Shortly after my wife and I first arrived in Beijing three years ago, we went out for dinner at a trendy Yunnanese restaurant not far from the apartment block in the east of the city where we now live.
After a fine dinner of spicy chicken, lotus root and the mushrooms for which China’s Yunnan province is famous, we paid our bill and walked out, leaving a modest tip behind as thanks for a dinner well-made and well-served.
A few minutes later, the waitress came running up the dark street behind us. “You forgot your change,” she told us, panting.
Tipping, we hadn’t yet learned, is not common in China. And as the waitress showed, the vast majority of people here – like anywhere – are honest to a fault.
No big revelations in what I just wrote, but it nonetheless felt like it needed to be said.
In the days since the appalling CCTV footage of little Yueyue being run over twice – and then ignored by an astonishing 18 passersby – has gone viral, tough questions have been asked about how those who walked by could act the way they did (answers are difficult) and whether or not there’s something larger that’s wrong with Chinese society (a fair question being asked by the country’s own citizens and, less directly, its government).
But at times, the discussion – including on The Globe and Mail’s website – has struck an uncomfortably racist tone. Some commentators, to my eyes and ears, seemed to suggest that Chinese people were somehow less moral than the rest of us.
That’s utter nonsense, and misses what really happened in that Foshan market.
Several of the 18 passersby have since been tracked down by Chinese media and questioned about their behaviour. While a few have claimed – improbably – that they didn’t notice the little girl bleeding at their feet, others are clearly wracked with guilt.
Why didn’t they intervene? The word “fear” keeps coming up.
“I was scared,” a woman named Lin – infamous for walking by Yueyue with her own 5-year-old daughter – told Chinese media. “If someone (else) was helping at that time, I would have done the same.”
Her reaction is one many Chinese citizens can understand well. The video of the 18 people ignoring the prone toddler has spawned comment threads millions of posts long on Chinese websites. Many Internet commentators admit they’re not sure they would have done any different.
Why? Indifference isn’t the answer.
The Chinese I’ve met are anything but indifferent. Going for a walk in Beijing with our own 20-month-old daughter often draws a small crowd of locals. She’s precious, they remind us. Is she warm enough?
But the same people will hurry by without stopping if they see someone knocked off their bicycle by a taxi cab (something else that happens regularly in Beijing). Why? The legal system here is unpredictable and unfair to those without money and political connections. Getting involved can often get you in trouble.
The most oft-cited case is that of Peng Yu, a Nanjing man who stopped to help an elderly lady who fell and broke her hip five years ago. Faced with sky-high medical costs, the 65-year-old lady turned on the Good Samaritan and alleged that he had caused her to fall. In a ruling that cites no evidence whatsoever, the Nanjing court accepted the woman's claims, finding it “at odds with reason” that Mr. Peng would have helped her merely out of the goodness of his heart. He was ordered to pay $6,000 towards the woman’s medical bill.
Mr. Peng’s case is known by an astonishing number of people here, and there are many others like it. The phenomenon is so widespread that when a 75-year-old man fell at a Nanjing bus stop in 2009, no one helped him up until he yelled out “I fell on my own, you all do not need to worry, it had nothing to do with you all.”
As improbable as it may seem to those of us who grew up in Canada, at least some of those 18 passersby were likely frozen by the thought that stopping to help the toddler could lead to being charged with involvement in a horrible crime.
The point is, the same people, in another place, might have acted very differently in the same situation. And no one who didn’t grow up in China can know for sure how they would have acted if they were a citizen of the People’s Republic when they came upon little Yueyue.
(I was a guest on a BBC World Radio program that discussed Yueyue's case this week. A caller from the Czech Republic reminded listeners that there was nothing uniquely Chinese about the reaction of the 18 passersby, but that anyone who had grown up in an authoritarian state could understand what was going through their minds.)
As even China’s official People’s Daily newspaper acknowledged in an editorial this week: “We could all be the pedestrians that walk past the injured girl.”
For all those wondering, little Yueyue remains in intensive care in a Guangzhou hospital, and the doctors treating her aren’t optimistic she’ll make it. Hearteningly, donations to help pay for her medical treatment have been pouring in from all over China.