Compassion Failure? Yes, and it’s not just the Chinese.

At 5:30pm on October 13th, a two-year-old girl left her mother’s side for a moment. Her name was Wang Yue, though her parents called her Yueyue, which means ‘Little Joy’. Wandering into the street in Foshan, a city in the southern Chinese province of Guandong, she was struck by a van. The driver, realising what he had done, stopped, with the child lying between the front and rear wheels of the vehicle.

Then he drove on, and the rear wheels crushed her for a second time.

For the next seven minutes, Yueyue lay bleeding on the road. The first person to come across her, a young man in a pale shirt, stepped around her and continued on his way.

The next, a young man on a moped, swerved around her, looking over his shoulder at her before he decided that he, too, did not want to get involved.

The next was a young man passing by on the other side of the road. He walked past, not taking his eyes of her as he continued on his way.

Then came another van. He flashed his lights, before driving his right-hand tyres over her legs, breaking them. It is worth saying at this point that Yueyue was still alive.

Three motorcyclists then passed in swift succession. Two looked. None stopped.

A red motortrike swerved out of the way, followed by another man on a moped. He stopped, examined the little girl, and then carried on.

A young mother, child in hand, hurried past. A motorcyclist behind them slowed before he too swerved to hurry on.

A young man in a green shirt displayed some interest as he sauntered past, hands in pocket. So did the moped rider following him.

Finally an elderly woman, a street-scavenger and scrap-peddler called Xuen Chengmi, found Yueyue, picked up the toddler and called for help. She was too late. Yueyue was brain dead. On October 21st, despite receiving the best possible medical care at Guangzhou Military District General Hospital, her life support was switched off, and Little Joy died.

There has been a staggering outpouring of self-recrimination in China. Reasons have been sought for the apathy of the passers-by. A number of theories have been put forward. Some of these have been specific to Chinese culture. A commentary in the Chongquing Times suggested “Our current system is obviously in an embarrassing state: corruption continues to run wild and evil people enjoy privileges, scandals with charity organizations such as the Red Cross stop people from donating to help the needy. All this certainly shakes up the beliefs of kind-hearted people.” According to this argument, societal mechanisms which fail to support or facilitate charitable impulses are to blame.

Others have pointed to a legal disincentive for those wishing to behave as Good Samaritans. In Nanjing, in 2006, a man named Peng Yu helped an elderly lady who was injured in the street after a fall. She asked him to take her to hospital, whereupon she accused him of pushing her over. The case went to court, where the judge decided in the woman’s favour, saying “common sense” dictated that if the man wanted to help, he must have felt some sense of responsibility for her injury in the first place. As a result, three years later in the same city, an elderly man who fell off a bus was only offered assistance after he assured those who were in a position to help that he would take full and sole responsibility for his predicament. On September 2nd of this year, an 88-year-old man fell on his face in the middle of a crowded street in Hubai in central China. He lay there for 90 minutes before anyone did anything. When they rolled him over they discovered that he had choked to death on the blood from his nose.

There are further disincentives. Someone found guilty of causing death through vehicular manslaughter is required to pay 200,000 yen (about $2,000) in compensation. However, if the victim survives, the culpable party is responsible for paying all of their medical bills – a total that may be far higher. The first van driver has been quoted as saying

When I realised I had knocked her down, I thought I’d go down to see how she was. Then when I saw that she was already bleeding, I decided to just step on the gas pedal and escape seeing that nobody was around me.

The driver, who had allegedly just broken up with his girlfriend, was talking on a mobile phone when he hit her. He then sought to avoid personal responsibility, explaining

You saw that girl on the CCTV footage, she didn’t see where she was going, you know. I was on the phone when it happened, I didn’t mean it.

Even those who do attempt to help face societal problems and backlash. Remember Xuen Chengmi, the scavenger who carried Yueyue to the side of the road and summoned help? Initially, she was praised for her actions: she was given rewards by both the town and local governmental offices, while the manager of an IT company gave her a rather larger gift and offered to make her an ‘honorary employee’ so as to ensure a more stable source of income. However, there then began a backlash: even her neighbours, she says, are now saying she did what she did in order to gain wealth and fame. She has had to leave her home as a result. The Diplomat speculates that in a society as utilitarian as China’s, altruism is regarded with suspicion at best and as an outright perversion at worst: as a result, Chengmi’s altruistic actions are more comfortably viewed as utilitarian by those whose own daily motivations err on the side of self-interest rather than charity.

Here in the West, another psychological theory is doing the rounds in an effort to understand the motivations of the disinterested passers-by. The Bystander Effect was identified after a psychological study conducted in the aftermath of the 1964 New York murder of Catherine Genovese. She was attacked and stabbed, in an assault that lasted half an hour and was witnessed by 38 people. By the time the police were eventually called, she was dead. The full details of the resulting experiment are available here (a very interesting article, if you have the time), but the relevant discovery was this: people take societal cues far more readily than act individually. This is the effect that Douglas Adams used to humorous effect in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ – in order to have spaceships become invisible, he had them cloaked in an ‘SEP Field’, SEP standing for ‘Someone Else’s Problem’. It is entirely possible that some who saw the broken and bleeding Little Joy considered her, simply, to be Someone Else’s Problem.

I know a little of what this might feel like. Driving home after a church lunch a few months ago, I saw a man collapsed on his face at the side of the road, beneath some trees. And I did – and I report this with some shame – feel a momentary stab of “I’m sure someone else will deal with him”. (I did in fact turn my car around as soon as I could and pull over a couple of minutes later, by which time he was conscious and sitting in the back of a car that had been able to get to him before I could. And both he and the driver of the car thanked me for my concern).

The case of Yueyue is not unique, and it is not unique to China. On Christmas Day last year, a woman in Brighton told 1,048 Facebook friends that she had taken a fatal overdose. No one went to her flat or contacted the police until it was too late. Two weeks ago, Jamie Hubley, a gay 15-year-old high school student in Ottawa, killed himself after suffering years of homophobic bullying, and months of a crushing and increasing sense of isolation. His last blog post was a suicide note, and read simply ‘This hurts too much’. His death has prompted public soul-searching, attempts to understand how and why he was not helped in time. Last week, in Greater Niagara General Hospital, 82-year-old Doreen Wallace fell and broke her hip in the foyer. No one, including passing nurses, would intervene until an ambulance was called (remember, she was in the hospital!) She lay bleeding on the floor for half an hour before a passing doctor put her in a wheelchair.

There has been much judgement passed by the Western media on Chinese society. The comments on Youtube – where it is possible to view the footage of Yueyue’s striking and abandonment, although I am not going to provide the link – have ranged from legitimate horror to calls for genocide on the Chinese people. But this is not a Chinese problem (though it may be exacerbated by factors in Chinese culture, an example of which might be shaoguanxianshi, a mindset described as ‘don’t get involved if it’s not your business’). It is a human failing. A failure of humanity, in which all humanity is complicit. “Evil”, said Terry Pratchett, “begins when you start treating people as things.” Morality begins with compassion. “Love your neighbour as yourself” saves those such as Yueyue, and goes some way to saving yourself.

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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