China Power

The Death of Good Samaritans

Is the case of Wang Yue, who was run down and ignored by passersby, rooted in a 2006 incident?

The story of a two-year-old Chinese girl run over by two vehicles while she was playing on the road made headlines around the world. In less than 10 minutes, CCTV captured more than a dozen people walking straight past her as she lay in the street, yet not one of them offered any assistance or called for an ambulance. In the end, she was helped by a scrap peddler, who made sure she got to a hospital.

The parents of the girl – who has since sadly died – bowed to the woman that tried to save their child’s life, offering the highest mark of respect and gratitude in Chinese culture.

To be honest, though, I wasn’t particularly shocked by this tragedy – in recent years I’ve had to grow used to the indifference of the Chinese people. And, as a member of the media, I’ve encountered many such incidents, including one in August that I think is particularly telling. Back then, an elderly man fell down in a street in Shanghai and was on the floor for about 10 minutes. It was only when he shouted that he had fallen down himself – and that it wasn’t the fault of anyone around him – that people finally tried to help.

This incident is both a little ridiculous and very depressing. But I think both the Shanghai incident and the death of 2-year-old Wang Yue can in part be explained by something that happened back in 2006 – a story that gained national attention and which appears to have scarred well-meaning Chinese.

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Back then, a young man in Nanjing helped an elderly person who had fallen. However, rather than receiving praise, Peng Yu was accused of pushing the old person down. Even though Peng insisted he hadn’t done anything wrong, the family of the elderly person who had been knocked down decided to take him to court. The judge ruled that the young man was guilty, and he was ordered to pay a fine of more than 45,000 yuan ($7,000). This incident sparked considerable controversy – and led to a number of widely-reported incidents in which elderly people were left where they had fallen.

Last week, three Beijing universities published an opinion poll that showed that 78 percent of people were concerned that if they helped an elderly person or child that they would be falsely accused, and so were more inclined to walk on by rather than help.

So, has the 2006 incident irrevocably changed Chinese morality on such issues?

Certainly, traditional Chinese values are rooted in trying to help others. Two thousand years ago, Confucius helped impart knowledge to the children of the poor, teaching that ‘helping others is joy.’ Yet although Chinese today have a ‘dual education’ that includes both Marxism and Confucian ideas, people here seem to have become increasingly timid and even cold.

But the problem also goes back further than the 2006 incident – the Cultural Revolution played a significant part in China losing many of the values and virtues that it took 2,000 years to cultivate. And, since Deng Xiaoping liberalized China from 1979, money worship has sadly become a more prominent feature of Chinese society.

Capitalism and a lack of faith in traditional values have combined to undermine mutual trust among Chinese. This has in turn stoked the corruption that is rampant among officials, who have lost their sense of connectedness with the people. And, without a basic sense of trust and fair play, incidents like that of Wang Yue will continue.

The Chinese Communist Party recently held an internal meeting that proposed developing an ‘advanced culture.’ In my opinion, in many ways, we’d be better off looking back 2,000 years for some of our values.