An American friend ““ one who has the habit of defending China against uninformed accusations made by friends back at home ““ told me today, that in the case of the recent Yue Yue hit-and-run story, he had nothing. The news of a 2-year-old girl in Foshan who was run over ““ not once, but twice, by two separate vehicles, and then ignored by up to 18 passers-by, the injuries sustained eventually killing her, could not be explained away with his usual arguments of rural poverty or historical contexts. This was plainly indefensible, and there must be something seriously fucked up with this country.
And in watching the footage, to see the original driver who, in running over her with the front part of the van, pauses, then decides to drive on thereby his back wheel too running over her; in seeing a man walk nonchalantly past as her little body lies in pain by his feet; and then seeing the garbage collecting old lady finally come to her rescue but in lifting Yue Yue’s body we see that it is frighteningly limp, just a ragdoll of a thing ““ how can one be anything but completely outraged?
I believe all behaviour is a product of social constructs or biology, and the worst of it, I like to call a “systems error.” So when faced with bad or severely negligent behaviour of not one or two but twenty individuals, and not in any abnormal circumstance such as war or a natural disaster or a scene of passion ““ simply an ordinary day on an ordinary street in China ““ how can one “explain away” the seemingly completely immoral behaviour of such a large group of people?
While the Bystander Effect would play a big role, there are a few unique aspects to Chinese culture and history that may have served to heighten the effect:
1. Confucianism made us care less about strangers We all know that in Confucian philosophy a great deal of emphasis is put on one’s personal circle (we’re talking two key concepts here: filial piety and guanxi). But as written about in Lin Yutang’s famed 1935 treatise “My Country and My People,” this emphasis on putting so much love and attention on those you know, has an unintended effect of de-emphasising one’s love and attention for those you don’t. Something I try to remind myself every time I board a subway and get elbowed and shoved aside by the other Beijing commuters.
Extending on from this, Confucianism dictates that everything out of my circle isn’t my business. It’s why Chinese foreign policy (with a few exceptions) prefers to avoid at all costs going into another country and “meddling” with domestic affairs. It’s why though you could hardly say homosexuality is widely accepted here, yet you’ll never hear of a gay person getting lynched. In Confucian society you make sure your own are doing right, and assume that the stranger on the street has someone looking out for them too. So if they’re down and out, well, that’s the problem of their parents, relatives and friends.
2. Rapid rural-migration really threw a spanner in the works. In the kind of society I described above, life can operate fairly well when you’re living in a small village. That’s because chances are half the village will actually be related to you ““ by blood or marriage ““ so when you saw that little girl get hit, you wouldn’t just know the girl, you’d know the driver too, and suddenly this story would have had a very different ending.
Yes, there are many, many other urbanised countries that don’t seem to suffer the same level of cold indifference, but I ask you this ““ which have experienced the same speed of social upheavals that China has? And which had this unique Confucian tendency to de-emphasise stranger-to-stranger relationships? Perhaps Chinese people are culturally, historically, not accustomed to caring about strangers, and suddenly they’re living in these cities where a sea of strangers surround them and they themselves take on the role of a stranger.
3. History is to blame. In a spirited office conversation, the finger was pointed at many different markers throughout China’s recent history. It was all the years of hardship, famine and war that has caused this ““ from the cruel nepotism of the Qing dynasty, the Opium Wars, the civil war, the Great Leap forward, the Cultural Revolution: China has been living in black times for far too long, with, as my Chinese co-worker said, that last stage really bringing out the very blackest in people. In all this suffering the Chinese people have lost their heart and grown hard.
It was Deng Xiaoping who, in 1961 at a conference in Guangzhou said, “I don’t care if it’s a white cat or a black cat. It’s a good cat as long as it catches mice.” The implication being that that making money, and getting out “on top” is all that matters ““ whether you manage to do this honourably or not is irrelevant. It’s this kind of thinking that makes fraud so incredibly prevalent in this country.
China is riddled with manufacturers, shopkeepers, real estate agents, politicians, CEOs and beggars faking, shortcutting, and cheating their way through the business week. Consequently, all the Chinese people I know are wary and distrustful of every contract they sign, and every good they buy.
4. The current administration is to blame. If the government in power breathed a sigh of relief that finally there was a story dominating the headlines that did not involve corrupt or incompetent officials, they should think again. As my Chinese co-worker points out, it is this administration who continue to, by imprisoning dissidents and shutting down the freedom of press, make true that sticking your neck out for others is only going to (well, figuratively at least) get your head cut off. Chen Guangcheng, Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaobo “¦ need I go on? In a country of 1.3 billion life is reduced to one of survival ““ and if the powers that be tell you that the best way to survive is to shut the fuck up and make loads of cash, that’s what you’re damn well going to do.
5. The law is to blame previous precedents of Good Samaritans being sued for their kindness have instilled a fear of extortion in China. To the point that many Chinese people who watch that video might not feel the same sense of condemnation towards the neglectful passers-by that others may. (Read the China Digital Times for more on this.) The lack of health or accident insurance, particularly for the vast swathes of illegal migrant populations that live in a city such as Foshan would also be a contributing factor.
6. Is indifference the default, while charity the exception? This last theory of mine is ““ I will confess ““ a little more radical, and I’m kind of just throwing it out there. Perhaps Good Samaritans are simply a product of Christian (or similarly monotheistic religious) values ““ which the mores of a modern, even secular society may be based on, the trails of their religious origins having faded away. Perhaps it is only the idea that selfless deeds done in this lifetime are “paid back” with an eternity in heaven that compels us (Westerners) to extend care to our fellow ““ unknown ““ man. Of course Chinese netizens are morally outraged watching a stark video of a little girl being run over, but many have also accused one another, had they been on the scene themselves, who would have stepped forward?