RENE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to China where the bridge crossing the Yangtze River in Nanjing was once a triumph of Chinese engineering. It was the longest highway railway bridge in the world. Now, it's a popular suicide spot. But a Good Samaritan has launched a one-man campaign to stop people from jumping off.
NPR's Louisa Lim joined him on patrol.
LOUISA LIM: It's a sweltering day and the sun beats down on tourists posing for pictures against the shoulder-high railings of Nanjing Bridge. Behind them, it's a long drop to the muddy-brown waters of the Yangtze River. In front, an endless procession of cars and trucks roars past. It's unbearably hot and noisy. Yet, this is where one man has chosen to spend every weekend for the past three years.
MR. CHEN SI (Good Samaritan, Yangtze River, Nanjing, China): (Speaks foreign language)
LIM: Chen Si seeks out the despairing and the depressed, to stop them from throwing themselves over the bridge. During the week, he's a manager at a transport company. At weekends, he patrols the bridges' span. So far, he's saved 99 lives; sometimes, even putting his own in danger.
MR. SI: (Through translator) Often, it really is a life and death struggle. They've already climbed over the railings and I'm left hanging onto them by an arm. I have to drag them back over. Sometimes, after I've saved someone, when I'm not paying attention, they jump. And there are those I don't reach in time. I've seen about 10 people jump. When I see the body slamming into the water, I feel very sad for a month or two.
LIM: The juggernaut of economic change has brought with it new pressures. The dismantling of the communist system has removed all certainties and safety nets provided by the state.
Support networks have disappeared as people travel ever farther a field to find work. And then, there's the burden of expectation carried by the only child, a generation without siblings resulting from Chinese single-child policy. The result has been a suicide epidemic. It's now the leading cause of death for Chinese, aged between 15 and 34. Thirty-nine year old Chen Si says today's young are emotionally ill equipped.
Mr. SI: (Through translator) When I was young, even though we didn't have meat to eat, the suicide rate was very low. Now, even though we all have meat to eat, there's a lot of jealousy and spiritual emptiness. People are no good at dealing with stress nowadays, particularly the single child generation.
LIM: Even as we talk, Chen Si is on the lookout, his eyes constantly darting back and forth. He's learned the telltale signs of desperation.
Mr. SI: (Through translator) From the crowd of people I'll single out those who look depressed, those whose psychological pressure is great. Their way of walking is very passive, with no spirit or no direction. I'll go and talk to them.
LIM: Patrolling the bridge on his motorbike, a lone figure suddenly catches his eye. It's a skinny, hunched, 20-something man in dirty clothes, carrying a plastic bag.
Mr. SI: (Speaking in foreign language)
LIM: I can see your mood's not right, Chen Si says to the young man. What's the matter?
Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)
LIM: I've nowhere to go, says the young man. His story slowly emerges. He's traveled more than 1,000 miles to seek work, but he's lost his identity card and can't find a job. Give me some time, Chen Si says, I'll think of something.
Later, for lunch, we go to a small settlement at the foot of the bridge. Here, we meet Shi Xiqing, who owes his life to an encounter with Chen Si on the bridge just a month ago.
Mr. SHI XIQING (Metal Recycler): (Through translator) I had just gotten to the bridge and was just sitting there. There were a lot of cars, a lot of people. My mind was racing and I felt dizzy. I wasn't thinking of anything. I don't know how he found me. I hadn't climbed over the railings, but I was already thinking about it, and he knew it. But all those people around me hadn't noticed anything.
LIM: A father of two, he runs a small recycling shop, stripping metal parts from old appliances. His 16-year-old daughter fell ill with leukemia eight years ago and he still owes $15,000 he borrowed to pay for her treatment. In recent months, he fell behind on his rent payments. Then, he couldn't pay his children's school fees. When he no longer had the money to keep his business afloat, the pressure was too much.
For his wife, Guo Mingzhou, the implications of that day are still unthinkable.
Ms. GUO MINGZHOU (Wife of Shi Xiqing): (Through translator) My daughter said to me, if he leaves this world we should go with him. We couldn't go on living. I don't have any work. I don't have any skills. Even now, I can't bring myself to think about it.
LIM: As they eat together, Chen Si with his stained brown teeth and chain smoking habit seemed like an unlikely guardian angel. But he's still watching over this family, phoning them up every week, talking to their creditors, thinking up ways to solve their problems. His burden grows with each new life he saves. His own wife disapproves of his hours on the bridge and his habit of bringing home those he's saved from committing suicide.
He wishes there was more government support, or even a charity that could help him out.
Mr. SI: (Through translator) What should I do with the people I save? I don't have that much money. When I save people, I don't want to just cheat them into living another day.
LIM: But today is a minor celebration. Let's drink to the fact that we can drink today, he says to Shi Xiqing. It's a drink tempered by the knowledge that for both men, the road ahead is long and painful.
Luisa Lim, NPR News, Nanjing.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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