Last Saturday afternoon on Weining Road (威宁路) in Xi’an, a Caucasian woman lifted a man lying on the street, while using her limited Chinese skills to ask for help from passersby. After she helped the prone stranger get off his feet, she led him to rest inside a small shop, whereupon the owner of the store told her:
“Don’t bring him into my store, it’ll bring me trouble.”
Other details of the story have yet to emerge.
It now seems like the phenomenon of non-Chinese rushing to lend a helping hand is becoming quite common.
Netizens have even given the Good Samaritans the nickname of “Yang Lei Feng” (洋雷锋), which means “Foreign Lei Feng”, in reference to a model soldier held up in China as a propagandistic paragon of selflessness.
Just last week, it was reported that an American woman jumped into Hangzhou’s West Lake to save a woman trying to commit suicide.
And today, the trial for the mentally disturbed student who stabbed his mother at Pudong Airport began, which was another incident where the only person who stopped to help was a foreigner.
All of which stands in contrast to the quite everyday occurrence of Chinese standing by to watch someone lying on the ground without getting involved somehow, regardless of the situation.
For their part, The Guardian argues that the problem of people ignoring strangers in need goes back to the Cultural Revolution:
…China still hasn’t completely recovered from this period; the same lack of trust and the instinct for self-preservation that helped a generation survive the political shocks of their youth, has not gone away. It is a trauma that is rarely spoken of or dealt with personally.
One of my relatives was sentenced to a labour camp for many years during the cultural revolution after speaking up for a friend who had been denounced as a counter-revolutionary. That period is a reminder to him and his family to never get involved in other people’s business.
In the late 80s and 90s, China began the process of reform and opening up. As many get richer, loyalty to the party and the authority (itself a product of propaganda) has been gradually replaced by the individualism, materialism and the pursuit of wealth. Without any religion or traditional values (many of which were also destroyed during the cultural revolution), there is a spiritual vacuum in today’s China. Our traditional values of communalism and social harmony have been replaced by selfishness and individualism. Many people think of how to maximize their personal interests, even though they may step over – or run over – others on their way to their goals.
We once ran to a police station after we saw a crowd gathered around a young boy who was bleeding outside of a rollerskating rink. We struggled to understand why no one did anything, and the best we could come up with was that no one wanted to stick their neck out, and that hiding amongst a crowd of gawkers ensured nobody would get in trouble.
After all, the police can’t arrest a group of people just for watching. But if someone decides to step forward from the ring of onlookers to help someone, or to even report it to the police, then they’re allowing for the possibility of being questioned by the police, of being further involved. What if you give CPR to someone and they don’t make it? Then you’d have failed to save someone’s life, and the swirling cloud of blame and guilt would be directed your way.
We hope that in light of the tragedy in Foshan, the notion of face might be redefined to include “not helping someone in need” as something to be ashamed of. Because in China, maintaining face is something that often trumps the letter of the law.