Chinese doesn’t really have an expression for Good Samaritan but, until last week, the name Peng Yu was a pretty good equivalent.
Peng became a household name in 2007 for helping an elderly lady to hospital after she fell in the street, only for the woman to sue him afterwards. Though there were no witnesses to Shou Xulan’s fall in a crowded bus station, the Nanjing Intermediate People’s court said it used “everyday experience” to conclude that Peng must have been responsible for the old lady’s fall because of his subsequent care for her.
Peng argued that Shou was already lying on the floor when he got out of the bus and that he helped her out of a sense of civic mindedness.
The court’s ruling caused widespread consternation at the time because it seemed to deny the possibility that people could act altruistically in helping others. Peng’s case has also been widely cited as the reason why many Chinese now seem so reluctant to assist strangers, culminating in the bout of nationwide soul-searching that followed the awful death of two year-old Wang Yue (more commonly known as Yue Yue; see WiC127). Help a stranger went the theory, and you might get sued (see WiC123).
But then last week, new evidence emerged to suggest that the Peng Yu case was not all that it seemed.
Five years after the controversial judgement, the director of Nanjing’s Political and Legal affairs Commission told Xinhua’s Outlook magazine that Peng had eventually admitted to knocking Mrs Shou over, and then to using the media to help get him off the hook.
Liu Zhiwei, one of Nanjing highest ranking judicial officers, said Peng got the media involved to help him appeal against the Rmb40,000 medical bill the court had ordered him to pay.
He then strung journalists the line that he was a wronged good Samaritan. But once public opinion was on his side, he quietly admitted liability and came to an out of court settlement with Shou for Rmb10,000. Under the terms of the deal neither party was allowed to discuss the incident with the media again, Liu said.
“This case is widely misunderstood,” Liu told last Tuesday’s edition of Outlook. “This was a banal civil case that got blown out of all proportion.”
News that Peng might have been responsible for the woman’s accident after all quickly became a hot topic on China’s weibos (the country’s Twitter-like microblogs), as well as other media outlets.
The China Youth Daily thought the case was “a game with no winner” before going on to criticise the Nanjing authorities for failing to disclose their version of events sooner. Because of the notoriety of the case, society itself had been the biggest loser – and this was something that could have been avoided.
“If the present ‘truth’ is real, what the ‘Peng Yu Case’ has brought to society is not actually a question related to social morality, but a question about how to handle the relationship between confidentiality and the right to know in socially-sensitive cases,” it wrote.
Other papers were more sceptical of Liu’s explanation, saying it could just be a ploy to take the heat off the Nanjing authorities in the wake of the Yue Yue tragedy.
“Every similar event since then has raised the Nanjing judgement,” reported the Jiangxi News network. “Maybe Nanjing is releasing the ‘truth’ to stop being seen as the source of the problem.”
Netizens seemed less concerned with the truth of the case than the the damage that it has done.
“Who did what is not important,” one wrote on her weibo. “What is important is that we can trust the courts and each other. Don’t let another Yue Yue happen again.”
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