Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “One is constantly surprised, until habit has accustomed him to the sight, at the calm indifference with which a calamity or even the entire ruin of another is regarded by the Chinese. Ruin is too common a phenomenon to attract much attention. It is a literal truth in China, that " when a man is rolling down hill, everything seems to be "greased for the occasion." The general omission to do anything for the relief of the drowning, which at once strikes the foreigner in China, is matched by a like callousness to the many cases of distress which are to be seen almost everywhere, especially along lines of travel. It is a common proverb that to be poor at home is not to be counted as poverty, but to be poor when on the high road, away from home, will cost a man his life. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Alice Yan wrote in the South China Morning Post, “A young man jumps into a river to save a family of three who are drowning. He helps them reach the river bank but becomes trapped in the water and cannot climb out. As his strength fails, bystanders urge the family to help the person who just rescued them. But they walk away, with the woman in the group saying it is none of their business as the man drowns. That series of events transpired in Loudi, a city of 3.8 million in southern Hunan, last month as reported by another example, some observers argued, of society's descent into selfish indifference. [Source: Alice Yan, South China Morning Post, August 27, 2012]

In August 2012, “a fish vendor in Xiangtan, Hunan helped send an 83-year-old woman to hospital after she fell down on a street. Her family hounded the man for a 200,000 yuan ($30,000) payment. Panicked, the vendor committed suicide by drinking pesticide. In May 2012, Reuters reported: “Chinese police have arrested a young couple who buried an old woman alive believing she was dead after their car hit the 68-year-old, newspapers said, in a case which has sparked outrage over declining public morality. The couple had been at an all-night karaoke session when they hit the woman while driving in the early hours of the morning in the wealthy eastern province of Zhejiang last month, the official China Daily said. A witness said he heard someone crying and saw an elderly woman lying on the ground near (the car)," it cited a policeman as saying. "A man and a woman got out and put the elderly woman in the car, saying they would send her to hospital." But, worried about being arrested for drunk driving and causing the accident and believing she was no longer alive, they buried her near the side of the road, the report added. However, when police later found the woman's body they discovered she was still alive when she was buried, and had then suffocated to death, the paper said. [Source: Reuters, May 23, 2012]

“The story has been widely discussed on China's popular Twitter-like service Weibo, where it has ignited uproar for what some called the immorality of modern Chinese society. "Such things show that our society really has huge problems it is not facing," wrote one user. "People of China, how have you come to this?" wrote another. China's economic boom and the growing disparity between the rich and poor have made changing social values a contentious topic, with some lamenting what they see as materialism and a get-rich-quick attitude replacing public morals.

Websites and Sources: Book: Understanding the Chinese Personality ; Understanding Chinese Business Culture ; Status of Chinese People Blog ; Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project ; Opinions on Asian Fetish ; Essay on Humor, China and Japan ; . Book: One of the most enlightening books about China is “Chinese Lives” by Sang Ye and Zhang Xinxin, a series of interviews with ordinary Chinese talking very candidly about what matter to them.

Lack Sympathy in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “The Chinese are conspicuous for a deficiency in sympathy. Among a people to whom the birth of male children is so vital a matter, it is not surprising that the fact of childlessness is a constant occasion of reproach and taunts. If it is supposed for any reason, or without reason, that a mother has quietly smothered one of her children, it will not be strange if the announcement of the same is publicly made to a stranger.An Irish jury is alleged to have once brought in a verdict, to the effect that a person had “died by visitation of God, under suspicious circumstances." [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“Side by side with the punctilious ceremony which is so dear to the Chinese heart, is the apparent inability to perceive that some things must be disagreeable to other persons, and therefore should be avoided. It is true that a popular aphorism enjoins the extenuation of a person's age, and the appreciation of the value of whatever he may have bought, but like many other wise sayings, this suggestion is much neglected in practice. A schoolteacher whose wife had been obliged to work late, in order to get his garment for New Year ready in time, wore it in triumph to make his calls withal. As it chanced, his wife had made a slight mistake in the cutting, but had skillfully concealed it by a neat seam deftly ironed down. The friends upon whom the teacher called, admired the garment, but at once remarked, "The stuff was not enough," pointing to the pressed seam by way of proof. As it was the time of the annual Chinese holiday, the wife was allowed to escape the beating, which she would. else inevitably have received. A Chinese friend, who had not the smallest idea of saying what would be deficient in politeness, remarked to the writer, that when he first saw foreigners, it seemed most extraordinary that they should have beards that reached all round their faces, just like those of monkeys, but he added, reassuringly, “I am quite used to it now! “The teacher who is asked in the presence of his pupils, as to their capacity, replies before them all, that the one nearest the door is much the brightest, and will be a graduate by the time he is twenty years of age, but the two at the next table are certainly the stupidest children he ever saw. That such observations have any reflex effect upon the pupils, never for a moment enters into the thought of any one. It was once proposed that a man who was said to be "a stranger to the finer feelings," should have an introduction. If a foreigner were to be the worse for liquor which he had taken in making calls, he would not be likely to mention the fact the next time he appeared at the same places., We have heard, however, of a Taot'ai, who hinted to a Consul that it was best to be judicious on such occasions, enforcing his observation, with the remark : "I got very drunk indeed the last time I was here."

“One of the most characteristic methods in which the Chinese lack of sympathy is manifested is in the treatment which brides receive on their wedding day. They are often very young, are always timid and are naturally terror-stricken at being suddenly thrust among strangers. Customs vary widely, but there seems to be a general indifference to the feelings of the poor child thus exposed to the public gaze. In some places it is allowable for anyone who chooses to turn back the curtains of the chair and stare at her. In other regions, the unmarried girls find it a source of keen enjoyment to post themselves at a convenient position, as the bride passes, to throw upon her handfuls of hay seed or chaff, which will obstinately adhere to her carefully oiled hair for a long time. Upon her emergence from the chair, at the house of her new parents, she is subjected to the same kind of criticism as a newly bought horse, with what feelings, on her part, it is not difficult to imagine."

Reluctance to Help in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “The unwillingness to give help to others, unless there is some special reason for doing so, is a trait that runs through Chinese social relations, in multifold manifestations...In' China, "Virtue's door is hard to open," and it is still Harder to shut. No one can possibly foresee all the remote results of some well-meant act of kindness, and knowing the danger of. incurring responsibility, the prudent will be wary what they undertake. A missionary living in an interior province was asked by some native gentlemen to do a kind act for a poor beggar who was totally blind, and restore to him his sight. It proved to be a case of cataract and excellent vision was secured. When this result became certain, the missionary was waited upon by the same gentlemen, and told that as he had destroyed the only means by which the blind man could get a living, that is by begging, it was the duty of the missionary to make it up to him by taking him into employ as a gate-keeper! [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Sometimes a benevolent old lady, who is limited in the sphere of her activity, makes a practice of entertaining other old ladies who seem to be deserving, but who are Victims of cruel fate. We have heard of one case of this sort — and of one only — and they may not be so rare as is supposed. But after all abatements, it must be admitted that " real kindness kindly expressed " is not often to be met in Chinese life. The ordinary streams of refugees which swarm over the country in a bad year are indeed allowed to camp down in cart-sheds, empty rooms, etc., but this is to a considerable extent a necessity. When such refugees come in extensive bands, and meet with repulses in all quarters, they are certain to be provoked into some form of reprisal. Common prudence dictates some concessions to those in such circumstances.

“In a Western country a perfect stranger travelling on foot is not unlikely to be invited to ride on a passing waggon, if there is room. But one might travel tens of thousands of miles in China, and never hear of such a proposition. We have heard indeed of an instance in which a kind-hearted foreigner attempted to introduce this Occidental exotic to Chinese soil. A poor Chinese woman who was toiling along the highway was invited to ride on a foreigner's cart, which was halted for her convenience. As soon as the old woman was made to comprehend the nature of his proposition, she fell into a" passion, lying down in the road, rolling over and over in her fury, reviling her would-be benefactor with fearful shrieks!

“It is in travelling in China that the absence of helpful kindness on the part of the people toward strangers is most conspicuous. When the summer rains have made all land travel almost impossible, he whose circumstances make travel a necessity will find that " heaven, earth and man " are a three-fold harmony in combination against him. No one will tell him that the road which he has taken will presently end in a quagmire. If on his return he asks the people working in the fields why they did not tell him that this was the wrong road, their answer is suggestive of that of the inebriated individual who was criticised by the by-standers for getting on his horse with his face to its tail, to whom he replied with withering scorn and drunken dignity, "How do you know which way I want to go?" If you choose to drive into a morass, it is no business of the contiguous tax-payers, We have heretofore spoken in various connections of the neglect of Chinese highways. When the traveller has been plunged into one of the sloughs with which all such roads at certain seasons abound, and finds it impossible to extricate himself, a great crowd of persons will rapidly gather from somewhere, " their hands in their sleeves, and idly gazing," as the saying goes. It is not until a definite bargain has been made with them that any one of these by-standers, no matter how numerous, will lift a finger to help one in any particular. Not only so, but it is a constant practice on such occasions for the local rustics to dig deep pits in difficult places, with the express purpose of trapping the traveller that he may be obliged to employ these same rustics to help the travellers out! When there is any doubt as to the road in such places, one might as well plunge forward disregarding the cautions of those native to the spot, since one can never be sure that the directions given are not designed to hinder rather than help.

“One is often struck in China with the readiness of resource of even the most ordinary coolie. If he is interested in having a thing done, even, though there be no " way " (fa-tzu), he will find one, for nowhere do the way and the will more firmly cement their partnership than in the Celestial Empire., But if the matter is nothing to them, though there may be a whole village full of people brimful of resources, not one of them will lift a finger to assist, unless he sees definitely what is to be got by it. It is obstructions of this sort which give point to the adage, that "out of every ten matters nine will go wrong."

Two-Year Girl Ignored by 18 Passers-By After Being Run-Over by a Van

In October 2011, a two-year-old girl, Wang Yueyue, was left comatose after being knocked down by a van in a back alley street of Guangfo Hardware Market in the city of Foshan in southern Guangdong Province. The van driver stopped for a moment, presumably realizing in horror that he has just hit a toddler. Then he drives on crushing her again beneath his rear wheels. As she lay on the ground, her face bloodied, writhing in pain — before being hit by a second vehicle — 18 people, on their bicycles, in cars or on foot, passed by but chose to ignore her. Among those who walked by was a young woman with her own child. Several glance at the child’s bloodied body before continuing, while others walk or wheel around it — callousness that prompted an outpouring of soul-searching and disgust in China and around the world. [Source: Tania Branigan, Lijia Zhang, The Guardian, October 17, 22, 2011]

The girl was declared brain dead and lay in a coma after the incident for about a week before finally succumbing to her injuries. A spokesman at Guangzhou Military District General Hospital, where she was treated, told AFP that Wang Yueyue had died of brain trauma and "systemic organ failure", adding that no expense had been spared to try to save the girl, whose parents are migrant workers. Yueyue’s mother said she was a good girl, full of life. She said she had just brought Yueyue back from her kindergarten. She popped out to collect the dry clothes and returned to find Yueyue gone — probably trying to look for her elder brother. Xinhua said Yueyue’s father had received more than 270,000 yuan ($42,280) in donations to help pay for her medical treatment. A rubbish collector rushed to Yueyue's side without hesitation.

The BBC reported: “Wang Yueyue was knocked down by a van while wandering through a market, where her parents run a shop. The distressing footage was aired by a local television station and then spread rapidly on China's microblogs and Youku, China's equivalent of YouTube, where it was watched 1.5 million times in the first day it was shown. It was also shown again and again on overseas television." Leo Lewis wrote in the Times of London, “Yueyue was 100 meters from her family home in Foshan...The child might have been saved if a seven-minute procession of cyclists and pedestrians had not looked the other way. The callousness of the drivers and those who walked on has been taken by Chinese as evidence that the country is losing its soul. Several passersby can be seen stopping to look down at the girl before carrying on. “Even after Yueyue was carried off the street and put against some sacks, the unwillingness of people to become involved was all too obvious.The 57-year-old rubbish collector who finally moved her ran from shop to shop to find the toddler's parents and was repeatedly told to mind her own business. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, October 18, 2011; BBC, October 21, 2011]

A day or so after Yueyue died two drivers suspected of running over her were arrested. Police said they were able to identify the vehicles and the drivers from the video footage that was shown on television. In September 2012, AFP reported: “Hu Jun, the driver who ran over a toddler in a hit-and-run accident that shocked China has been sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for accidentally causing the toddler's death by hitting her with his car, a spokeswoman for the court in Foshan's Nanhai district said. Hu was given a lighter sentence than he might otherwise have received because he voluntarily turned himself into local police after the accidental killing, and paid part of Yue Yue's medical fees, the China News Service reported. [Source: AFP, September 6. 2012]

Reasons Why People Didn’t Help the Two-Year Girl Hit by the Van

As the fury died down the focus shifted from the callousness of the passers-by to practical pressures that kept them from trying to help. "Now people have become so selfish. So many people walked by but no one helped her because they didn't want to get into trouble," said Yang Yaying, a 21-year-old Beijing resident.

Lijia Zhang wrote in the The Guardian,”China's moral crisis doesn't just manifest itself in personal life but also in business practice and many other areas. The high-profile "poisoned milk powder" case and the scandal of using "gutter oil" as cooking oil have shocked and disgusted people around the world. Last year an article, "Why have Chinese lost their sense of morality?", in which the author tried to find an explanation, was widely read. He reasoned that China has introduced the concept of a market economy from the west but failed to import the corresponding ethics, while the traditional moral principles of China no longer fit the market economy model.[Source: Lijia Zhang, The Guardian, October 22, 2011]

There's a lot of sense in that. I believe that the lack of a value system is also deepening the moral crisis. Before Mao, the indifference towards others once so accurately described by Fei existed but was mitigated by a traditional moral and religious system. That system was then almost destroyed by the communists, especially during the 10 mad years of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Nowadays communism, the ideology that dominated Chinese people's lives like a religion, has also more or less collapsed. As a result, there's a spiritual vacuum that cannot be filled by the mere opportunity of money-making.

Chinese Afraid to Help Out of Fear of Being Sued or Blamed

Many people in China are hesitant to help people who appear to be in distress for fear that they will be blamed. In China, fear of being sued - either by the person needing help or their family - can deter people from getting involved. There have been several high-profile cases in which the court has found a rescuer responsible for worsening a person's injuries and ordered compensation. Just the threat of financial liability can have a powerful effect. Earlier this month,a fish vendor in Xiangtan, Hunan helped send an 83-year-old woman to hospital after she fell down on a street. Her family hounded the man for a 200,000 yuan (HK$242,000) payment. Panicked, the vendor committed suicide by drinking pesticide. A senior provincial social worker, Liu Runhua, told Reuters he did not believe the case reflected a wider malaise in Guangdong. "Those who ignore the dying make up only a handful of people in the province," the China Daily quoted him as saying. "But cases when dying persons aren't given help, or when good Samaritans get into trouble, are often widely reported in the media, which tends to make the public concerned." [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, October 21, 2011]

The Guardian reported that one microblog poster said that while the footage was heartbreaking he would have been "numb" to Yueyue too. "Would you be willing to throw your entire family's savings into the endless whirlpool of accident compensation? Aren't you afraid of being put into jail as the perpetrator? Have you ever considered that your whole family could lose happiness only because you wanted to be a great soul?" he wrote. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, October 17, 2011]

Many remember a case in 2006 when a 65-year-old woman fell in the street and broke her hip in Nanjing judge in Jiangsu province. In what became know as the "Nanjing judge" incident a 26-year-old man named Peng Yu rushed to help the old woman and took her to a hospital and waited to see if the old woman was all right and gave her 200 yuan for good measure. Later, however, the woman and her family accused Peng of causing her fall and sued him for 45,000 yuan. A judge decided in favour of the woman, based on the assumption that "Peng must be at fault. Otherwise why would he want to help?", saying that Peng acted against "common sense". The outcry from the public in support of Peng forced the court to adjust its verdict and resulted in Peng paying 10 percent of the costs instead of the total. Since that incident Peng has become a national cautionary tale: the Good Samaritan being framed by the beneficiary of their compassion.[Source: Lijia Zhang, The Guardian, October 22, 2011 and Leo Lewis, The Times, October 18, 2011]

Since then the fear of litigation has increased. In June 2010 a man helped an elderly woman only to be sued for 100,000 yuan. In September 2011 the Ministry of Health advised the public not to rush to lend a hand to the elderly if they fall. Soon after that an 88-year-old man fell over face down at the entrance of a vegetable market near his home in Wuhan. For almost 90 minutes, he was ignored by people in the busy market. After his daughter found him and called an ambulance, the old man died "because of a respiratory tract clogged by a nosebleed". If anyone had turned him over, he might have survived. The Communist Party's official newspaper, the People's Daily, subsequently conducted a poll that found that 80 per cent of people would not help an elderly person in the street for fear of extortion.

Not Getting Involved If It's Not Your Business

Lijia Zhang wrote in the The Guardian,”It's true that in China you can get into trouble when you try to help. Weeks ago I spotted an accident on the fourth ring road in Beijing as I returned home one night. A man was hit by a "black car", an "illegal taxi", and his face was all bloody. Watched over by a crowd, the injured man behaved aggressively towards the driver. I got off my scooter. As I tried to pull the two men apart, I was struck myself. When I asked if anyone had reported this to the police, the driver said no. I couldn't believe that people just stared as if enjoying a free show, without doing anything. I called the helpline and the policemen turned up soon after.[Source: Lijia Zhang, The Guardian, October 22, 2011]

The fundamental problem, in my view, lies in one word that describes a state of mind: shaoguanxianshi, meaning don't get involved if it's not your business. In our culture, there's a lack of willingness to show compassion to strangers. We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family and friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interest.

Fei Xiaotong, China's first sociologist, described Chinese people's moral and ethical characteristics in his book, From the Soil, in the middle of the last century. He pointed out that selfishness is the most serious shortcoming of the Chinese. "When we think of selfishness, we think of the proverb 'Each person should sweep the snow from his own doorsteps and should not fret about the frost on his neighbour's roof,'" wrote Fei. He offered the example of how the Chinese of that period threw rubbish out of their windows without the slightest public concern. Things are much the same today.

Under Mao, citizens were forced to behave themselves in both public and private spheres. Every March, people were obliged to go into the street to do good deeds: cleaning buses, fixing bicycles and offering haircuts. Now relaxed social control and commercialisation over the past three decades have led people to behave more selfishly again. People are enjoying, and sometimes abusing, the vast personal freedoms that didn't exist before. To start with, it is now safe to be "naughty".Back in the early 1980s, when I worked at a rocket factory in Nanjing, one of my colleagues, a married man, was caught having an affair with an unmarried woman. He was given a three-year sentence in a labour camp and the girl was disgraced. In today's society, having extramarital affairs or keeping anernai — second wife or concubine — is as common as "cow hair", as the Chinese would say. For a novel I am writing on prostitution, I have interviewed many prostitutes and ernai. Many see their profession as a way to gather wealth quickly, feeling few moral qualms.

Other Incidents of Bystanders Walking By Dying or Injured People in China

Kenneth Tan wrote in Shanghaiist: In an infamous incident" in 2018 "played out on surveillance tape, a woman was hit by a car while crossing a busy intersection in Henan, leaving her lying motionless on the road alongside a crosswalk. Afterward, dozens of pedestrians and drivers passed by without taking action to help the woman before she was run over a second time, ending her life.” The tragic incident was reminiscent of two-year-old Yue Yue’s tragic death in 2011. [Source: Kenneth Tan, Shanghaiist, May 5, 2018]

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “ A Chinese woman was going from one city to another distant about twelve miles, and was riding a donkey. In crossing a puddle the animal slipped and fell, throwing the woman to the ground against a stone, and giving her very severe bruises in the breast and back. Seeing her lie in this helpless condition, moaning with extreme pain, the donkey boy took his beast and made off. This happened at about seven o'clock in the morning. Although this was 'alongside of one of the most travelled highways in China leading to the capital, the woman was allowed to lie there all day, except that some one moved her a little out of the fiercest glare of the summer sun. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

The only person who offered to do anything for her was a man who proposed to take her to her home, two or three miles distant, for a sum equal to about five dollars, a proposition which the woman even in her extreme pain, was still too sensible to think for a moment of accepting. About twelve hours after the accident took place, the owner of the donkey, fearing that he would be held responsible if the woman was killed, returned to the spot, hoping that she had disappeared. Finding her still there, a small flat basket was procured, into which she was tumbled, curled up like a pig, and carried by a pole on the shoulders of two men into the city near by, exhausted, and half dead with pain and fright. The woman insisted upon being taken to the house of the foreigner, declaring that she should die if she went to her own home, a premonition which had much probability. The suffering woman was taken into the dispensary, and carefully attended, while her husband was sent for. On his arrival, he abused his wife for her stupidity in falling from the donkey! After several weeks of assiduous nursing,, the woman recovered.

Bystanders Walk By as Man Dies on the Side of Road in 2015

In February 2015, Jess Macy Yu of the New York Times wrote: “State-run media reported that a 57-year-old man in Yuhuan County, Zhejiang Province, staggered and collapsed near the turn of a small lane. Over the next eight minutes, surveillance video shows, four motor vehicles passed and nearly two dozen pedestrians walked by. One man got out of his car after seeing the man lying on the ground, but only looked at him and motioned the car forward before stepping out of the frame. No one offered assistance. Finally, a white car made a right-hand turn at the corner and ran over the man, dragging him away...The Beijing News reported that the man had died. It said that his name was Chen Xiwen and that he had worked as a bricklayer in his younger days. [Source: Jess Macy Yu, Sinosphere, New York Times, February 4, 2015 ^]

“News of his death touched a deep nerve in China. An article posted on the Tencent QQ News website had attracted more than 46,000 comments” with a few days. “This is the unique characteristic of China,” a post by Ping Tan Yi Sheng said. “To speak honestly, why have people become so coldhearted and without emotions? Actually the reason is the failure of Chinese education. This country has let its people become coldhearted and without emotions.” Another post, under the name Love in the Heart, said “Everyone is scared in the event of a fire to help old people. But if someone just called the police, or called 120 for emergency assistance, the old man would not have been run over by the car.” ^

“One factor that has been cited in the failure of witnesses to help victims is a fear of being held legally responsible. Cases of people who have tried to help someone in need and who are then accused of causing the accident are thought to have discouraged many passers-by from getting involved. In an effort to protect those who do try to help accident victims, the southern city of Shenzhen in 2013 enacted China’s first Good Samaritan law. The law aimed to reduce the risks of offering help by guaranteeing rescuers a presumption of innocence and free legal assistance in the case of lawsuits by the rescued.^

“In the case of Mr. Chen, his previous dealings with would-be Good Samaritans may not have worked in his favor. The head of his village in Yuhuan County told The Beijing News that Mr. Chen was a heavy drinker, and when drunk had often quarreled with other villagers and fallen down. “When he was on the ground and given a hand, he accused other people of pushing him over and insisted that they pay him damages,” the village head said. ^

Calls for Good Samaritan Laws in China

At the time of the incidents described above took place mainland China had no law governing good Samaritans but after the incidents there were calls to introduce a 'Good Samaritan law' to punish passersby who refuse to help people in need. Such "duty of rescue" laws exist in many European countries. "I hope that this little angel who was discarded by society can act as a wake-up call to the nation about the importance of moral education," wrote one blogger, "gongzai xiaoben." The BBC reported: “Guangdong province is debating the introduction of a law to force people to help others in obvious distress. Initial online polls, though, suggest most people are against it. "Talk about being civilised first. Is anyone paying attention to that?" read one posting. Lawyer Zhu Yongping told the Dail Mail that Guangdong province could establish a Good Samaritan law as a local law, but it is difficult to define the motives of a person in each individual case.

Alice Yan wrote in the South China Morning Post in 2012: "After" Yue Yue's death, national lawmakers have had the opportunity to draft a law that specifically addresses good-Samaritan acts. They declined to do so, and in its place, the State Council issued a circular last month that laid out stronger protection of the rights of citizen rescuers. Academics expect the circular will help standardise the patchwork of regulations that exist at the local or provincial level. More than 60 provinces and cities have issued their own rules or guidelines in recent years on rewards for people who are injured while trying to help others, according to The Beijing News. But local regulations were often poorly implemented, said Jiang Mingan, a law professor at Peking University. Good Samaritans sometimes ended up disabled and without a job after being hurt while helping someone, Jiang said. "Our heroes are hurt not only physically, but also mentally," he said. [Source: Alice Yan, South China Morning Post, August 27, 2012]

A State Council's circular lists subsidies that a recognised good Samaritan should receive. They cover daily living expenses, any hospital treatment needed, job security, assistance with property purchases and preferential policies for their children's education. The circular also addresses the matter of compensation if the person who extended help is killed or injured. According to the circular, the rescuer should not be responsible for paying related medical bills. Instead, the person at fault for creating the dangerous situation should pay. If no one is to blame, in acts of nature for example, then the medical-insurance company should bear the cost. Zhu Yongping, director of the Guangzhou Datong Law Firm, said the circular offered a template that local jurisdictions could use to draft or amend their own laws. Improvements were needed, Zhu said, because even with encouragement from propaganda, people were largely ignoring others in distress. He argues existing rules do not go far enough. "Helping others is a moral issue. But in this era, only legal measures can lift the level of morality of the public."

Zhu backs the approach favoured by several European nations, where bystanders have an obligation to help, so long as the rescuer is not putting his own life at undue risk. Ignoring that duty is criminal. China could introduce penalties along these lines for people who fail to extend help, such as issuing a verbal warning, notifying employers or publishing names. Police would decide through investigation whether a person should be held accountable, he said. The mainland's omnipresent security cameras could determine who is to blame.

China Passes a Good Samaritan Law

In March 2018, the National People’s Congress (NPC) confirmed China’s new Good Samaritan law, which provides protection to those who voluntarily offer emergency assistance to victims who are, or who they believe to be, injured, ill, in danger, or otherwise incapacitated, ensuring that they will not be held civilly liable in the event that they harm the person they are trying to save, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.[Source: Kenneth Tan, Shanghaiist, May 5, 2018]

Kenneth Tan wrote in Shanghaiist: Due to unscrupulous scammers, public trust in China is at rock-bottom, making bystanders reluctant to help those in need for fear of getting blackmailed or sued. In the years following Little Yue Yue’s death, a few Chinese cities have passed their own Good Samaritan laws, hoping to prevent similar incidents from taking place. In November 2017 , Shanghai’s own law protecting first-responders went into effect. However, critics felt it did not do enough to solve the problem, only providing legal protection to citizens if they call emergency services first and follow instructions. Many worried that passersby simply wouldn’t bother to take the risk.

According to a survey cited by the Workers' Daily in 2011, 70 per cent of 3,000 people who had been recognised by authorities in Guizhou for meritorious acts continued to struggle financially. In 2012, the BBC reported: Organisations in Guangdong are also looking at other ways to encourage people to act with compassion when faced with an emergency. The provincial government's political and legal affairs committee is using its micro-blog site to gather opinions about how to "guide brave acts for just causes" and promote "socialist morals". Several commentators have linked the failure of the passers-by to help with high-profile cases in which residents who stopped to assist people in distress were later held responsible for their plight.

Reuters reported, “The provincial capital, Guangzhou, plans a law to protect good Samaritans and give rewards of up to 500,000 yuan for such actions, the newspaper added. The provincial Communist Party chief, Wang Yang, urged "searching reflection" on the incident, the official Guangzhou Daily reported."Take active and effective steps to raise the moral standards of the entire society," he told a meeting of province officials, according to the paper. "We should look into the ugliness in ourselves with a dagger of conscience and bite the soul-searching bullet," Wang also said, Xinhua reported separately. [Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, October 21, 2011]

Does China’s Good Samaritan Law Go Too Far?

The Good Samaritan law has been criticized for going too far to the other extreme, providing legal protection to anyone who tries to help, even if they make the situation worse of don’t know what they are doing. Initially the law contained language specifying liability for aiders but this was removed due to objection by some NPC delegates.

In March 2018, Donald C. Clarke, a law professor specializing in Chinese law at The George Washington University Law School, wrote that this extremely broad protection was very much the NPC’s intention: Article 184 provides, somewhat startlingly, that those who attempt to aid others in emergency situations shall never be liable under any circumstances. If I see you coughing, assume you are choking, and attempt a tracheotomy with a butter knife despite a complete lack of medical training, your next of kin cannot sue me. The legislative history makes it clear that this is in fact the desired result. The original version of this article presented to the NPC provided that the Good Samaritan could be liable for gross negligence, but some delegates objected that this would be too discouraging. (Bear in mind that this provision comes in the wake of a number of incidents widely reported in China over the last several years of egregious bystander indifference to suffering or of those who were aided suing those who aided them.) As a result, the provision was amended to state that where the aided party could prove that they had suffered serious damages as a result of the aider’s gross negligence, the aider should bear “appropriate” liability. (Note that the burden of proof would have been on the aided party even without this amendment.) [Source: Kenneth Tan, Shanghaiist, May 5, 2018]

In May 2018, in a blog post, Clarke further criticized the law for failing to address the real concerns that Chinese people have when faced with helping those in need: “It’s a weird kind of Good Samaritan law, though, because it doesn’t solve the problem people in China were worried about and instead solves a problem nobody seems to have. The problem people in China have been worried about (at least if popular culture is any guide) is that of people who help an injured person and are falsely accused by the victim of causing the injury. This, we are told, is why we see so many scandalous stories of injured people lying on the road for hours while everyone just walks around them and nobody stops to help. How would this problem be solved? By having police and judges be less credulous and demanding more by way of evidence. The problem seems to lie in a general tendency of Chinese tort law to look to anyone connected to a loss to share that loss, regardless of that person’s level of fault. (There are lots of examples of this, but that’s another blog post.) To a decision-maker, the very fact that someone is involved often seems a good enough reason to impose at least some liability.

Article 184 does nothing to solve this problem. Instead, it solves a problem that I have never seen complaints about: well-intentioned people being made liable for injuries they cause in the course of attempting to help an injured person. This is a totally different matter from the first situation described above. Here, there’s no factual issue: the helper did cause the injuries, and caused them after stopping to help. The policy question is, should the law grant them some kind of exemption from liability in order to encourage people to help, even though they might make a mistake and make things worse?

Image Sources: drawings from Citizens posters. University of Washington; photgraphs,; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: ; You Tube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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