October 18, 2011 9:43 am

A wounded child causes an internet storm in China

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by Patrick Brown

A few minutes of blurred video footage from a security camera in a market in Foshan in Guangdong province, China has provoked a ferment of soul-searching across the country. Posted late last week on Youku, China’s version of YouTube, the images are disturbing and unforgettable.

A two-year old girl wanders alone through the market as a white van approaches. The van hits the girl, who falls under the front wheel. The driver pauses briefly before driving away, crushing the girl a second time with the back wheel. For seven awful minutes, the broken, bleeding child twitches on the ground, ignored by 18 different passers-by. Some walk past, studiously looking the other way, others carefully steer their bicycles and carts around her. A second truck runs her over before anyone stops to help.

Finally, an elderly woman who earns money by sifting garbage for recyclable materials appears. She picks up the mangled child, moves her out of harm’s way and raises the alarm.

WARNING: The following video contains graphic, disturbing content and will not be suitable for everyone. Viewer discretion is strongly advised.

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The millions of comments posted on the internet reflect not just outrage at the apparent callous disregard for a young life, but also a degree of introspection. Several people I’ve spoken to see something of themselves in the reluctance of the 18 passers-by to get involved. Many feel that China has lost its moral compass in the scramble to get rich.

“This society is seriously ill. Even cats and dogs shouldn’t be treated so heartlessly,” says one widely-quoted blog post.

For a Westerner watching the video, the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan springs immediately to mind. Large numbers of Chinese comments on the internet invoke a modern-day parable — the story of Peng Yu, a young man who helped a 65-year-old woman who fell while getting off a bus in Nanjing in 2006. She later accused him of having pushed her down, and sued him for damages. The judge ruled against Peng Yu on the grounds that he must have been responsible for the fall, since an innocent person would never come to the aid of a stranger.

Fear of being sued in an increasingly litigious society is a powerful deterrent, and so is the fact that if you deliver an accident victim to the hospital, the hospital itself may hold you responsible for the medical bills.

In a country where there’s a strong tide of resentment against selfishness and extravagance, the rich and powerful, much is being made of the fact that Chen Shenmei, the Good Samaritan who came to the aid of the injured girl, Wang Yue, is a lowly domestic worker supplementing her income by working nights scavenging in the garbage.

One post to the Youku site, under the name Moyao, suggests China should follow the lead of countries like Canada, and pass a Good Samaritan law. “Why doesn’t the country establish a law to punish those who refuse to lift a finger to help people in mortal danger?” she wrote, “When morality holds no sway over cold-hearted Chinese people, what else can we do but turn to the law?”

In Canada, two provinces go further than a basic Good Samaritan law giving protection against being sued for coming to the aid of a stranger. Under Quebec’s civil law, people also have a duty to help. British Columbia requires people to respond when a child is endangered.

While millions of people were expressing their feelings on the internet, the 370 people who could actually do something were meeting behind closed doors in Beijing.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party began its secretive annual conclave Saturday, with the stated theme of deepening reform of Chinese culture.

Legal protection for those who overcome their reluctance to help others, exaggerated in the current get-rich-quick atmosphere, but deeply-rooted in Chinese culture, would be a good place to start.

Patrick is Global National’s Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. Follow him on Twitter: @PBrownGlobal.

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