The story of a two-year-old girl run over by a truck in Foshan in Guangdong province, China gripped the attention of the world’s media last week. What made the story so compelling was that the toddler, Wang Yue, was left bleeding on the street while 18 people passed by her without pausing to help.
The 19th person who happened by, however, stopped. Chen Xianmei, 58, lifted the girl’s body from the road, appealed for help from nearby shopkeepers, and eventually located Wang Yue’s mother. The toddler was taken to hospital, but she succumbed to her injuries late last week.
The story caused a sensation in China as footage of the incident, captured via CCTV, was uploaded onto a popular Chinese social media site where it soon attracted over a million views. One user commented, “Really, what is up with our society? I saw this and my heart went cold. Everyone needs to do some soul searching about ending this kind of indifference.”
Many Chinese have since brooded over the story as they seek to understand why so many people passed by the injured toddler without stopping to help.
Some have suggested that China’s growing prosperity has made people increasingly selfish—or at least stranded them in a moral vacuum after the massive social and economic upheaval of recent decades.
Others have suggested that people fear getting involved in case they get blamed for causing the hurt they’re trying to relieve. Clear in the minds of many Chinese, they say, is a 2006 court case where a man who helped an elderly woman to her feet ended up being accused by her of causing her fall. The man was then liable for almost half of her hospital bill.
And so the anti-social maxim proves compelling: don’t help other people, because you will probably live to regret it. Which tends to make out the Chinese to be … well, if not really heartless, then certainly interested in self-preservation above all.
The less-than-flattering picture the story paints of China explains why, for Victor Wong, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, it has received such widespread international attention (read: been widely reported in the Western press): because it satisfies preconceived notions of Chinese backwardness.
“It’s almost like the old Cold War stories about China. They’re not civilised, they’re not ready for Prime Time,” The Winnipeg Free Press quoted Wong as saying. “There’s that kind of holdover from the Red China days, and we still see this in our North American news outlets today.”
Wong’s got a point, but let’s not forget the countless Chinese bloggers have expressed outrage and dismay over the seeming callousness of their fellow citizens. Perhaps what could better explain Western interest in the story is the way it brings into stark relief a clash of cultural values.
In many countries, ‘Good Samaritan’ laws protect from liability those who offer emergency assistance but aren’t professionally qualified to help. In some jurisdictions laws impose on bystanders the duty to care for others, and so penalise those who shirk this responsibility.
Such laws get their name from the parable originally told by Jesus where the ‘Good Samaritan’ is the only person to stop to help a man left beaten up beside the road. Though some would have us move beyond the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage, it’s difficult to entirely shrug it off—as witnessed in these laws that oblige us to care for each other.
This is not to fulfil Wong’s prophecy and trumpet Western moral superiority over the East. Far from it. For ‘Good Samaritan’ laws seem oddly cynical about human nature. They hint that people might stand idly by (recall the finale of Seinfeld) or be discouraged from helping out of self-interest—and so take direct steps to ensure against that.
China, however, lacks that same Judeo-Christian foundation—which is not the same as saying that it suffers from an empathy deficit. China’s wealth of Confucian and Taoist heritage promotes the ‘golden rule’—‘do not inflict on others what you yourself would not wish done to you’.
The difference between Confucius’ and Jesus’ wisdom, then, involves not just refraining from harming others, but actively seeking their good.
However, it’s interesting that this proverb is framed negatively in contrast to its positive form offered by Jesus. In Luke’s gospel Jesus says, “In the way you want people to treat you, do the same for them.” The difference between Confucius’ and Jesus’ wisdom, then, involves not just refraining from harming others, but actively seeking their good.
In any case, such an ethic of care for others might face stiff competition when set against other Chinese values—like, for example, family. I’m no expert on this, but ‘family first’ aptly summarises my experience of growing up Chinese—and I don’t think the Chinese are alone in this either.
The priority that Chinese culture places on family doesn’t relieve me of the obligation to care for others, but it can mean that the needs of outsiders often rate second by default. Such an inward focus may be even more likely, I imagine, in a country of a billion strong where competition for scarce resources is fierce.
Still, the response of thousands of Chinese to the tragic story of Wang Yue remains compelling. The indignation of their online postings suggests that they would have stopped to help—especially for a child. Perhaps that’s true, but there’s often a difference between how we think we’d act in any given situation, and what we end up doing in reality. The latter, of course, reveals our deeply held beliefs about the world, which makes the actions of Chen Xianmei to help Wang Yue all the more satisfying.
We all recognise something cold in the way the 18 passers-by avoid the crumpled body of the toddler; correspondingly, there’s something hopeful and beautiful in Xianmei’s decision to intervene.
In fact, the story has a ring of the original parable to it. The ‘Good Samaritan’ of Jesus’ story was a member of a despised social minority; in this contemporary version Xianmei was scavenging for rubbish to recycle as a way to supplement her income.
Though rummaging in the dirt is far from most people’s notions of glory, online commenter ‘Van-stephen’ sang her praise on social media: “The scavenger probably never imagined she was actually ‘richer’ than many of us … She follow[ed] her conscience, which many of us have already lost.”
Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.
 Confucius’ Analects 15:23.