This clip of surveillance-camera footage is very much worth avoiding. Trust me on the grisly essentials: a two-year-old is toddling across a market street in the southern Chinese city of Foshan when she is hit by a white minivan. The driver pauses, assesses the situation, and moves on, running over the girl again with the back right tire. In the minutes that follow, she lies on the pavement, is hit by another driver, and is ignored by more than a dozen passersby, including a woman walking with a child. Eventually, a garbage collector stops and pulls the child to safety.
Ever since this tape was broadcast on the Chinese news last week, the story of two-year-old Yueyue—and the many grown-ups who failed her—has appalled Chinese readers and sparked a debate about the ethical health of contemporary life here. The driver, in a call to reporters, didn’t help matters, saying: “If she is dead, I may pay only about twenty-thousand yuan ($3,125). But if she is injured, it may cost me hundreds of thousands of yuan.”
Photos of Yueyue in a hospital bed, reportedly brain dead, have been carried on newspaper front pages, and the Web is awash with bewildered comments: “What is up with our society? I saw this and my heart went cold,” a commentator wrote on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
Unfortunately, the story is distinguished only by degree. The issues at stake—compassion, ethics, and the law—are no mystery to Chinese citizens seeking to determine the direction their country will take. Chinese papers maintain a running narrative of spectacular acts of disregard. Last month, it was the case of an eighty-eight-year-old man who slipped at a vegetable market and died when nobody helped him for ninety minutes until an ambulance arrived. Five months ago, it was the case of onlookers at a Shanghai airport who did nothing after a twenty-three-year-old Chinese man stabbed his mother nine times in broad daylight. (Not to mention the recurring subgenre reserved for entrepreneurs who knowingly put dangerous things in food.)
The shorthand explanations usually adhere to two types: One, the speed of economic transformation and competition has unhinged people from their moral foundations; and, two, the end of political ideology as a meaningful force in people’s lives has opened a spiritual vacuum—a “crisis of faith” as it is known in Chinese.
In China, at least part of the sad story of Yueyue can be traced to what some are calling the “Peng Yu Effect.” That refers to the 2006 case of an elderly Nanjing woman who fell down and later sued a man named Peng Yu who had helped her. She claimed that he had knocked her over, and won the yuan equivalent of nearly seven thousand dollars. That cautionary tale has settled, to one degree or another, in the minds of ordinary citizens far and wide. When the People’s Daily conducted an online poll on whether people would help a senior citizen who had fallen in the street, more than eighty per cent of those tallied said that they would not help out of fear they would be blamed and saddled with damages.