Shame on us Chinese! A few days ago, a two-year-old girl was run over twice in Foshan, a prosperous city in southern China. As she lay on the ground, 18 people, on their bicycles, in cars or on foot, passed by but chose to ignore her. Finally, a 58-year-old female rubbish collector came to the girl's rescue, but it was too late. By the time she was brought to the hospital, the girl, Yueyue, was brain dead.
It might have been a different story if one of the 18 people had lent Yueyue a hand. None even bothered to call for emergency services. Later, when interviewed by a journalist, one of the passers-by, a middle-aged man riding a scooter, said with an uncomfortable smile on his face: "That wasn't my child. Why should I bother?"
Before giving himself up to the police, the driver of the second vehicle, a van, told the media why he had run away. "If she is dead, I may pay only about 20,000 yuan. But if she is injured, it may cost me hundreds of thousands of yuan." The horrific scene was caught by a surveillance camera and has been watched by millions of viewers since it was posted on Youku, China's equivalent of YouTube.
The death of Yueyue has provoked much public outrage and a nationwide discussion about morality in today's China. From Shanghai, someone with the cybername 60sunsetred wrote: "The Chinese people have arrived at its most morality-free moment!" There was plenty of condemnation of the cold-heartedness of the passers-by. But, astonishingly, a large percentage of posters said they understood why the onlookers did not lend a helping hand. Some admitted they would do the same — for fear of facing another "Nanjing judge".
Let me explain the story of the muddle-headed Nanjing judge. In 2006, in the capital of Jiangsu province, a young man named Peng Yu helped an old woman who had fallen on the street and took her to a hospital. Later, however, the woman and her family accused Peng of causing her fall. A judge decided in favour of the plaintiff, based on the assumption that "Peng must be at fault. Otherwise why would he want to help?", saying that Peng acted against "common sense". The outcry in support of Peng forced the court to adjust its verdict and resulted in Peng paying 10 per cent of the costs instead of the total. Since that incident Peng has become a national cautionary tale: the Good Samaritan being framed by the beneficiary of their compassion.
The fundamental problem lies in one word that describes a state of mind: shaoguanxianshi, meaning don't get involved if it's not your business. In our culture, there's a lack of willingness to show compassion to strangers. We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family and friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers.
Fei Xiaotong, China's first sociologist, described Chinese people's moral and ethical characteristics in his book, From the Soil, in the middle of the last century. He pointed out that selfishness is the most serious shortcoming of the Chinese. "When we think of selfishness, we think of the proverb ‘Each person should sweep the snow from his own doorsteps and should not fret about the frost on his neighbour's," wrote Fei.
Under Mao, citizens were forced to behave themselves in both public and private spheres. Every March, people were obliged to go into the street to do good deeds. Now relaxed social control and commercialisation over the past three decades have led people to behave more selfishly again.
People are enjoying, and sometimes abusing, the vast personal freedoms that didn't exist before. China's moral crisis doesn't just manifest itself in personal life but also in business practice and many other areas. The high-profiled "poisoned milk powder" case and the scandal of using "gutter oil" as cooking oil have shocked and disgusted people around the world. Last year an article, "Why have Chinese lost their sense of morality?", in which the author tried to find an explanation, was widely read. He reasoned that China has introduced the concept of a market economy from the west but failed to import the corresponding ethics, while the traditional moral principles of China no longer fit the market economy model.
Before Mao, the indifference towards others existed but was mitigated by a traditional moral and religious system. That system was then almost destroyed by the communists, especially during the 10 mad years of the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976. Nowadays communism, the ideology that dominated Chinese people's lives like a religion, has also more or less collapsed. As a result, there's a spiritual vacuum that cannot be filled by the mere opportunity of money-making.
To drag China out of its moral crisis will be a long battle. The pressing question is how to make people act in cases of emergency and the solution is law. After the "Nanjing case", there have been discussions about introducing a law that imposes a "duty of rescue" as exists in many European countries.
China's economy is galloping like a horse without a rein and its position in the world is rising. We Chinese have every reason to feel proud about what we've achieved. Now we demand respect. But how can we possibly win respect and play the role of a world leader if this is a nation with 1.4 billion cold hearts?
— Guardian News and Media Ltd
Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned freelance journalist, social commentator and the author of Socialism is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China.