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October 18, 2011

We all have one of those China stories: you are waiting at a bus stop, or biking home during rush hour. Nothing too out of the ordinary. And then… twenty feet in front of you, somebody gets nailed by a car whose driver wasn’t paying attention. A crowd might gather around to see what’s going on; everyone might choose to ignore the situation. Regardless, as the victim continues to bleed to death, no one comes forward to help them. An ambulance may eventually show up if someone dialed "119". Maybe not.

Parents kneeling before woman who helped daughter
Parents kneeling before woman who helped daughter
Photo: chinadaily

On October 13th, this common expat anecdote reached a new all-time low, when a two year-old girl snuck away from her mother, wandered into the street of a hardware market in Foshan (Guangdong Province) and was run-over by a vehicle… twice. Meanwhile, a surveillance camera filmed 18 people, completely ignoring the situation, while they passed by the small crippled body lying in the middle of the street. Seven minutes after she was hit by the first vehicle, a 57 year-old rag collector finally noticed the girl and moved her to the curb. The woman tried asking the nearby shopkeeper to help find the girl’s mother to no avail. Moments later the mother appeared and rushed away with the girl. Footage from a surveillance camera filmed the entire shocking and heartbreaking scene.  

As an expat living here in China, it is in moments like these we might feel that, for all of our hard work learning the language and adapting to the cultural differences, we apparently still don’t understand why people act the way they do here (or in cases like this, don’t act). Why do Chinese display such apathy in these sorts of "life or death" situations? Simply put, where are the Chinese Good Samaritans?

Known to Psych 101 students everywhere.
Known to Psych 101 students everywhere.
Photo: pchome.net

Can social psychology explain Chinese people’s apathy?
As upsetting as these incidents are, especially the recent incident in Foshan, displays of civic apathy are by no means exclusive to China. In the 1960s, the American public was shocked by a similar incident. A woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City outside of an apartment building, where her screams were heard by 38 of the apartment’s residents, yet none of them attempted to intervene and save her (it was only recently discovered that there were actually only 12 witnesses that heard her screaming, but still). The apathy of these residents was deeply disturbing and received widespread media attention across the US. In the years following, this event was often referred to by psychologists as "the bystander effect".

According to the crowd-source-tastic Wikipedia:

"The bystander effect or Genovese syndrome is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer any means of help in an emergency situation to the victim when other people are present"

While the "bystander effect" provides us with a basis for understanding why "Good Samaritans" are often few and far between, it doesn’t really explain why Chinese seem to be less likely to help someone in serious need than other countries. 

No good deed goes unpunished: disincentives of the Chinese legal system
Throughout most of China’s history, its legal system was based on the Confucian philosophy. After the Revolution of 1911 when the Republic of China was founded, a western-style legal code was adopted. However, some of the earlier traditions from Chinese history have apparently remained in the legal system. For instance, some odd logic behind helping strangers in need…

There have been many documented cases where a Chinese Good Samaritan was severely punished for helping a stranger in need. The story commonly goes something like this: someone witnesses an elderly person take a hard fall. They help the person up, and maybe takes them to the hospital him or herself. Afterward, the Good Samaritan is sued, taken to court, and loses. A recent China Daily article (on the Foshan incident) mentions the most recent case of this happening: In June 2011, Xu Yunhe was ordered by a court in Tianjin to pay an elderly woman he had helped more than 100,000 RMB. In these cases, the court rules in favour of the victim, citing that it was likely that the other person was guilty (even with no evidence to support this) because his behavior of being a Good Samaritan obviously went against common sense.

China’s 100+ years of huge social change makes any "blame Confucius" arguments on an individual actions completely unjustified. However, if one were to say that the legal system is still plagued by these archaic Confucian values, they would be 100% correct. In the eyes of the law, a person’s voluntary involvement is still often interpreted as guilt, because why else would you help a stranger? Chinese people know that they have a good chance of "getting burned" by helping someone in need, so they don’t.

Let’s return to the incident in Foshan. When the woman went to the store owner looking for the girl’s mother, she was told to mind her own business. The 18 other people who ignored the girl were doing just that; minding their own business. But this
was not done out of cold-blooded disregard for another person’s well being. Instead, these people were likely protecting themselves from the severe legal repercussions that would likely occur is they did help the girl. Simply put, Chinese people are not apathetic, as this kind of situation might suggest. The legal system is completely to blame.

All hope is not lost
Chinese scholars are well aware that these disincentives to help others, enforced by the legal system, are very problematic. After all, how do you create a "harmonious society" when no one cares about anyone else? Likewise, the Chinese government in recent years has been taking the necessary steps to modify the legal precedent for these types of situations. The goal is to protect a person’s rights to a great enough degree as to encourage Chinese people to play the role of the Good Samaritan. But in addition to these much needed legal reforms, the country needs to work hard to create a culture that promotes the "Good Samaritans" in society, and doesn’t simply view them as "people getting unnecessarily involved in other peoples affairs"… The recent press praising the woman who caught the baby that fell out of a ten story window, and the similar praising of the 57 year-old rag collector (not to mention the 20,000 RMB reward she was given by the government) are steps in the right direction. But there is still much work left to be done if norms are to change.

More entries: What Do You Do? “Strange” Jobs in China, Same Name, Different Game: 5 Ugly Facets of the Chinese Workplace, Can the Chinese Still Eat Bitterness? Hardship and Personal Crisis in Modern China (2), The Cost of Preferential Treatment: Hong Bao in China, Guide to Popular Street Food in China, Got a Light? The Status of Smoking in China, The Bewitching World of China’s Ghost Stories, Literary Legacy: Five Must-Read Chinese Novels for Foreigners (1), Help Thy Neighbor: Explaining Civic Apathy in China, Top 10 Things to Do Before Leaving China (1)

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