China: The World's Most Stressful Society

People who knew Tang Yongming say they never imagined he could do such a horrible, senseless thing. A few minutes after noon on Aug. 9, just 12 hours after the start of the 2008 Olympics, Tang, 47, savagely knifed a visiting American couple inside Beijing's 13th-century Drum Tower. Then he jumped 130 feet to his death from the ancient landmark's western balcony. Minneapolis businessman Todd Bachman—father-in-law of U.S. men's indoor-volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon—died of stab wounds. Bachman's wife, Barbara, survived, despite life-threatening injuries. Their guide, a young Chinese woman, was also hurt, although less seriously. Tang remains an enigma. "There was nothing abnormal about him, absolutely nothing," says Wang Yongxian, a prim, businesslike community worker who tried to help Tang find a new job five years ago, after his previous employer let him go. Wang's colleague Xu Guofang agrees: "He wasn't just 'relatively' ordinary. He was simply ordinary. Period."

Back in August, Tang's ordinariness was cause for relief: authorities quickly figured out that he wasn't a terrorist, and the Games went on. But the truth is perhaps more disturbing. The troubles that destroyed Tang—the loss of his job, the collapse of his marriage, heartbreak over his wastrel only child—are all too common across China. The country is the world's most stressful: three decades of reforms have shredded China's safety net and transformed society beyond recognition. That's why, as Chinese leaders prepare to mark the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's capitalist reforms next month, they're also frantically pumping more than half a trillion dollars into their economy in hopes of staving off a downturn.

They have reason to worry. Economists say China's GDP has to grow between 7.5 and 8 percent a year just to keep up with the need for new jobs. Labor unrest has already broken out across the country: half of China's toymakers have gone bankrupt this year, throwing millions of factory workers into the streets, while cabbies angered by gas prices rioted and burned police vehicles in Chongqing a few weeks ago. Tang shared their sense of frustration. Many who knew him are reluctant to talk about him publicly, fearing trouble with the authorities, and most requested anonymity before agreeing to be interviewed. But his story reveals tensions that seethe just below the surface in China.

Tang was born in a village outside Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, in 1961. Times were hard, the government domineering, but many poor and disadvantaged Chinese still yearn for those days of the "iron rice bowl"—Mao Zedong's guarantee of a job, a home and basic social services for all. Reforms since then have brought unprecedented prosperity, but also cutthroat competition. China's suicide rate—at least 23 people out of every 100,000 kill themselves per year—is more than double the U.S. figure. The Shanghai Mental Health Center recently reported that the incidence of depression in that city has quadrupled in the past decade. Older Chinese like Tang are especially hard hit. In Mao's day, at least they had some pride even when penniless; now money is everything. "Some are outraged," says psychologist Wei Zhizhong, who runs a consulting center in Guangzhou. "They think they made contributions to the country and should get better treatment."

In the early '80s, though, Tang was on top of his world, proudly employed at the Hangzhou Meter Factory, a machine-gauge maker owned by the government. Factory work had not yet lost its Mao-era prestige. Employers provided everything from steady wages and housing to medical care and pensions; many even offered on-site kindergartens. No one thought much about profit. "In those days people envied Tang," says an acquaintance.

Hangzhou is an old imperial capital, once crisscrossed by clear blue canals and lakes. (Marco Polo called it the most splendid city in the world.) Tang's factory assigned him an apartment in the city's picturesque West Lake District, on Peace and Happiness Street. His kitchen was a closet-size room off the communal hallway, and like other residents he used a public bathroom outside. But he was lucky. His 700-square-foot apartment, the easternmost on the second floor, was "the best in the building," one resident says. "Its windows get sunlight all through the day."

Life was good. Tang soon married a co-worker, Yu Jianqing, and people say the two were happy together. Their son was born in 1987; they named him Wenjun—"gentle and fine." He was their only child, in compliance with the country's strict post-Mao family-planning laws, and his upbringing was much like that of millions of other pampered single children in China. The "one-child policy" has turned centuries of Confucian upbringing on its head: according to consumer surveys by Horizon Research, grandparents have the least power in many families, while kids have the most. The press is filled with horror stories about tyrannically demanding "little emperors" and the slavishly devoted parents who fail to control them. Neighbors say Wenjun was "somewhat disobedient as a child," but they recall no serious incidents—from his early years, anyway.

Tang's happiness couldn't last. In December 1999, the meter factory's parent group was sold off by the government as part of a campaign to streamline the state sector. The new owners absorbed more than 2,000 workers, including Tang and Yu, pledging to honor all salary, pension, housing and medical-insurance deals.

But everything was changing. Tang's new bosses began shutting down the old, unprofitable production lines. After years as a skilled machine-tool operator, Tang was reassigned to be a common guard at the factory gate. Yu was laid off in 2003; by that December, the company persuaded Tang to take early retirement in exchange for a cash buyout from his $100-a-month job, together with outright ownership of the sunny apartment where he and Yu lived. Back in the early '80s, when Tang began work, the government was the nation's landlord. Now he was a homeowner. That was one reform he could welcome.

Even so, the marriage suffered. Tang and Yu began quarreling, as out-of-work couples often do. By 2004, their fights were the talk of the neighborhood. Tang reportedly accused Yu of cheating on him; sometimes he would hit her, according to Zhang Liping, a former co-worker who was quoted in the Chinese media. When asked by NEWSWEEK about the wife-beating allegation, a neighbor refused to answer directly, but hinted, "It's all too common, especially if she made him lose face by having an affair." (Maintaining face is important in China, where people sometimes go to extremes to avoid shame.) Tang and Yu divorced in June 2005. Yu seems to have left the area without registering a new address and could not be reached for comment.

Divorce was rare in Mao's day, when formal approvals had to be obtained from each party's workplace, and neighborhood committees were tasked to persuade couples to stay together. But the rate has soared, especially after a new law in 2003 enabled couples to get a divorce in just one day at minimal cost. Last year alone the divorce rate jumped 18.2 percent; marriages rose only 12 percent in the same period. Social stress, higher expectations and looser norms are all factors. Tang married again in March 2006. They lasted barely two months. No one in the neighborhood seems to know anything about his second wife, not even her name.

After his failed marriages, local police say, Tang placed all his hopes on his only child, determined to give him the best of everything. He sold the apartment on Peace and Happiness Street for about $28,000 and began lavishing the proceeds on Wenjun, now 21. (The son could not be reached for comment.) Wenjun was seen driving a minibus, sometimes as a gypsy cab or a delivery truck. Acquaintances assume Tang bought the vehicle. Police say Tang's money was gone within a year.

Tang's once sleepy neighborhood is now festooned with flyblown piles of garbage and construction rubble; tacky pink- or gray-tiled houses have sprung up all around, built by newly wealthy farmers who rent out single rooms to migrant workers. Tang moved into one such room, and Xu, Wang and other community workers tried to help him find a job. "He always made excuses," says Xu. "He needed to eat, but he didn't want to work." Wang says she would phone Tang whenever job recruiters approached her. "He'd say, 'I don't feel well'," she recalls. When a department store wanted a security guard, she says, "Tang was polite, but he said his health wasn't good." He said no to a crossing guard's job, telling her "he'd have to bake in the sun and stand on his feet all day." "Tang didn't want to lose face by doing menial work," says a former neighbor.

Though tall and neatly dressed, Tang was otherwise nondescript. But people remember his extravagant taste in cigarettes. His brand, Zhonghua, was a favorite of party cadres and other elites in the old days. They usually go for about $7 a pack, nearly twice the price of ordinary smokes. Tang lived on noodles at 75 cents a bowl and spent most of his waking hours playing cards or mah-jongg until late at night, near his old apartment on Peace and Happiness Street. Gambling is one of the very few escapes for depressed or anxious people in China, says psychologist Wei: "There are many distractions in the West, but not in China." As Tang's money problems grew, he gambled almost every day.

Wenjun didn't seem interested in hard work either. In May 2007, he and a few friends visited a bathhouse in northern Hangzhou—the kind of place where you can eat, drink and enjoy the services of female attendants. Wenjun spent the night, according to a Hangzhou police source familiar with the case. In the morning, the young man tried to duck out without paying. Authorities detained him for 10 days on accusations of fraud and then let him go with a warning. "The bill wasn't huge," the police source says—less than $150.

That wasn't the end of Wenjun's legal scrapes. This March, he helped himself to several hundred dollars belonging to a roommate. He was convicted of theft and sentenced to six months behind bars, but the sentence was suspended. "He wasn't violent, and he claimed he intended to pay his roommate back," the police source says. Acquaintances say Wenjun kept asking his father for cash.

Tang fell into a deep gloom. "He complained that peasants have money and prestige today," a neighbor recalls. "He kept saying, 'It's unfair, it's unfair'." "His hopes were too high, his disappointments too great," says Wang. In April, Tang paid off his room and told people he was off to become a migrant worker. Why? "In a single word: because of face," says an acquaintance who works in the bustling commercial heart of Hangzhou. "If someday I lose everything and go bankrupt, I can be a beggar anywhere except in my hometown." For reasons known only to himself, though, Tang went looking for work in Sichuan—the country's No. 1 provincial exporter of laborers. His futile quest ended on May 12, when a devastating earthquake hit, killing 69,000 and rendering tens of millions of local residents jobless and homeless overnight.

Tang returned to his rented room. Even as his world fell apart, he tried to keep up appearances. By now he was so poor that he owned just a single set of clothing. Fellow tenants would see him in the evenings, washing his clothes by hand in an outdoor sink beneath a faded patio umbrella. On Aug. 1 he had his daily 75-cent meal of noodles and a smoke at his usual restaurant. He paid off his $45 rent; he was always punctual that way, his landlord recalls. He packed his belongings. The landlord says they didn't half fill a paper bag. Around 5 that afternoon, Tang phoned Wenjun to say he was leaving town to seek work. If he succeeded, he'd bring home his earnings. "If I don't come back, don't bother looking for me," Tang said. Those were his last words to his son, police say. Then he boarded an evening train to Beijing.

After the Drum Tower deaths, police hauled in Wenjun for questioning. They told him his father had stabbed an American visitor to death in Beijing and then killed himself. "He had no visible reaction," the police source tells NEWSWEEK. "He was completely expressionless."