'As Humane as We Can Afford to Be'

On the case of the 2-year-old girl Yue Yue, who was run over twice in China while passersby kept passing by, this from a reader in Australia:

The chord the death of Yue Yue rang for me was from Simon Schama's 'A History of Britain'.  In London in the 1700-1750 period, infant mortality was about 20% by age 2, and the story is that Thomas Coram wearied more quickly than other men of stepping over little corpses abandoned in the street, and started the Foundling Hospital.  I am not surprised to learn the Chinese are just like us in one more way - what George Orwell talked about as being about as good / humane as they (we) can easily afford to be. I hope we can all do better.

From Uruguay: 

I just read your article on The Atlantic about the Chinese toddler. The news has shocked Uruguay, where I live, and local newspapers have taken the opportunity to highlight another piece of news from this month. It's a report about a Uruguayan woman saving a Chinese woman who was trying to kill herself by drowning in a lake in Hangzhou. [The rescuer, María Fernanda Gómez Arregui, at left in picture below, as she brings in the woman she has saved.] People watched and took pictures with their cell phones, but nobody did anything to help the Chinese woman. This shocked the Uruguayan woman, who jumped into the lake and saved her. On top of everything, when she managed to reach the shore with her, people surrounded them and took pictures, ignoring her pleas for someone to call an ambulance:


All these news have generated a public debate of sorts here, though there are some (inevitable?) odious comments comparing "Chinese insensibility" to Uruguay's self-perceived solidarity.

From a reader in Italy:

This reminds me of what happened to my daughter at [an Ivy League university]. She stuck her hand in a heavy door, came back to the crowded cafeteria where we were lunching together white as a sheet, and then fainted and fell face down on the floor. None (NOT ONE) of the dozens of college mates  in the room got up. In fact, they all studiously looked away.I mean ALL.

We tried to rationalize it with the fact that probably all college students are lobotomized by their parents into ignoring anybody who loses conciousness. Fear of suits, I guess.

From a reader with a Chinese family name:

Partly because I want to defend Chinese culture, I want to draw attention to some cognitive biases in psychology:

The Fundamental Attribution Error "describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors."

A variation of this is the Ultimate Attribution Error (aka "Group Attribution Error"), which states that people tend to "view negative acts committed by outgroup members as a stable trait of the outgroup", while "negative behaviors by ingroup members are attributed to situational, or external causes, and do not have the same impact on judgments of the ingroup as a group."

I believe that this cognitive bias leads people more naturally to the conclusion that Chinese culture is at fault in this case. Furthermore, culture is not static, but always changing. So I'm not sure what people mean by "Chinese culture". Is it the culture of the country at its current stage of industrialization, when everything is in flux? Or, as the name implies, does it refer to some Chinese-ness that is eternal, or at least extremely stable over time?...

I agree with one of your readers that we should blame economics, or what you called China's current "stage in history". People who are well-off, materially and psychologically, will be kinder to others.... There are so many tragic and weird stories coming out of China lately, I'm a bit surprised this one got so much coverage. If you hear of so many people who need help daily, you'd also become callous to it.

I just spent a month volunteering in China and witnessed quite a few Chinese helping others. I'll also throw in a story [from 2006] about a man who devotes his own time to saving people from committing suicide. But in the end, this is just anecdotal evidence.

From a Westerner who has been in China for a long time:

I was walking down the street in Shanghai a couple of years ago, not far from Tomorrow Square, when I saw a man on a bike  hit by a bus about a block ahead of me.  He fell on the street next to his bike and as I walked toward him I expected one of the hundreds of other people near him to come to his aid - but no one did.  He was still laying in the street when I got to him and I went over to help him up.  Instead of letting me help him he angrily waved me away and continued to lay in the street.  Puzzled, I walked on.  I can only guess that he wanted compensation from the bus driver who was long gone.  I never figured this out.

On another occasion I was crossing the street at Xintiandi and a taxi driver hit me while I was using the crosswalk with a green pedestrian light.  The impact broke the taxi's front window and knocked me bleeding into the street. Within a few seconds the taxi and I were surrounded by dozens of people speaking loudly and gesticulating wildly.  The taxi driver jumped out of the taxi - I thought to help me.  But he grabbed my backpack as collateral and held it hostage in his arms.  The police arrived and I heard most of the people telling them it was my fault.  Three Europeans (one was ethnic Chinese) in the crowd stepped forward and told the police it was the taxi drivers fault.  I was taken to the police station, still bleeding, and left there seven hours until I agreed to pay the taxi driver for his window.

More, including my reaction, after the jump.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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