Society, Talking Point

The wisdom of crowds?

China reflects on the tragedy of the toddler whom no one helped

The wisdom of crowds?

Wang Yue immediately before the accident

From every angle, the footage from the southern city of Foshan is horrifying.

Two year-old Wang Yue is first hit by a van, before being run over again by the same driver as he departs without offering assistance.

She is then hit again, this time by a lorry. In the seven minutes until a trash-collector finally stops to help the child, 18 people have walked past her, none of them willing to help.

After eight days in a coma, Yue finally died of her injuries last Friday, and both drivers have now been arrested. But the repercussions of her death continue to reverberate more widely, with millions professing shock at her treatment.

What kind of culture?

The fact that the accident was captured on surveillance cameras and then replayed millions of times online on Youku, China’s equivalent of YouTube, has obviously stirred the public debate.

Of course, that a toddler could be treated in this way has been all the more horrifying to the millions of Chinese now discussing the case.

There was also the callousness of comments made by the driver of the car to reporters before the girl’s death was announced: “If she is dead, I may only pay about Rmb20,000 ($3,125). But if she is injured, it may cost me hundreds of thousands of yuan”.

There has been no official word on the incident from the top, although the coverage coincided awkwardly with a meeting of the 200-plus Central Committee of the Communist Party at which the building of a “powerful socialist culture” was on the agenda (see page 15). Attendees were intent on “significantly improving the nation’s ideological and moral qualities,” according to the communiqué that followed the gathering. But these deliberations would have been focused on something rather different to the Wang Yue debate, with culture being defined from more of a political angle, especially in terms of ‘soft power’ and China’s ability to project its influence overseas.

Of course, that is not what the rest of China was discussing, although separately, another leading official, Wang Yang from Guangdong province (where Foshan is located) did at least comment directly on Wang Yue’s death.

“We should look into the ugliness in ourselves with a dagger of conscience and bite the soul-searching bullet,” he announced floridly.

Plenty of bystanders…

WiC has written before about fears that China’s social fabric is being stretched to breaking point, especially in the wake of a series of gruesome knife attacks, also resulting in the deaths of young children (see WiC61).

The editorial writers in the domestic press have also been in a reflective mood since Wang Yue’s death. “Selfishness is unscrupulously booming in China,” warned one piece in the Global Times. “It has been highly tolerated and even respected by some Chinese, and even seen as an ideological tool to break the traditional values of collectivism.”

The sentiment: that the immensity of change across Chinese society means that it is struggling to redefine its moral reference points.

“The Central Committee knows there’s something very seriously wrong with the Chinese value system. Officially, they say that they have a socialist value system, but no one knows what that means,” Bo Shiyue, from the National University of Singapore told Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “No one believes in Marxism any more. Confucianism is not being revived, and the so-called Western universal values are not being accepted.”

Given the complex and politically-charged nature of this debate, much of the media coverage has concentrated on narrower explanations for what occurred in Foshan.

One is the ‘bystander effect’, first identified by psychologists in the United States after the publicity resulting from a case in 1964 in which a woman was stabbed to death in New York. Despite as many as 38 other people seeing or hearing the attack, no one came to her aid.

In this respect, at least, it would seem wrong to single the Chinese out.

”It’s a problem with the human race,” psychologist Jeremy Gais told ABC News last week. “It has something to do with what we call a diffusion of responsibility. The more people who are available, the less responsibility each individual seems to take for providing help to an individual in distress.”

Nonetheless, there are plenty of Chinese asking whether their society might be more prone to bystander indifference, especially after reports from Friday last week that an American woman jumped into the West Lake in Hangzhou to save another woman from drowning.

Why was a foreigner ready to help the woman while so many Chinese tourists just stood on the shore and watched, netizens asked?

Back in April this year, something similar was asked when a student stabbed his mother repeatedly in front of a crowd at Shanghai’s airport. Again, it was a foreign visitor who intervened to give the victim assistance.

Crowd psychology in China has also come in for comment before. Far from avoiding the scene of an accident as in Wang Yue’s case, people would often gather to watch the action, Peter Hessler writes in River Town, his account of living for two years in Fuling on the River Yangtze.

Few ever showed much inclination to offer help to those in need. “Certainly there is rubbernecking in America as well, but it was nothing compared to what I saw in Fuling, where the average citizen seemed to react to a person in trouble by thinking: this is not my brother, or my friend, or anybody I know, and it is interesting to watch him suffer,” Hessler observed.

“When there were serious car accidents, people would rush over, shouting eagerly as they ran – Is anybody dead? Is anybody dead?”

But not enough Samaritans…

If a moral response is lacking, perhaps it would be best to legislate for one?

Hence the call for a ‘Good Samaritan’ law that would require citizens to step in at the site of an accident. The China Daily reports that Guangdong province is mulling such a law to “make aid compulsory”.

The problem here is in applying such legislation in practice. Instead, the authorities might do better to pass a law that indemnifies those who do intervene.

This stems from what the Chinese media now refers to as the ‘Peng Yu effect’. As we noted in WiC123 (only a few days before Wang Yue’s accident), the reference is to an incident five years ago in which an elderly Nanjing woman fell and later sued the man who helped her up, Peng Yu, for Rmb45,000 ($6,900).

The judge ruled that, as the man had wanted to help the lady, “common sense” suggested that he must have been to blame for her fall, and he ordered him to pay her medical costs.

People are now saying that this has influenced how they might respond to accidents themselves. Victims know it too. Sina reported on a case two years ago in which a 75 year-old man fell out of a bus. He then implored onlookers to help him, but could only get them to do so by shouting: “I fell on my own, you do not need to worry, it had nothing to do with you all”.

Shanghai Daily offered similar advice last month: “Next time you see a senior fallen on the street, before offering a helping hand take out your mobile phone and record them saying that you weren’t to blame.”

Isn’t the problem really a loss of ‘traditional’ values?

This is still the narrative being pursued in much of the media, both in China and overseas.

The sense is that a new, selfish ‘individualism’ is somehow to blame, bred either by the survival instinct engendered by years of hardship under Mao, or more recently by the materialism supposedly unleashed by China’s new commercialism.

The two influences make unlikely bedfellows. And another problem with the discourse is that some of the behaviour now warranting criticism may well pre-date the days of social dislocation under Mao, as well as the economic boom since his death.

Take the views of Lin Yutang, an author of various bestsellers published in the West in the 1950s and 1960s.

His first work in English – My Country and My People, published in 1935 as an introduction to Chinese culture – touched directly on the themes now discussed, in remarking that Samaritan virtues were “unknown and practically discouraged” in China. Obligations to strangers get little mention among the “five cardinal relationships” in Confucian thinking, Lin warned, with the family-first principle always sacrosanct.

However, this view is not going unchallenged. Blaming Confucian influences for Wang Yue’s distressing treatment is too simplistic, says Sam Crane, a professor who teaches Chinese politics at Williams College in Massachusetts. Writing this week, Crane says that Confucius also stressed a general sense of moral reciprocity, which would mean not ignoring an injured child in the road, because you would not want others to do the same with your own child in similar circumstances.

Agreeing, others have pointed to the example of Lin Juemin, a young man killed in the 1911 Xinhai revolution. Lin’s A Letter of Farewell to My Wife, still taught in schools nationwide, seeks to explain to his wife why he is ready to give his life for others: “The ancients say: the ‘kind and compassionate’ respect their elders, and (because of this) a respect is extended to the elders of others; they cherish their own young, and thereby cherish everybody’s young.”

But another author, Zhang Lijia, returned to the moral crisis theme for the Guardian newspaper in the UK, highlighting a deep-rooted sense of shaoguanxianshi (don’t get involved if it’s not your business): “We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family, friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interests,” Zhang wrote.

She also professes a sense of shame about the Wang incident: “How can I be proud of my China if we are a nation of 1.4 billion cold hearts?” she asks.

By contrast, some Chinese media has been scouring the streets to find stories that portray ordinary citizens in a more uplifting light.

On Sunday, for example, it was reported that ‘good Samaritans’ in Shanghai had taken a pregnant woman to hospital when she fainted in the street. The incident was caught on camera by a smart phone and posted online.

But the Shanghai Daily was later forced to update the story. On Wednesday it reported that those involved in the good deed were actually actors, employed by a publicity company. Cynics detected a stunt.

A spokesman for the firm in question, Erma Shanghai, then insisted that it really was a genuine example of civic action and that the actors in question “simply happened to be in the area at the time and helped out”.

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