'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.

From a reader in Philadelphia:

I've been following your updates on the tragic case of the young girl who was killed in China

I wonder if there's not a simpler explanation for many of the passerbys.  People simply did not notice.  I preface this by saying that I have not watched the video, based on your description it sounded like she lay on the ground for several minutes, so presumably many of the people did not see what happened and only happened upon her in the street after the fact.  The following is written with that context in mind.

I moved to central Philadelphia a few years ago after living in the suburbs my whole life, having never spent much time in a big city, I was amazed at the number homeless, panhandlers, etc.  For the first year or so, I drove my wife nuts by responding to every entreaty for change and every story about needing $10 for bus fare to New York.  Finding someone splayed out on the sidewalk is a not an unusual occurrence.  Not an every day thing, but several times a year.  I remember the first time I saw this, and being very worried that something was wrong, but the individual ended up just being asleep and was not thrilled that I had inquired if they were ok (I'm not speaking about someone sleeping on a steam vent for warmth, or against a wall, but actually sleeping in the middle of a busy sidewalk).

At some point, I just stopped noticing--until your post.  Walking home yesterday, it was on my mind, and I did notice a guy, who upon further reflection could have been having a serious issue, but since he was on an oddly placed heating vent in the middle of the sidewalk, I assumed he was just doing it for warmth.  But I can't remember noticing this in a couple years now, and my guess is that I literally started blocking it out of my mind.   I've never been to China though it's a dream of mine, but I wonder if this is a simple explanation.  Your mind just filters out stimuli when your in a city--there's so much of it, it has too--and it especially filters out dispiriting stimuli.  I've always pictured China as a rather crowded place, I'd imagine some people were focusing on other things.

Perhaps there is more to this--if she was screaming the whole time for example, but in less glaring situations, I bet this happens quite a bit in China and without.

And from an American academic:

1 swallow doesn't make a summer, so a couple of contrary stories may not tell you very much either, but I observed (and participated in) similar situations with just the opposite, and heartening, result.  In 2008, I was teaching in Beijing on a fellowship.  Walking to the university one day, I saw an elderly man pretty far ahead of me trip on one of those cement block borders that surround trees and take a nasty header.  When I got there, he was still down and bleeding from the head.  At least another person had already stopped.  I did, too, we both pulled out our cell phones, but fortunately the other, Chinese person knew who to call.  Someone came out of the adjacent apartment building - possibly a relative - and by the time a passing police car pulled up and carried the man off - to a hospital, I assume - there were several people gathered around.
Another story - though this one is probably less representative:  I tripped off the last step in a Beijing underpass one night and fell flat.  Separately, a man and woman hustled right over, helped me up and dusted me off.  As I recall, my impression was that the man looked like he may have been living in the underpass, so my first instinct was to be apprehensive just as I would be in any big city, but they both were immediately helpful.  I don't discount the fact that my western appearance may have had something to do with it, but there you are.

For the record, here's what I think:
   - We're talking about a failure of empathy that is a human trait, not a "Chinese," "American," etc issue. See this revisionist account of the Kitty Genovese case for US and Canadian counterparts.
   - It's a problem that gets worse in certain economic and political circumstances
   - There is no denying that - for reasons of economics, politics, stage-of-history, etc rather than eternal "culture" -- it is a particularly acute issue in China right now, as the wrenching internal Chinese reaction to the Yue Yue video indicates.
   - Unlike one of the readers, I am not surprised that the story got so much coverage. The video is horrific in ways anyone, anywhere can understand.
   - But it is finally a horrific in a human rather than national sense.

Thanks to all. That's probably it on this theme for me.