong rag Yazhou Zhoukan ran a cover story that claimed that 16,000 had committed suicide over the years of the Chen Administration, and that this score exceeded the numbers rung up by the KMT during the White Terror years on Taiwan. The suicide claim is not an isolated claim designed to make Chen take the blame for Taiwan's complex economic problems. It is a deeper claim aimed at whitewashing the KMT for its crimes against humanity and stemming the tide of justice for just a little longer.

The advertisement also constructs reality in another way -- the date used is 1990, the peak of the Bubble economy, when Taiwan felt itself rich and invincible. It should be unnecessary to point out that statistics were routinely cooked in those days as well. The KMT also lies to its readers in another way: the economy is doing fine; it is stagnant incomes that is the problem.

I suspect, though can't prove, we're looking at another effect of globalization -- the slow introduction of the "casino economy" that is busily destroying the social fabric in the US with the development an economy in which a few people garner all the winnings at the expense of the working and middle classes. As Mark Ames convincingly demonstrates in his brilliant Going Postal, the destruction of traditional employee-company relations during the Reagan Administration led to a rise in mass slayings at places like post offices (one of the first victims of privatization) and later, factories and workplaces. In Taiwan, I suspect rising suicide rates reflect the same pressures that make Americans "go postal." As I often half-joke with my students, the difference between Americans and Taiwanese is that when Taiwanese are angry at others, they kill themselves....as the social fabric in Taiwan frays, more and more elderly are receiving less and less care. UPDATE: as a commenter notes below, as Taiwan's population ages, suicide rates rise, because the elderly are far more likely to kill themselves....

The CNA published another poll on suicide this morning, noting that:

A recent Department of Health report on suicide prevention suggested that suicide rates across Asia were on the rise.

While a ratio of 18.84 in every 100,000 people in Taiwan committed suicide last year, that figure was 25.2 in South Korea, 24.2 in Japan and 18.6 in Hong Kong, according to the report.

In addition to the economy, other factors are at work, including, surprisingly, perhaps climate. As this paper points out, suicide in Taiwan rose steadily after 1997, as this paper from 2006 points out:

Throughout the period of this study, from 1997 to 2003, the total number of suicide deaths in Taiwan was 18,083. Of the 18,083 suicide deaths, 67.6% were male and 74.7% were aged over 64 years. There were 2161 suicide deaths in 1997, 2173 in 1998, 2276 in 1999, 2463 in 2000, 2773 in 2001, 3049 in 2002, and 3188 in 2003, with their respective suicide rates of 12.8, 12.7, 13.1, 14.0, 15.6, 17.0, and 17.6 per 100,000 population. There was an upward trend in the suicide rates in Taiwan from 1997 to 2003. Across the entire study period, the monthly male suicide rates (per 100,000 of the population) ranged from a low of 1.12 in January 1999, to a high of 2.55 in May 2003, with a mean of 1.63 and a standard deviation of 0.31. The mean monthly female suicide rate was 0.81, while the respective mean rates for adults and elderly were 1.03 and 2.83.

Three-fourths of suicides are elderly. The paper finds significant associations between ambient temperature and suicide, after adjusting for seasonal fluctuations:

In our study, only a positive correlation between temperature and suicide rates was found in the ARIMA model after adjusting for trend and other seasonal factors. That is, temperature was the only climatic variable noted in the present study which had a primary influence on suicide and was not mere recurrence in line with the seasons. This finding is in accordance with previous studies conducted in European countries and Canada (Souetre et al., 1987, Preti, 1997 and Marion et al., 1999).

Maes et al. (1995) demonstrated that higher ambient temperatures predict low l-tryptophan availability among healthy volunteers. This could possibly aggravate suicidal impulses in vulnerable people. Since the influence of ambient temperature noted in this study was adjusted for trend and seasonal factors including month of the year, the deviations of monthly mean temperatures from the expected mean temperature for that time of year, rather than absolute ambient temperature, might be much more important for suicidal death as suggested by Marion et al. (1999).

Global warming leads to suicide? The authors point out it is not high temperatures per se, but deviations from expected monthly mean temps that trigger suicide. The last ten years have broken all sorts of heat records, and for many, especially the elderly whose weather expectations are formed over a lifetime, the heat must be quietly traumatic. In addition to the factories leaving for China (mid-1990s) and the Asian Econ Crisis of 1997, another bump in the suicide rates in the late 1990s was caused by the 9/21 quake. Another paper tracked the effect of the development of new methods of suicide on suicide rates in the late 1990s -- charcoal burning as suicide method was widely portrayed in the media as a painless mode of suicide. The result was a rise in suicides attributable to the introduction of new methods. Note how the trend is trans-national:

This study examined the method-specific trends of the affected populations after a new method of suicide was introduced. The data reveal that the increase in overall suicide rates of 23 and 39%, in Hong Kong and urban Taiwan respectively, after 1997 were largely attributable to the increase in charcoal burning and other gas poisoning suicides. The finding that urban Taiwan also had a substantial increase in suicides by charcoal burning and other gas poisoning confirms the view that that the problem is not limited to Hong Kong.24

On one point I agree with the pro-Blue blogger ESWN found -- suicide should not be a political football. Each mention of it in the media, whether a description of a case, or a charge by the KMT, has the potential to cause more suicide. I'll leave the reader with this absolutely terrifying paragraph on copycatting and the media from the paper on charcoal burning:

Durkheim rejected imitation as having any influence on suicide rates because he believed that imitative effects have limited geographical radiance28; his 19th century observations, however, may have little relevance for our "global community" of the 21st century. One ethnographic investigation in Hong Kong showed that people chose charcoal burning because they were prompted to use the method by newspaper reports21: the first charcoal burning suicide victim in Taiwan explicitly stated that he learned of the method from a Hong Kong newspaper website. Alarmingly, the method has recently spread to non-Chinese societies: during late 2004, there was a charcoal burning suicide pact involving seven teenagers in Japan. This sparked six more charcoal burning suicide pacts resulting in 22 deaths in two months.29 Hence, charcoal burning suicides should not be viewed solely as a Chinese or local health problem. We speculate that the reason Asian countries seem to be the first to be affected by charcoal burning suicides was because of the local media’s tendency to report regional news. Nonetheless, if cases of charcoal burning suicides start to take place in other regions and are widely publicised, or when one case receives wide international media attention, charcoal burning suicide may have a great impact on the suicide rates in non-Asian populations. We are concerned that the recent wave of international reports of Japanese suicide pacts using charcoal burning may already have publicised the method in other countries. There is no reason to expect that the features associated with suicide by charcoal burning—for example, easy accessibility, no body disfigurement and high lethality, should be perceived as attractive only by the Asian populations.


Anonymous said...

Any statistics available on the relative change in suicide rates is reflected in political party affiliation?

Perhaps its just more KMT members that are killing themselves?

Michael Turton said...

LOL. No. I think it is just frustration at the new economy that concentrates wealth in a few hands and screws the workers.

Michael Fahey said...

Another very important reason for high suicide rates in Taiwan and Japan (I suspect also S. Korea) is debt and effective unavailability of personal bankruptcy. Briefly, people over the last 10 years have racked up a lot of credit card debt. At the same time, when Taiwan joined the WTO, the US and other countries forced Taiwan to legalize collection agencies.

Many collection agencies are now the legal arms of loan sharking operations. Banks sell portfolios of consumer debt to collection agencies who then use all kind of extra-legal methods to collect. A good example is this horrific story.

There is no way to get out of this debt because Taiwan does not have a functioning bankruptcy system. Debt collectors will also go after family members. Under this kind of pressure, desperate people commit suicide. Blaming it on the DPP's alleged mismanagement of the economy is just another KMT smear tactic that once again shows how important it is to rid Taiwan of the KMT (not 'imagining some kind of political alternative beyond blue and green as some airy academics would have it) so that Taiwan can have normal politics.

Real Estate said...

You can scratch one of the list. One guy in my apartment complex bought a Chinese wife and she ended up coming here and cleaning his bank account out within a few weeks. He leaped top his death after her departure. Oddly enough it was at a KMT government apartment complex.

Anonymous said...


BillyPan had an extensive discussion on the suicide situation in Taiwan. He provided a lot of statistics in his blog, which is in Chinese.

He provided a chart for the suicide rate in Taiwan from 1992 till 2006. The rate has gone up since 1992. It is a complex issue. Aging of the population is one reason. The suicide rate goes up with age. For the age group > 80, the rate is about 45 per 100,000 people. For the group between 60 and 80, the rate is around 30 per 100,000. For the group with age between 25 and 35, it is 10 per 100,000.

Suicide rate by country:

Examples: Japan: 24 per 100,000 people per year
Finland 20.3
Hong Kong 18.6
US 11

Michael Turton said...

Anonymous and Feiren:

Many thanks for the great comments.