China’s bystander problem: Another death after crowd ignores woman in peril

October 24, 2013

Cell phone photos of this Beijing woman circulated on Chinese social media, showing her in the half hour between when she caught her neck between traffic rails and when someone finally thought to help. (Sina Weibo)

When a 26-year-old woman in Beijing leaned a little too hard against a roadside barrier and got her neck stuck between two of the railings, Chinese bystanders did what they're increasingly notorious for doing: nothing. Security camera footage showed over a dozen people gawking and taking photos of the woman, who stood helpless on the side of a busy Beijing street in broad daylight for 30 full minutes before anyone tried to help. Finally, someone called the police, who pulled her out and rushed her to the hospital, where she was pronounced brain dead on Thursday.

The incident is another high-profile case in China of bystanders failing to help someone in need. When an elderly woman fell on her back in Shanghai last year, plenty of people gathered around to gawk and take photos, but none answered her pleas for help. When a Western woman arrived, chastised the crowd and helped the woman up, the incident became a brief point of national reflection: why, many Chinese asked, were their countrymen so callous to fellow citizens in need? As the China-focused news site Ministry of Tofu documents, this week's Beijing incident is resurfacing the same internal debate and national soul-searching.

China was shocked into confronting its bystander problem in 2011, with the horrific story of a two-year-old girl in Foshan who was struck by a van. The impact didn't kill her, but it did knock her down. As she lay helpless in the road, traffic cameras captured a procession of 18 people who walked or biked past her and did nothing. One man, in a scene that played out countless times in Chinese media as the country tried to understand what had happened, actually went out of his way to walk around the injured girl. Eventually, a second car hit and killed her.

"Every foreigner in China has heard the cliche about how people there are conditioned to steer clear of the complications of others' misfortunes, and so will not stop to help someone who is hurt or troubled in a public place," The Atlantic's James Fallows wrote after the 2011 Foshan incident.

China's bystander problem is pervasive but complex enough that everyone has a theory for it. Perhaps the most popular is shao guan xian shi, an aphorism that roughly translates as "mind your own business," which deters both interfering and helping others. Lijia Zhang explained in a much-circulated Guardian piece (hat tip again to Fallows):

The fundamental problem, in my view, lies in one word that describes a state of mind: shaoguanxianshi, meaning don't get involved if it's not your business. In our culture, there's a lack of willingness to show compassion to strangers. We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family and friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interest.

This theory is convincing and generally accepted, particularly by Westerners who focus on China. What's less agreed upon is why Chinese parents would teach their children to not interfere. Nods to Confucianism, the conservative social code that has been a part of Chinese society for centuries, are certainly common, although Japan and Korea are similarly Confucian but lack this notorious bystander problem.

Perhaps more compelling is China's deep, and often undiscussed-in-China, history of intense resource competition. The country has undergone intervals of famine and political turmoil for centuries, most recently with the Great Leap Forward that saw tens of millions of Chinese starve to death in the late 1950s and then the Cultural Revolution, from 1967 to 1977, which turned family members against one another.

The idea that fellow citizens are someone with whom you compete for survival, rather than someone on whom you count for support, might not be too far below the surface. Social scientists have long found that people tend to be less altruistic, and exhibit more anti-social behavior, when basic resources are scarce or when they see survival as more competitive.

Another theory you hear commonly is that official state ideology since the 1949 communist revolution has sought to engineer Chinese society in ways that are not conducive to good Samaritans. Mao's rule emphasized absolute loyalty to the Communist Party, even at the cost of turning against fellow citizens. Since 1992, when the country began its economic transformation, the state has urged economic success above all else, engendering a kind of hyper-capitalistic competitiveness.

The least compelling explanation for China's bystander problem, but one that is often employed within China itself, is the idea that you shouldn't help people because they might sue you. This argument typically hinges on the 2006 case of a Nanjing man named Peng Yu. Peng, As the story is widely told, Peng, helped an elderly woman who had been hit by a bus. The woman sued him and Peng was ordered to pay a large portion of her medical bills. The lesson is shao guan xian shi: by sticking his nose in things, Peng got exploited by a greedy old woman. You hear this story told over and over on Chinese social media every time a group of bystanders ignores someone in need, as with the Beijing woman this week. What they rarely mention is that Peng was forced to pay the woman's medical bills because police believe he had pushed her in front of the bus in the first place.

Some in China defend against the issue by pointing to Kitty Genovese, a New York City woman who was stabbed to death in 1964 as dozens of onlookers watched from their nearby apartments but did nothing. Diffusion of responsibility is a universal problem, they argue, and not particular to China. But the Kitty Genovese story, it turns out, is probably apocryphal. Subsequent investigations, including one by the New York Times in 2004, have largely debunked the story as more fiction than fact.

What happened in Beijing this week, or in other Chinese cities over so many other recent incidents, is not in dispute. But the really important question still hasn't been answered: why?

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Max Fisher | October 24, 2013