BEIJIING — Several dramatic recent incidents — including one involving a 2-year-old girl run over in the road while more than a dozen bystanders ignored her plight — have opened a searing debate in China over whether, in the race to get rich, the country might have lost its moral bearings.
The little girl, Yueyue, who was critically injured and remains in a coma, was run over last Thursday by two vehicles as a gruesome video recording captured 18 people walking or driving by who did not intervene. What most shocked many was that this was just the latest example of Chinese passersby who declined to help others in distress.
At the West Lake UNESCO World Heritage Site in eastern Zhejiang province last week, an unidentified woman, reportedly an American tourist, jumped into the water to rescue a woman who was drowning, possibly attempting suicide. Internet chat sites immediately lighted up with questions about why a foreigner intervened, while no Chinese would.
The reason most often given is that recently in China, bystanders who did intervene to help others have found themselves accused of wrongdoing. In August, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, a bus driver named Yin Hongbing stopped to help an elderly woman who had been struck by a hit-and-run driver. But until he was vindicated by surveillance videos, Yin was the one accused of hitting the woman.
There have also been several cases of passersby stopping to help elderly people who had fallen, or were pushed, and who then were sued by the victims or were arrested. The thinking here is: They must have been responsible or they would not have stopped to help.
It did not help matters that the Health Ministry in September issued new “Good Samaritan” guidelines that essentially warn passersby not to rush to help elderly people on the ground, but to first ascertain whether they are conscious and then wait for trained medical personnel to arrive.
One Internet user, in a comment posted after the West Lake incident, wrote: “That tourist was too impulsive. She didn’t know that in China, kind people who save others are often accused of being the perpetrator. The next time you run into someone who was hit by a car, you need to be careful.”
But the case of the toddler lying in the street has ignited a debate about indifference to suffering and whether society itself has suffered some kind of a moral collapse.
“Cracks can be seen in the moral framework of Chinese society,” the Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper wrote in its lead editorial Wednesday. “Many are asking: What’s wrong with China?”
In response, many here — scholars in interviews and Internet users in chat rooms — have turned the blame on the government. They say that the breakdown began during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s and that in a system that does not respect individual rights and freedoms, people take their cue from the behavior of officials at the top.
“I think the biggest problem is the corruption of the government officials,” Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said in an interview. He used an old Chinese idiom: If the upper beam is not straight, the lower beams will go askew.
Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at Beijing Institute of Technology, said he saw the problem as an absence of religious ethics in what is largely an atheist society. Modern Chinese, he said, “don’t have beliefs, although China has indigenous religions like Taoism and Buddhism. . . . China is actually an atheist country, and Chinese people are never afraid of God’s punishment.”
Hu added: “The Chinese government has made economic development its central task, which means everything is money-centered. . . . Both the legal system and the moral system have been sacrificed to moneymaking.”
In the case of the toddler, the driver who first hit her said in a telephone interview with a Guangdong television station that he had been talking on his phone when the girl walked in front of his vehicle. He said he kept driving because if she were dead, it would only cost him 10,000 to 20,000 renminbi ($1,500 to $3,000), but if she were alive, he would have to pay hundreds of thousands of renminbi in medical bills.
Referring to the driver’s comments, one Internet user posting under the name Ximending Xiaodoujiang wrote, “If the compensation for a death were higher than the cost of medical care, these cases might not happen.”
But, the writer added, it was “unrealistic” to expect a change soon, because for Chinese today, “all they can think about is food and clothes.”
Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.