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In this image taken from Oct. 13, 2011 security camera video run by China's TVS, a 2-year-old girl, identified as Wang Yue, is seen just before she is hit by a white van seen in the background in Foshan in southern China's Guangdong province. (TVS via APTN/AP)
In this image taken from Oct. 13, 2011 security camera video run by China's TVS, a 2-year-old girl, identified as Wang Yue, is seen just before she is hit by a white van seen in the background in Foshan in southern China's Guangdong province. (TVS via APTN/AP)

Charles Burton

China's hit-and-run morality Add to ...

It makes for chillingly gruesome viewing.

The closed-circuit TV video of two-year-old Wang Yue being run over by a van in Guangdong’s Foshan market has been downloaded all over China and viewed by millions. After the van that crushed her speeds off, 18 people walk past or cycle around the tiny girl gasping for breath and crying out in pain, immobile in a pool of her own blood.

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A truck runs over her again. A child tries to approach Yueyue (as she is known), but her mother pulls her away. Finally, she is rescued by a noble peasant woman, Chen Xianmei, who comes across the injured toddler while scavenging for discarded pop cans and other recyclables to sell.

Many Chinese seeking an explanation for why 18 people ignored the heart-rending suffering of this innocent child point to the infamous 2006 case of a man named Peng Yu. He helped an elderly woman to the hospital after she had fallen, only to have the woman falsely accuse him of knocking her down and demand generous compensation for her injuries. The matter ended up in court, where a judge ruled that “common sense” determined that the person who took the woman to the hospital must have been the same person who caused her injury. Peng Yu was ordered to pay 40 per cent of the woman’s hospital bills.

In the wave of national soul-searching that followed last week’s horrific incident, many bloggers and news commentators in China say the high degree of publicity given to the Peng Yu matter by the Chinese media only reinforced people’s wariness about being good Samaritans in similar situations. Bloggers suggest that the peasant rescuer, as a low-status person with no money or property to speak of, only assisted Yueyue because she had nothing to lose. The rationale is that if someone in a BMW had stopped to rush the child to hospital, their entire life savings could have been wiped out for becoming involved.

Be that as it may, a larger question looms. How is it that the judge in the Peng Yu case was able to rule that altruistic acts of kindness aren’t conceivable in today’s China? Such venal callousness in the case of a child in severe distress is certainly not consistent with China’s cultural tradition. Indeed, the ideal of impartial universal love put forth by the fifth-century BC Chinese philosopher Mozi (known in the West as Micius) is one of China’s many great contributions to civilization.

But, today, the very concept of socially responsible citizenship is politically taboo in China, because the current regime would be highly threatened by a society in which citizens are autonomous individuals with entitlements to universal human rights. After more than 60 years of oppressive authoritarian rule by the Chinese Communist Party, China has been left a low-trust society.

China, for instance, bans the formation of service clubs such as Rotary International, Kiwanis or the Knights of Columbus. There will be no Amnesty International branches or environmental NGOs or even local historical societies allowed in China any time soon. And so a society has emerged in which the Chinese retreat into the refuge of families and friends, and tend to treat all others with suspicion.

Yueyue remains in a deep coma, and press reports say she is brain-dead. Sadness and anger over what went wrong continue to mount. How can civic morality and public-spiritedness and trust be restored in China?

Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, and a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

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