Three victims of a phone scam from the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu were rushed to hospital after swallowing pesticides in a subway station close to Beijing's iconic Tiananmen Square.
The women drank the poison in an underground walkway connected to the Tiananmen East subway station and were taken to the emergency room soon after, official media reported on Thursday.
A photo taken by a bystander showed three women lying slumped near a wall in a white-tiled subway station, not far from the platform.
Official media reported on Thursday that the three women are now in a stable condition, but online articles about the incident appeared to have been deleted from China's tightly controlled internet soon after the reports were posted.
One of the women, identified by her surname Han, said she had lost 17 million yuan (U.S.$2.5 million) in life savings to a telephone fraudster, money the family needed to pay for her husband's cancer treatment.
"It was all taken from me in the scam," she told journalists. Attempts to seek compensation or redress with the authorities had yielded no result, reports quoted the woman as saying.
Han had her stomach pumped at Beijing's Tongren Hospital after she swallowed three bottles of the fungicide triadimefon.
No details were reported of the fate of her two companions, who weren't related to Han.
The suicide bid comes after a recent report highlighted rampant telecom fraud in China.
Increasing telephone scams
China's telecom scams have increased at an annual rate of 20 to 30 percent in the past ten years, official media quoted the report as saying at the end of last month.
China's public security authorities recorded 590,000 telecom scam cases in 2015, a rise of 32.5 percent from 2014, resulting in economic losses worth 22.2 billion yuan (U.S.$3.3 billion), the report said.
Attempted suicides are increasingly common among disgruntled Chinese petitioners, many of whom are forced evictees, and most of whom pursue complaints against local officials for years or even decades with no result.
Petitioners, who flood China's official complaints departments with more than 20,000 complaints daily across the country, frequently report being held in "black jails," beaten, or otherwise harassed,if they persist in a complaint beyond its initial rejection at a local level.
The sheer emotional strain of petitioning takes a heavy toll on some, activists say.
A Beijing-based petitioner surname Yi said Wednesday's attempted suicide was just the tip of the iceberg.
"It's not just them; a lot of petitioners start to think about taking extreme action when they get to Beijing," Yi said.
And fellow petitioner Hu Jianguo, who has pursued a complaint for several years to no avail, said he had thrown himself in front of cars carrying high-ranking government leaders, including President Xi Jinping, in a bid to get his grievance heard.
"The [ruling] Chinese Communist Party is entering the darkest part of its history, when ordinary people are using their own lives as a form of protest, and swallowing pesticides in an attempt to kill themselves," Hu said in an interview on Thursday.
"I really feel for them, but I wouldn't want them to take that route," he said. "We should move towards a democratic system ruled by law, and expose the dark side of government."
"If we have the courage to sacrifice our own lives, then why not the courage to come out in protest?"
"We need to overthrow this dictatorial regime, and allow the people to build a genuine democracy and legal system: a dignified life," he said.
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who founded the Tianwang rights website, said most people who pursue complaints against official wrongdoing face stonewalling, buck-passing, harassment and oppression from the authorities.
"They get to the point where they have no options left open to them, which is why people are driven to extreme actions of every kind," Huang said.
"They are hoping at least to get everyone's attention and step up the pressure for change, or even take the officials responsible down with them," he said.
He said the only way to stop such things happening again is for local governments to start taking effective action to address people's complaints.
"They also need to make sure that the petitioning process is accessible and runs smoothly," Huang said.
"People need to be sure that their reasonable demands will be dealt with promptly and effectively, within the framework of the rule of law."
The latest suicide bid comes after eight people from Long'an city in the southeastern province of Fujian died in a mass suicide protest outside the city government offices earlier this month.
Nine petitioners were protesting a lack of redress after being forcibly evicted from their homes, and swallowed pesticides at the same time. All were taken to hospital, but only one survived.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.