From Chinese Readers, and Others, About the Dead Chinese Toddler

By James Fallows

Toddler.pngIn response to an item about the 2-year-old Chinese girl who was run over, twice, while passers-by looked on, several replies. (At right, screen shot from video that captured the whole sequence, showing one man who slightly altered his path so as not to step on the girl but otherwise didn't acknowledge her existence. She is the object just near his right foot. At that point she was still alive.)

Also, please check after the jump for extra info on the Kitty Genovese case that I mentioned.

First, from a reader with a Chinese name:

When I first heard of this horrible story, this other story immediately came to mind: "Dozens Walk Past Dying Hero Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax On New York Sidewalk"

I believe there certainly is a problem with the "Mind your own business" mindset in China.
But I also think this kind of collective indifference is probably more common for all mankind than we know and the structure and laws of the society can drive the degree of indifference to one way or another.

To do good that the "common people" wouldn't is what makes a hero. In the little girl's case, the trash collector person who tended the girl could be called a "hero" because she risked being financially ruined when she tried to help, albeit she was not wealthy. It is sad and an illness for a society to turn an act of common decency into a heroic act.

From another reader with a Chinese name:

I don't exactly want to judge the situation, but I would like to share a story of my own.  Last summer when my boyfriend and I were vacationing in China we stayed at the foot of the Yellow Mountain (at Tunxi).  It was kind of a trip because we had originally planned on staying at Huangshan city, but we kind of got duped by the taxi driver to stay closer at Tunxi instead.  The place looked like the Hollywood version of a town in China.  [JF: I know the place she is talking about, and I agree.] We got ripped off several time by the hotel owner and the tour we were on, but not majorly so. 

The point of this story wasn't how we got ripped off, but on the first day we were at Tunxi, we were walking around trying to find somewhere to eat.  This little boy around the age of 10 was "crossing the street" (as in walking for a long time in middle of the street - China style) behind us and some how he got hit by a motorcycle.  I'm not exactly sure how the accident happened considering there was only a couple of handful of people out and the motorcyclist was the only one on the street. 

The cyclist immediately stopped and looked like in a state of panic (he was about 40) and all the pedestrians went over to see what happened.  The kid was semi-conscience laying on the street.  I'm not sure who called the ambulance, but it arrived in about 5 minutes or so.  The motorcyclist carried the boy to the ambulance and they left together to go to the hospital. 

This was the only accident I've witness that involved a serious injury.  In a place where everyone's motive seem to make as much money of off the tourist, it should be amazing that more or less everyone came by to help.  I, too, hear countless story about injured people who receive no help in China.  I've witness a good number of people who give up their sit for the elderly or pregnant on a bus or subway.  So I don't really know what to think.  

From a reader with an Indian name:

This was many years ago.  About twenty years?   I forget.  This was in India.  This was in Madras.
My friend's father was returning home from the vegetable market - one bought vegetables everyday from the local open market if you remember, because there were no refrigerators - and this man had a heart attack and keeled over on a crowded street.  He was robbed, somebody made of with the vegetables. I was reminded of the scene from Zorba the Greek.
Do I think it is worse than what happened to the little girl in China?  Does it matter?
I think we make too much of religion, culture, the political system or an erratic judge as underlying reasons.
I think it is poverty.
I truly believe material poverty leads to a poverty of imagination.  It takes a religion, a culture, enlightened politics and a compassionate judiciary to overcome that.  Sometimes.
We like to think we are born with the moral imperative and that material poverty does not matter.  We are not. 
Monkeys, cheetahs, lions, giraffes, toads, centipedes, bacteria are probably are born with moral imperatives - you can not disprove this.
But not human beings.

More after the jump.

From a Westerner who has lived for many years in and around China:

Years ago I was swimming with Chinese friends in a river in north Taiwan. Hearing commotion on the other bank I asked what was happening (without my glasses I couldn't see). "Oh, looks like someone is drowning," one answered in an uninterested voice.

"Are people helping?"

"No, they are just watching from the shore."

Blessed with being a strong swimmer I rushed across the river but was too late. I asked why no one helped. A middle-age man said, "The hungry ghosts had grabbed him. If I tried to help they might have taken me instead." Heads in the crowd nodded.

Not the last time I heard about "hungry ghosts" and the risk of helping someone; not just during Ghost Month either. So while shaoguanxianshi is likely the best reason for people passing little X in the street, if it had happened (and it does) in more-traditional Taiwan and HK one can't overlook the role the omnipresent, frequently-malevolent spirit world might have played.

And one more, from a person with a non-Chinese, non-Indian name!

Every once in a while there is a story like this, and people are horrified what we" have become. Seldom in these articles is it mentioned why people don't get involved, and by why, I don't mean asking people for silly after the fact justifications, I mean examining the scientifically determined results about  the factors that determine under what circumstances, and what kind of help is offered.

Psychology, the Rodney Dangerfield of science, has gone a long way to answering answering this question, and the seminal research was done right after the Kitty Genovese event you mentioned. The key concepts here are "The Bystander Effect" and "Diffusion Of Responsibility". If you do a Google search on Kitty Genovese and type the first letter of either, Google will auto complete both, so that should tell you how profound this research has been.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_responsibility
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect

The basic idea is that people are much less likely to act if they believe that the responsibility is shared. Specifically, the responsibility one feels and the probability of offering help is inversely correlated to the perceived number of people sharing the responsibility (weighted and summed). This seems to be a cross cultural phenomenon. Yes, individual cultures do vary in absolute terms, but the diffusion of responsibility is always there. Add enough people and your likely to get zero action regardless of where you are and who's seen you.

There are two messages to take home from this: first, one should resist the temptation to turn every question into a political or racial or cultural question. This has little to do with China or Socialism. Second, there are practical application to this. If your in need of help, you can do a lot to improve your chances of getting help. What you have to do is reduce the number of people who share responsibility for helping you. Don't cry for help. Point at someone and ask him/her for help.

Well, maybe there is a third take-home: Science is your friend. Even psychology. :-)

Thanks to all. Now, about Kitty Genovese. The reason I mentioned her case, of course, was to illustrate that these "what kind of people are we?" questions are hardly exclusive to China. I think there is a particular Chinese "not my problem!" challenge at this stage of its history, as Lijia Zhang argued in the essay I originally mentioned. But the underlying issues are of the human condition rather than of any nationality.

Thanks also to the many, many readers who have pointed out that the reality of the Kitty Genovese killing is probably different from what was assumed at the time. A thorough NY Times article explains why. One reader twists the knife:

The Kitty Genovese story may be something of a boiled frog.  There are various sources that dispute the accepted story (convincingly, to my mind); this interview, with a guy who spent a lot of time trying to track down what actually happened, is a particularly good one.

Remember: these not-quite-true stories that become accepted wisdom are like gradually heated water, and we're like frogs, and...um...or something like that.

For "work" reasons I am way backed up on other topics (and, umm, email) and will be offline for the next few days. Then... watch out!

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/10/from-chinese-readers-and-others-about-the-dead-chinese-toddler/247349/