This past Saturday, I read in The Wall Street Journal about the death of a two-year-old Chinese toddler, hit by a van on a busy market street in the city of Foshan and disregarded by over a dozen passersby. The child – called Little Yueyue by the local media – had wandered away from her parents’ hardware store. Her father was attending to customers while her mother was busy hanging laundry. The video footage below shows Yueyue in obvious distress while 18 people bike or walk by her, oblivious to her pain. Left in the street, she is hit once again by another van. Eventually, an elderly scrap peddler drags her to the side of the street after seven minutes. The woman then rushes to find Yueyue’s mother who cradles her daughter’s broken body. It’s a difficult video to watch.
The footage has created a firestorm of media activity in China, prompting millions of social media posts. WSJ quotes media researcher Zhou Kui who wrote on China’s version of Twitter, “The Chinese nation faces its most immoral moment.”
I shared the story with one of our Ethics teachers, and he asked me if I would address the issue with his classes on Monday. Before we watched the video the first time(without sound), I asked the students to consider what questions and conclusions the video provoked. All of the students were stunned and disgusted by the graphic video. Their questions ranged from “Why wasn’t she monitored by her parents?” to “What is wrong with all of those people?” Their conclusions were more harsh: “The Chinese have problems” and “Communism causes people not to care.”
I read them the WSJ article which offers possible explanations for the bystanders’ behavior. China has undergone exponential economic growth, and some blame the country’s singular pursuit of financial success for the lack of empathy shown Yueyue. “The most important thing for Chinese people right now is making money and pursuing their own interests,” said Jin Liang, deputy director of the Shandong Institute of Behavioral Science in eastern China. “Our education system doesn’t teach ethics. Environment is very important in determining people’s behavior, and right now Chinese culture is sick.”
Additionally, unlike America, the Chinese do not have Good Samaritan laws. In fact, the article cites a famous 2007 legal case in which a young man was ordered to pay 40% of an elderly woman’s medical bill after escorting her to the hospital after she had fallen. The ruling reasoned that “according to common sense” he wouldn’t have assisted the woman unless he was actually responsible for her fall.
An attorney pushing for Good Samaritan laws in China, as well as laws punishing anyone who fails to offer aid to an injured stranger, argues that the culture itself is to blame for Yueyue’s death, suggesting in some way that everyone in China is a passerby. “Most Chinese parents teach their children to never get involved in matters that have nothing to do with you, and try your best to avoid any trouble.” He believes proposed laws would help “guide morality” and encourage parents to teach empathy.
I posed this question to the students, “I am the President of the People’s Republic of China, and Yueyue’s death has cast a pall over our country’s reputation. What, if anything, can I do to help my people develop a sense of compassion for one another?”
Most of the students pushed for stricter laws and legal protection for Good Samaritans. When I asked if laws shape behavior or if behavior shapes law, they refused to be hemmed in with either distinction. Most surprising to me was the students’ unanimous argument that Chinese education should include Ethics in the curriculum. Responding to the NCAA’s validation (or lack thereof) of certain courses, our school assigns only a half credit for each of its religion courses. As a result, students sometimes view these courses like glorified study halls: they argue for no homework, no academic writing, no difficult reading assignments. Yet, when I feigned disbelief and asked if they were really trying to tell me they consider Ethics as important as Physics or Calculus, they acknowledged, “Yes, if not more.”
I think Yueyue and her parents would agree.