On That Horrible Toddler-Death Story From China

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I've deliberately stayed away from the story that has dominated the Chinese mass media for the past week. It concerns a two-year old girl in Foshan, in southern China. She was hit by a van, as captured in a video so gruesome that I'm not providing a link. Then she lay in the road for a period of minutes, injured but alive, as a total of 18 other people walked or bicycled by and ignored her -- until another vehicle came by and ran over her again. Eventually a street-cleaning woman stopped to tend to her and get help, but the girl was declared brain-dead in the hospital. If anybody had bothered to pull her out of the street after she was hit the first time she presumably would have survived.

This horror has provoked an uproar in China that reminds me of the recriminations over the Kitty Genovese* case when I was a kid. Genovese was a young woman in Queens who was stabbed to death outside an apartment house, none of whose residents came downstairs to see what the screaming was about. On the other hand, that was in the middle of the night as opposed to the middle of the day.

OwnBusiness.pngEvery foreigner in China has heard the cliche about how people there are conditioned to steer clear of the complications of others' misfortunes, and so will not stop to help someone who is hurt or troubled in a public place. Twice in the past five years I saw the cliche come to life. Once with my wife, and another time when traveling on my own, I saw a person lying in the middle of a road and no one stopping to do anything about it. In one case, the person was obviously already dead. In another, our guess was that he was passed out (a peasant, on a four-lane rural highway in Yunnan), but on a road so busy that he was certain eventually to be hit. We couldn't persuade the Chinese people driving the taxi, in one case, or the rented car in another to stop.

I raise the issue now because Lijia Zhang, author of the wonderful Socialism is Great, has an article in the Guardian that is very much worth reading about the case and its implications. For instance:

When interviewed by a journalist, one of the passersby, a middle-aged man riding a scooter, said with an uncomfortable smile on his face: "That wasn't my child. Why should I bother?"

[Similarly,] last month an 88-year-old man fell over face down at the entrance of a vegetable market near his home. For almost 90 minutes, he was ignored by people in the busy market. After his daughter found him and called an ambulance, the old man died "because of a respiratory tract clogged by a nosebleed". If anyone had turned him over, he might have survived.

Both cases, the death of Yueyue [the little girl] in particular, have provoked much public outrage and a nationwide discussion about morality in today's China.... Astonishingly, a large percentage of [online commenters] said they understood why the onlookers did not lend a helping hand. Some admitted they would do the same - for fear of getting into trouble and 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 and waited to see if the old woman was all right. Later, however, the woman and her family accused Peng of causing her fall. A judge decided in favour of the woman, 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 fundamental problem, in my view, 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, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interest.

Lots more in her essay worth reading on this dark case.

Update: On the other hand, here is a surreal-but-admirable story, via the Sydney Morning Herald, about a Chinese woman who rushed to catch and save a two-year-old girl who had fallen out of a 10th-story window in Hangzhou.  Thanks to JP for the lead.

* On Kitty Genovese: Please see update in this next post.

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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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