Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 1

As people around the world know already, a week or so ago, a girl in Foshan, China was run over twice on the street and no one stopped to help her. People both in China and outside it are outraged about what happened. This incident has drawn commentators shaking their fists at the cold social atmosphere in China as well as responders claiming that one cannot use this incident to generalize to a whole nation.

This is the link to news coverage of the incident with footage from CCTV cameras showing the girl being run over twice and people passing by (Unfortunately blog functions don’t seem to work through VPN and I can’t insert this as an embedded video).

My friend in Canada sent me an article in The Guardian about this, since she read my post on misconceptions about China and didn’t entirely agree with me. I realized that I’ve been meaning to talk about the dark side of the moon for almost a year now and haven’t gotten my thoughts together, but this incident showed me that I need to stop procrastinating. Everything to be said will probably take more than this post to cover. Consider this post as an introduction to other posts to follow.

Generalization? Human nature?

Many of the top comments when I first read the article in The Guardian was that yes, this incident is terrible, but it doesn’t mean that everyone in the whole country would be so crass. I owe that this is a fair point. Another counterargument that occurred to me was the case of Kitty Genovese, a waitress in New York who was murdered by a stalker on her way home from work, and although whole blocks heard her, no one helped her. Most psychology courses seem to cover this, and it is an example of bystander apathy and the failure of altruism: most people choose not to help others if they believe that it is not their business or if they might get hurt.

But against this point, helping a little girl on the street in broad daylight is very different from confronting an armed murderer in the dark. In the Kitty Genovese case, the bystanders had a lot to lose in the immediate moment as well as a lot to gain in the immediate moment. Rushing out to help Genovese might mean that she would live, but it might mean severe injuries or death. The case in Foshan had no immediate dangers – it is unlikely that whoever tries to help a little girl on the street would be run over as well. I believe that people in general tend to be more afraid of immediate consequences, which is why behavioural therapy works. This means that in the absence of immediate costs, all the passers-by in Foshan calculated a future cost to themselves and this was a stronger deterrent when weighed against the immediate gain of alleviating a little girl’s suffering. Well, I suppose you could call this their 5-year plan.

Against the first point, yes it is very important not to generalize from one incident to the character of an entire nation. However I do not believe that this was what the writer, Lijia Zhang, was suggesting, the title of the article notwithstanding. She herself being Chinese would know many decent Chinese people, and she is certainly not saying that everyone would behave this way. But her example of the Nanjing judge does show that the legal system in China tends to adopt perspectives like persecuting the young man who helped an injured elderly woman to the hospital. So it is a nation-wide issue.

Because I have lived in China, I have had similar experiences, though thankfully I was never the one run over or hurt. My grandmother, who has a slight anxiety disorder and rather paranoid from her experiences in the cultural revolution, has actually warned me over the phone not to help other people on the road if I see them hurt. I have a post in Ideogrammatica about being attacked with a giant wrench at a glasses store, and thinking back on it, although many people were standing at the door watching the fight progress, no one tried to do or say anything to the two parties except for me (has Guy Debord written about spectator apathy? I wonder*). There was also an incident a few months ago when I was still living in Nanning. I lived beside a small road, almost a highway ramp, which was always neglected for repair for being the dividing road between two municipal districts, and so neither district wants to take responsibility for it. Nanning being in the south of China, many people own mopeds and motorcycles instead of cars, and once when my mother and I were driving by, we saw an overturned moped and a woman sitting on the sidewalk with her leg bleeding. Other cars were passing and no one stopped. I got off to help pull the moped to the sidewalk and ask whether the woman needed help, and all the while cars behind my mother’s were honking their horns at us.

My mother backed me up in this case, but not so when a few weeks after this, we were in a hotel meeting with a professor from Austria, and another lodger returned from the hotel after missing his flight. I’m not sure what sparked the issue, but he sat smoking and calling all the waitresses the Chinese equivalent of “you ugly dinosaur” for half and hour in a carrying voice. I finally told him that he was making other people uncomfortable. He nonchalantly told me he wasn’t calling me ugly and continued to smoke, and then my mother’s meeting ended and they pulled me away, saying that I shouldn’t get involved.

I always wonder about the correct level of social action and compared my views with other Chinese people’s. I was mugged in Toronto (well, Scarborough) on the way home from university a few years ago, and I called the police immediately afterwards from a nearby house. A Chinese student living in the same house as me got mugged 10 minutes after I was, and we were both subpoenaed to go to court and testify. My mother told me that most Chinese people would just think, “it was my bad luck” and not call the police, and she discussed this situation with her PhD supervisor, an elderly Irish gentleman, and he was rather surprised and said that of course he could have called the police as well. Why did I call the police? Did I believe that I could get back what they had stolen? That would have been nice, but more than this it just seemed like what I ought to do. Anyway, the housemate always seemed sort of frosty towards me afterwards and was extremely worried about retribution, and seemed to think that I could bring this upon him by calling the police. The police officers who handled the case eventually reassured him that this was unlikely, and in the end we didn’t have to appear in court, for which he was thankful.

(I also think a lot about this because a friend of mine is consistently the opposite of this kind of immediate apathy (I believe this differs from long-term apathy, where people just don’t care about where the world is going instead of not caring about consequences in the present). For example, he was also mugged but fought back. If someone was being an asshole around him he would tell them so to their face. He would break into an office building to use their computers if he was bored and then helpfully install security programs on their computers before he left. However, he has been going to counseling and so forth for not being able to adopt “normal” responses in social situations, and although he has said that I ought not to encourage him, I sometimes wonder whether the “normal” people ought to be more like him rather than the other way around. Are people with this kind of outlook not normal? Have we just played too many online RPGs when we were young or read too many comic books?)

Anyway, I mean for this introduction to conclude: the incident in Foshan is not a case representing all human nature and it is also not just an individual case. It does reflect the social climate of China and it is symptomatic of much turbulence therein. I do not pretend to be a social analysis expert, but to allude to Robert Frost’s epitaph, maybe I am just trying to resolve a lover’s quarrel.

* incidentally, Chinese people do really tend to adopt the role of a spectator. Maybe it’s the whole modernity thing and flaneur and all that hitting China later than Europe. My father once did a fun experiment in a park in China. He stood in the middle of the bridge and looked into the water at absolutely nothing for 5 minutes, then left. When he came back five minutes later and there was a crowd standing on the bridge staring into the water. There is also the tendency in China for shoppers not to buy from a shop if it looks like there’s no one else buying from it. Usually I go up to a lonely stall and then people follow me. Apparently people get hired to stand around and pretend to be customers so that they would attract other customers. Sheep?

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2 thoughts on “Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 1

  1. Sheep. I must remember to try that “staring into the water” experiment the next time I visit Asia. In North America, I believe that the correct reaction of bystanders would be to ask if you were okay and try to ascertain that you were not suicidal.

    Considering China’s political atmosphere, though, there is the whole “safety in numbers” thing to consider as well which might leak into “everyday life”.

    On that note, though, I find your analysis of the Foshan incident quite alarming, because it implies that altruism is not an universal human trait, but rather, one that is culturally indoctrinated in us.

    If I were mugged, my first instinct post-incident would be to go report it to the police, too. If I saw someone hurt, my first instinct would be to help them, if I could. Even in the redneck city in which I now reside, I have witnessed pedestrians stopping to help a man who was either homeless or living in a coop and who appeared to have multiple health issues as well as suffering from alcohol addiction when he fell down on the side walk and apparently had trouble getting up again.

    In another instance, I got on a bus where an old, Asian lady was trying to get somewhere but spoke extremely poor English. The bus driver kept trying to ascertain where she was trying to get to since it was late at night to give her proper directions. Finally, the bus driver asked myself and another girl on the bus if we spoke Chinese. I didn’t speak mandarin, but to my surprise, the other girl who was already on the bus when I got on, went up to the old lady and communicated with her in mandarin.

    In Canada, I’ve often witnessed how Chinese people here appear have no problem asking for help, particularly of Caucasians or people they perceive to be in “official positions”, particularly when they only spoke a few words of English. I wonder if they would have asked questions or for help as readily of strangers in China? If so, then why do they not also help others – after all, if you ask for help, you are assuming that you will receive it, which also means that you have the responsibility of returning the favor to someone else, somewhere down the line (to not do so would be extremely selfish and egotistical) – in China? And if not, then I think that that is a statement of how they view people outside of Asia, and that makes me wonder if they think that Canadians/Americans are “nice”, or if they contemptuously see us as being naive to invest time and effort in caring for a stranger.

    • I believe that it’s not that Chinese people don’t want to help others, but there are so many kinds of aid that are asked for and offered. Chinese people in China (and in Canada too probably) are just as likely to help you find your way on the street if you’re lost, because this kind of aid has a very small cost, and we aren’t so far gone so as to believe that helping others is totally pointless. And sorry if I made it sound like I don’t believe that altruism is a universal human trait. I believe that it is, but indoctrination can affect the level to which people act on it. The first reaction from the18 people who walked by the little girl in Foshan was probably an altruistic desire to help her, however they had second thoughts, and those second thoughts came from the social atmosphere they are in.

      I think, though, Chinese people in Canada would be considered a different population than in China. Even if no outright racism is going on, Chinese people in Canada might still subconsciously feel that they are foreigners and need to band together. Thus it might give them a bigger sense of belonging to a group than if they were in China and affect their behaviour…not sure though.

      Sorry to hear that you’re living in a redneck city, but I suppose we now know that altruism isn’t lacking in rednecks either, right? =P In Canada most young people are brought up on idea of responsible citizenship and keeping abstract ideas in mind of others who might be affected by our actions (eg recycling or not), but other than Communist idea of unity, this aspect seems to be lacking in Chinese education.

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