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Chen Xianmei’s Tragedy

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China Power

Chen Xianmei’s Tragedy

The case of toddler Wang Yue has shocked the world. But are many Chinese missing the point of the story?

Making headlines around the world is the heart-breaking story of two-year-old Wang Yue. On October 13, a truck and a van ran over Wang Yue in Foshan, Guangdong Province, while 18 people either walked or cycled past the toddler before a scrap peddler, Chen Xianmei, finally rescued her. 

This case has an eerie resemblance to the murder of Kitty Genovese. Sociologists coined the phrase ‘Genovese Syndrome’ or ‘the by-stander effect’ after the New York Times published an article, ‘Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police,’ which claimed that Genovese’s neighbours refused to intervene after she repeatedly screamed for help as she was being stabbed to death by her assailant. Since its publication, that article has largely been discredited: Genovese’s neighbours did in fact call the police, and did attempt to come to her rescue. 

Unfortunately, and tragically, the Wang Yue case has been factually reported, and will be forever seared into the global consciousness through a security camera video that captured in its entirety the horrifying apathy of those 18 bystanders.     

There’s an easy explanation as to why Wang Yue was left to die, why Chinese children are stealing from their own parents, why Li Gang’s son feels he’s above the law and public opinion, and why Guo Meimei is proud of siphoning off charitable funds for personal use: China has become an ultra-utilitarian society that concerns itself only with GDP growth, with rich lists, and with test scores. Psychologists have long known that there are two motivational centres in the human brain: one that’s utilitarian, rationale, and self-interested, and another that is social, emotional, and altruistic. We appeal to the former by emphasizing material results and rewards, and to the latter by emphasizing lofty principles and social ideals. The problem is that they’re mutually exclusive: that’s why during the subprime boom, Wall Street traders were willing to cheat friends and bankrupt nations to earn higher individual bonuses, and why dedicated teachers may feel insulted when offered cash bonuses.

China seems to have become so utilitarian that it can’t understand or even tolerate people who do things for altruistic reasons. The penniless scrap peddler rescued Wang Yue not because she was internally doing a cost-benefit analysis in her head or anticipating the material rewards of doing so (as some Chinese have accused her of doing), but because it was the right thing to do. So what’s happening right now to Chen Xianmei – the unwanted media attention, the unsolicited cash rewards, and public accusations of her being opportunistic – is itself just as tragic and as depressing as what happened to Wang Yue.

According to the Shanghaiist, the public attention has traumatized Chen Xianmei, and has prompted her to flee her home of Foshan:  

‘Now with all of the media attention focused on her, as well as government officials and journalists knocking on her door night and day, Chen says she doesn’t even dare to turn on the television anymore.

‘“A lot of people are now saying that I’m doing it to get famous, and to get money. Even my neighbours are now saying so!” she said. “That really wasn’t my intention, and I’m so afraid of hearing what people are saying that I don't dare to watch the news. I’m not out for fame or money.”’

When asked what she thought about the negative things that people were now saying about her, Chen said, “I didn’t steal or rob. All I did was to save a child,” as tears began to fill her eyes.’

Chen Xianmei’s tears aren’t just for herself (she’s clearly being exploited by media reporters and those individuals who are donating money to her). They’re also for Wang Yue, and for a society that has become so hopelessly utilitarian it believes it can just buy someone’s goodness to appear less utilitarian. 

Chinese believe by rewarding Chen Xianmei they’re encouraging more people to be like her. But what will probably happen in the wake of Chen Xianmei’s story is a lot of Chinese complaining to the media how they weren’t immediately flooded with praise and money for selflessly helping others. 

Her life now turned upside down, Chen Xianmei herself said that if she were to be put back in the same situation, she’d still choose to save Wang Yue’s life. And she probably would – after weighing the pros and cons of doing so.