In China, Don't Dare Help the Elderly

At Bloomberg, Adam Minter explains why many Chinese have come to believe that, in the words of one Weibo poster, “helping a fallen senior is a risky investment and its overall rate of return is usually negative“:

On the morning of Sept. 4, in the riverside boomtown of Wuhan, Mr. Li, an 88-year-old man, fell in the street and injured his nose. People passed him by, but no one raised a hand to help as he lay on the ground, suffocating on his own blood.

This week, China’s netizens have expressed an outpouring of sympathy – for the bystanders. This is nothing new here. In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of elderly men and women who have collapsed or suffered accidents in public spaces who then sue the good Samaritans who have tried to help them. These cases have created a genuine and widespread fear that helping a person in need will lead to personal financial loss.

In the wake of the Wuhan incident, People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, ran an online poll that asked if people would help a collapsed elderly person on the street. More than 80 percent of respondents said that they, too, wouldn’t help for fear of extortion. A poll on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, showed a similar result: 43 percent said they wouldn’t help, 38 percent said they weren’t sure what they would do, and only 20 percent said they would “definitely” help.

The Chinese have long prided themselves on their traditional, Confucian reverence for the elderly. And these incidents have generated an exceptional outpouring of public concern over the decline of social ethics and morality in Chinese society.

While many see the problem as a symptom of modern societal ills, Sam Crane looks at it in the context of Chinese tradition, referring to work by UCLA anthropologist Yunxiang Yan [paywall]:

Yan provides many examples of the “Good Samaritans trouble” in China. And he thinks about causes:

….I would like to emphasise three more specific factors that are directly related to the cases of extraordinary extortion, namely, the legal loopholes that allow an extortion attempt to be almost cost-free, feelings of deprivation that motivate an extortion attempt, and the relationally-based morality that justifies hostility toward strangers.

He thus recognizes the legal and economic motivations of the extorters, but adds that third element: relationally-based morality. He expands on this idea:

The notion of a stranger has different meanings for the elderly and the young. According to Fei Xiaotong, traditional Chinese society is organised through a differentiated mode of association in which individuals are positioned in a hierarchy of various relations, such as that between parents and children, husband and wife, and between friends. Moral rights and duties are defined and fulfilled differently in accordance with one’s position in a given relationship. Many of the behavioural norms and moral values do not apply to people who are outside one’s network of social relationships.

At The Guardian, Tania Branigan also cited Yan’s work, including his explanation of the bizarre and depressing reasoning behind past verdicts:

In a 2009 paper on the phenomenon, anthropologist Yunxiang Yan pointed out that police and judges frequently demanded that the helper prove his innocence, while the extortionist was not required to provide witnesses or other evidence.

In one notorious case, a court ordered a Nanjing man to pay more than 45,000 yuan (£4,400) to an old lady whom he had taken to hospital. The judge argued it was common sense that he would not have gone to such trouble unless he had caused her fall.

“Gradually, helping a stranger is coming to be regarded as a mindless and silly act, instead of compassionate or heroic,” noted Yan, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Sources:

In China, Don’t Dare Help the Elderly: Adam Minter – Bloomberg
The continuing decline of filiality – The Useless Tree
China’s Good Samaritans count the cost of their altruism – guardian.co.uk

September 9, 2011 8:47 PM
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