BEIJING // When Liu Changlin welcomed his friend of more than 20 years to work in the Chinese capital, he never expected it would end in tragedy.
Wang Hui, a construction worker, arrived in Beijing in 2004 with the promise of earning good wages to help support his family, who lived back in Jilin province in the north-east, where Wang and Mr Liu grew up. But after working for a little more than a year, Wang, 47, leapt to his death from a tower block he was helping to build in west Beijing.
More than a quarter of a million people kill themselves each year in China, according to estimates, and publicity over clusters of suicides show that some groups are more susceptible than others.
China's overall suicide rate has fallen significantly in recent decades because far fewer rural women are killing themselves. Experts attribute the reduction to improved economic conditions. However, suicide among migrant workers and the elderly has been on the rise.
It's been six years since Wang's suicide, but memories of the last few days Mr Liu spent with Wang are still fresh in his mind.
"There was nothing strange when we [last] had a meal together," Mr Liu said. "Usually he was a quiet person. We didn't realise this could happen."
Mr Liu said that Wang had been distraught about not getting paid for several months.
"It is so sad that he died," said Mr Liu, 50, who initially worked in a water-bottling factory when he moved to Beijing a year before his friend and now runs a small food store in west Beijing. "It's very tough. Pay is very low and some of the migrant workers in Beijing are deeply oppressed."
Suicide among China's migrants was highlighted last year after a series of deaths of workers at Chinese factories owned by the Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn.
A year on, a study by the Centre for Research on Multinational Companies and the group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour has found conditions remain difficult in many factories. Workers are sometimes banned from talking to colleagues, may have to stand for 12-hour shifts and are routinely forced into doing large amounts of overtime.
Such is the concern over suicide that campaign groups said some companies were even asking employees to sign pledges that they would not harm themselves.
Suicide rates have fallen in recent decades, especially among women in rural areas, according to official figures. The 1987 figure of 17.65 suicides per 100,000 people had by 2008 dropped to 6.6 per 100,000, according to official statistics.
According to the World Health Organization, China's suicide rate per 100,000 people is 66th in the world. Lithuania has the highest rate: 31.5 per 100.000 people.
Suicide was a particular problem among Chinese rural women because the method commonly chosen, consuming rat poison or pesticides, was usually fatal.
Yet the reduction in that group's suicide rate has come in parallel with more suicides in other groups, in particular the elderly.
Among people between the ages of 70 and 74, rates rose from 13.39 per 100,000 in the 1990s to 33.76 a decade later, according to Research from Tsinghua University in Beijing published in state media.
Census data show that the proportion of the population aged 60 and older had increased to 13.3 per cent by last year, up from 10.4 per cent in 2000, so an increase in suicide rates among the elderly will have an especially large effect on total suicide numbers. Estimates from a 2002 Beijing hospital study suggested 287,000 people killed themselves each year in China.
Many of China's elderly feel "disconnected", according to Paul Yip, the director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong and a vice president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
"The change in living style may not be good for the mental well-being of people in urban areas," he said.
In particular, the shift from living in low-rise city-centre developments, with their busy lanes where neighbours could meet and chat, to the modern-day high-rises is stressful, especially for the old. Experts say old people forced to move to these tower blocks when their neighbourhoods were demolished often feel dislocated.
"Many old people don't have regular contact with their neighbours. That creates problems and they lack support," said Kam Ping Kwong, a researcher on issues affecting elderly people at City University in Hong Kong.
The decline of China's tradition of filial piety and a lack of community support for the growing elderly population are also probably contributing to the growing suicide rate among the elderly.
Among the urban young there have also been growing stresses caused by pressures for "individual success" and people living alone, Dr Yip said.
The one-child policy is also a contributing factor among those born from the 1980s onwards, said Chen Xin, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"Most of them grow up in relatively easy circumstances and they are less able to face difficult times and deal with crises," he said.
Experts have said treatment for mentally ill people, who according to a study by Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Centre make up 17.5 per cent of people who commit suicide in China, should be improved.
Overall, Dr Yip said China must avoid following its more developed neighbours, where suicide is more common. South Korea ranks second in the world at 31 per 100,000; Japan is fifth at 24.4 per 100,000.
"We have seen the improvement in education and in opportunities; all these are conducive to making the [national] suicide rate go down," he said.
"At the same time, we have to watch the pendulum doesn't swing the other way ... they have a high suicide rate in Japan. We have to provide jobs and improve the living environment."