The death in October of a two-year-old girl who was run over by a van and then ignored by pedestrians and shop owners sparked outrage and public debate over a strange disconnect in Chinese society: while traditional Chinese culture is said to value compassion towards others and helping behaviors, in modern China the practice of ignoring those in need is common. As anecdotal evidence of this trend, many cited something that happened the day before Yueyue (the two-year-old) was run over: a woman attempting suicide by drowning in Hangzhou’s West Lake was saved by a foreign tourist while a crowd of Chinese took photos of the rescue but did nothing to help.
In response to this, I assigned the article The Good Samaritan’s Dilemma: A study of the changing moral landscape in modern China to my Academic Reading & Writing course. In the article, UCLA professor Yunxiang Yan investigates cases in which “Good Samaritans” who act out of compassion to help elderly accident victims have would up being accused of being the party who caused injury. In most of these cases the burden of proof is shifted to the Good Samaritan, who, being unable to prove innocence, is held financially responsible for the victim’s medical treatment and, in some cases, for paying additional compensation for “pain and suffering”.
The article focuses on the propensity of Chinese young adults (age 30 and younger) to help strangers, investigating how the shift from collectivist values to individualism and universal morality may make young Chinese more likely than older Chinese to help strangers.
Yan argues that a sort of generation gap is exposed when Chinese courts and police show their own biases and preconceptions when they put aside presumption of innocence in these cases; in one court opinion the judge argued that only a guilty person would help the victim of an accident since “it is commonsense that no [innocent person] would go so far out of the way to help a stranger” (Yan, 2009: 14). (At this point one begins to value the inclusion of logical fallacy questions on law school admission examinations.)
Class discussion on the paper was emotional. A surprisingly large minority reported experiencing extortion attempts after helping others. One student told the class about what happened to his mother after she acted as a Good Samaritan. His mother saw a woman lying in the road; she took the woman to a hospital where, several days later, the woman died. A month later the police came to the family home at night and arrested the student’s mother. The victim’s family claimed that the mother was actually the perpetrator. She spent several months in prison until the student’s family paid a large enough sum to the deceased’s family. At that point, charges were dropped and my student’s mother returned home.
After this, half the class were in tears.
Some students felt that the elderly extortionists are simply bad people, and that bad people are everywhere. Others had a “burn it all down and start over” attitude. And, of course, some felt that the article simply showcased the author’s traitorous nature and his anti-China bias.
One student, a practicing attorney, argued that the Yan’s anecdotal evidence that police can’t do anything when about extortion is factually incorrect. The article quotes a policeman as saying, “What can you do when an old and poor lady tries to squeeze 200 or 300 yuan out of the pocket of a young man? Nothing!” (Yan, 2009: 17). In fact, according to the student, Chinese law does prohibit and provide recourse for such false claims. However, the student said, “Prosecutors aren’t interested in pursuing such cases. They want to prosecute cases where the defendant is a rich person. That way they can make money through corruption.”
Another student asked what I thought would solve the problem. I told him my area of expertise is linguistics.
In the wake of the Yueyue tragedy, millions of internet commenters claimed that they would have stepped in to help the girl. Predictably, little seems to have changed. In the days immediately following the accident several other children were run over by trucks and died as crowds watched but did nothing. One driver, who according to witnesses ran over a child and then backed over the child again to see what he had hit, said “How much do I have to pay?” when he saw the crushed body under his fender.
The student whose mother was unjustly accused and imprisoned claimed to harbor no ill will. What his mother did, he said, was the right thing. She went to prison, yes, but she also got out. In their village, she is held in high esteem. No one believes that she was a perpetrator; everyone believes that she did good and was punished for it. If people keep doing what’s right, he said, Chinese society will change. It just will take time.