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In China, toddler left for dead sparks heated debate about society’s moral health

The case of a toddler run over twice and left to die by passers-by in the southern Chinese city of Foshan has sparked an emotional debate online and in the press here about the legal and ethical shortcomings that constitute the dark side of China

The case of a toddler run over twice and left to die by passers-by in the southern Chinese city of Foshan has sparked an emotional debate online and in the press here about the legal and ethical shortcomings that constitute the dark side of China’s face-paced economic progress.

A security camera filmed a hit-and-run driver who knocked 2-year-old Wang Yueyue over on Thursday evening. Over the next seven minutes, it captured another van driving over her and then 18 people walking or cycling by without helping her, before a ragpicker moved her to the curb and alerted Yueyue’s mother, who had lost her. As of Wednesday evening she was in intensive care, her survival in doubt.

The ruling Communist party’s mouthpiece, “The People’s Daily,” warned in an editorial Tuesday titled “We Could All Be Passers-By” that “stopping moral decline and strengthening the power of kindness is a problem we have to face in our society.”

“China has become a country without belief,” lamented “@qianbuyong” a user of the popular Sina Weibo microblog, one of over a million people to have commented on the security camera video since it was posted online over the weekend. “People only believe in money.”

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Others blamed the well known way Chinese Good Samaritans have sometimes become extortion victims of the people they have assisted. “People dare not help any more,” suggested one blogger on the YY forum, for fear of being used as a scapegoat.

Good people not rewarded?

There have been many such cases of extortion in recent years; the best known occurred in 2007 when an old woman accused a young man named Peng Yu of knocking her over after he had found her injured on the ground, escorted her to hospital and paid her hospital admission charge.

The court ruled that Mr. Peng should pay the woman’s medical bills because if he had not been responsible for her injuries he would not have taken her to hospital.

“There is a general feeling in society that there are not many good people around and the judge in that case was influenced by this feeling,” says Tan Fang, who founded the “Good Chinese Man” website to promote Good Samaritans.

The way Chinese law is enforced, complains Professor Tan, means that “good people are not rewarded and evil people are not punished.” He points to the case of a bus driver in Nantong, in the coastal province of Jiangsu, who saw an old woman run over by a tricycle last August and stopped to help her.

The woman accused the bus driver, Yin Hongbing, of running her down and demanded damages. Video from a nearby traffic camera proved she was lying, but she got off with an apology.

Cameras are rarely on hand to provide evidence, though, and with courts putting the burden of proof on defendants to show they did not hurt their accusers, “a new consensus has emerged, that in today’s world it is both unwise and unsafe to help a stranger in a public place,” says Yan Yunxiang, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied Chinese Good Samaritans.

“Helping a stranger is coming to be regarded as a mindless and silly act, instead of compassionate or heroic,” he adds.

China has no law that protects Good Samaritans from being sued by the people they help, let alone the sort of law that in France, Italy, and some other European countries makes it a crime not to help someone in distress.

‘Find an excuse to dodge the scene’

An opinion poll by three Beijing universities, released Wednesday, found that while 65 percent of respondents said citizens should help old people who have fallen, 87 percent said that when people do not help, it is because they want to avoid trouble.

The authorities are clearly aware of prevailing attitudes; one question in the Chinese driving test asks candidates what they should do if they come across injured traffic accident victims. The multiple-choice answers are “Send the injured persons to hospital in a timely manner or make emergency calls,” “Dodge as much as possible,” “Go ahead by bypassing the scene,” and “Find an excuse to dodge the scene.”

Anecdotal evidence from the 19th century suggests that such indifference has deep roots. American missionary Arthur H. Smith wrote in a 1894 book that “unwillingness to give help to others, unless there is some special reason for doing so, is a trait that runs through Chinese social relations in multifold manifestations.”

One of China’s most famous sociologists, Fei Xiaotong, described 60 years ago how Chinese society was built on “graded interpersonal relationships” that governed how people treated others. “Chinese people are so concerned with being part of a network of personal relationships that that is all that matters,” says Dorothy Solinger, a professor of politics at the University of California, Irvine. “What goes on with a stranger is not their business.”

That is changing, argues David Schak, who has tracked the growth of civility in Taiwan and on mainland China. “No society was civil until two or three hundred years ago,” he points out. “It comes as society grows more middle class, and people are concerned with more than simply meeting their material needs.”

Still, worries Professor Yan, as China moves from being “a traditional society of acquaintances to a highly mobile society of strangers, how to deal with strangers is an important challenge to society and to individuals.”

The problem of trust

That challenge is compounded by generalized mistrust, which Tan calls “the fundamental problem of China’s social moral reality.” Food scandals, official corruption, injustice at the hands of police and widespread reluctance to believe the government-run media have all undermined trust.

“Social trust has not increased with the march of the market economy, as we predicted it would,” says Yan. The tragedy in Foshan, he adds, “is a wakeup call to the Chinese government and ordinary people that it is time to face these issues.

“It is not true that as we get richer, indifference to suffering, the suspicion of strangers, the lack of social trust will go away,” Yan points out. “You have to do more to make a rich society a good society.”

The picture is not entirely bleak: when an earthquake struck the southwestern province of Sichuan in 2008, tens of thousands of volunteers rushed to the disaster area to help the victims in an unprecedented display of compassion towards strangers. And the fact that stories of Good Samaritans being extorted appear regularly on the Chinese Internet is evidence that people are still ready to risk the consequences of offering help.

The outrage that Internet commentators have expressed at the way the Foshan passers-by behaved is also hopeful, suggests Yan. “This is a very critical point in China’s transition,” he says. “All the outcry is a good sign.”