All nations go through periodic bouts of soul-searching, often courtesy of their newspapers.
For example, earlier this year The Sunday Times lamented that Britons were becoming more dishonest. The widely read broadsheet cited a study by the University of Essex that claimed the British “are more deceitful than a decade ago”, with younger Britons “particularly relaxed about certain types of dishonesty”.
All of this led the newspaper to bemoan: “The country’s moral compass is heading south”. (All the way to Australia, perhaps.)
Of course, as regular readers of WiC will know, similar fretting about moral decline is commonplace in China too. And this week, the Shanghai Daily revisited the theme, expressing shock at an incident in the city involving a burning bus.
While local onlookers did nothing to help, an Italian professor from Shanghai Tongji University leapt off his bicycle and offered assistance. Marco Scaloni spent the next 20 minutes ensuring that others were safe.
A firefighter later wrote about it on Sina Weibo and expressed his gratitude to the foreign teacher. The posting then triggered a heated debate online about “why it’s always foreigners who are the heroes, stepping in to help others”, the newspaper noted.
Previously WiC covered a similar case, when a Colombian woman jumped into a lake in Hangzhou to save someone from drowning.
“Scaloni is not the first expat offering a helping hand while passers-by simply watch. A French national gave emergency first aid to a man who fainted at a downtown Metro station on May 24, winning approval from the Metro authorities as well as passengers,” the Shanghai Daily countinued.
In fact, the newspaper was so riled by its citizens apathy that it ran a poll on its website asking why foreigners seem readier to help during an emergency.
Four options were offered. The first was the most interesting, particularly because of its bald, uncompromising language: ‘because the Chinese are selfish and indifferent’.
But this apparently damning verdict was shared by 62% of those who voted.
This is quite strong self-criticism, by any standards. Perhaps it is linked to a series of cases in which callous behaviour has been exposed through the internet. The lowest point was last October when a video was posted online of a 2 year-old toddler called Wang Yue being hit by a lorry (see WiC127). In it the driver departs without offering assistance and a total of 18 people walk by, none of them offering aid.
By the time the girl is taken to hospital it is too late to save her.
Some wonder if this every-man-for-himself culture has been bred by three decades of remorseless social and economic change. In the Maoist era, after all, there was Lei Feng (see WiC140), the selfless soldier who went out of his way to help others and set a good socialist example.
Another suggestion is that people fear being on the hook for compensation if they help others but then get blamed for the original accident (see WiC123).
But it would be wrong to say that China is completely bereft of citizen heroes, as two recent examples show.
The first involves Zhang Lili, a primary school teacher from Heilongjiang province. Last month she hit national headlines when she saw a bus careering out of control. Zhang threw herself forward to push two children out of its path but was crushed herself. She had both her legs amputated, but was lauded by media and netizens alike as ‘China’s most beautiful teacher’ for her act of self-sacrifice.
Another case last week saw further heroism, this time from Wu Bin, a 48 year-old bus driver from Hangzhou. He was badly injured when a metal object flew through his windscreen, fatally damaging his liver. But a surveillance video showed Wu maintaining control of the speeding bus – going at 94 kilometres an hour on a busy highway – before slowing the vehicle down and parking up safely.
He died last Friday from his injuries.
“Despite great pain, Wu Bin made sure that his passengers were safe,” reported the China Daily. And now Wu is being treated as a modern Lei Feng, with a city spokesperson telling media: “All citizens in Hangzhou will be mobilised to learn from Wu.”
Small comfort for his family, but he’s even been honoured with the title ‘revolutionary martyr’.
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