Shocking footage of a traffic accident, where nobody came to the rescue of the female victim, triggered off a national debate on the state of morality in China. Journalist Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao looks at the different viewpoints of the debate, for the New York Times.
The original video has been viewed 30 million times. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media site, the original post has been shared 70,000 times and attracted 80,000 comments. On a report on the video by China News, a user called Zhuwu left this comment:
“It is not the onlookers but society that is coldblooded.”
Some say the problem is a legal one. In 2006, a man in Nanjing who helped an injured woman get to a hospital was held financially responsible for her treatment on the grounds that he would only have helped if he were responsible. In addition, many Chinese are wary of helping because of numerous scams where people purport to be victims of an injury in order to extract compensation.
“In the aftermath of the Nanjing case, many Chinese worry about the victims turning around to blame the helpers, and thus feel unable to offer direct help,” Dali L. Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who has written about the lack of social trust in China, said in an interview.
That was the view of one poster named Ranmo:
“If I helped her to get up and sent her to the hospital, doctors would ask you to pay the medical bill. Her relatives would come and beat you up indiscriminately. Traffic police would then ask you to submit the data in your automobile data recorder and write up your witness account. It would go on till the next morning. Then the relatives would casually say ‘Sorry and thank you’ and then you could finally go home, exhausted, and deal with the blood on the back seat of your car. Am I stupid?”
But many people reacted differently. The local police announced that more than a dozen people had called the emergency rescue number, and some had offered help to the victim’s family. The police also announced this week after the public outcry that the two drivers of the vehicles that hit the woman had been found. The police added that compensation had been paid to the victim’s family, but it was unclear who paid it.
A common concern is that society lacks a moral compass. Some commenters on Weibo noted that onlookers could have saved the woman simply by stopping the traffic. The Weibo user Jillna Chen wrote:
“If someone went to halt the traffic and called the police — didn’t even have to help her get up — she wouldn’t have died. If one can leave a society that is this cold-hearted, that may not be a bad thing.”
Concern about the state of morality is reinforced by the frequency of these reports. Last year, a woman was stuffed into the trunk of a car and apparently kidnapped while bystanders did nothing. Also last year, a woman was slashed in an alley, and no witnesses offered help.
The case that arguably started the discussion took place in 2011, when a 2-year-old girl was hit by two vans and pedestrians simply walked by. Ultimately, the girl was carried to the side of a road by a street sweeper — a person often seen as at the lowest rungs of society — which further added to the nation’s anguish. The girl died a week later in the hospital.
Since coming to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has made public morality a top priority. In addition to a better-known anti-corruption campaign, the government has introduced a campaign to promote values, many of them traditional.
Some online commentators, however, said those efforts had not yet borne fruit.
“There is a lack of citizenship in society,” said Qiao Mu, an independent scholar in Beijing. “People feel society is too cold.”
Mr. Zhang, the lawyer, said that government policies are partly to blame. Although the government preaches morality, its actions often undermine that message.
“You need to pay attention to what our government has been doing,” Mr. Zhang said. “Our government sentences a father whose son gets kidney stones after drinking toxic milk powder for petitioning. It also demolishes the libraries set up by nonprofits in the countryside to help poor kids who don’t have a proper education.”
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