Middle Kingdom Adventures: Good Samaritans?

Creative Commons photo by dawvon. Source: Flickr

Everyone on the escalator turned and stared at the man sprawled on the floor. He was dressed well, in a polo that revealed a healthy beer gut and a pair of black slacks. His briefcase and a bag full of groceries lay a few feet from his outstretched hand. A pile of drool was visible next to his mouth.

People gawked, but no one did anything. I was with a friend, who tugged at my arm and urged me to join the moving masses of people. This was during rush hour at Xizhimen subway station, a station that probably sees thousands of people every hour. I reluctantly followed after we saw him move his fingers.

The concept of “good Samaritans” in China is a controversial one. Who could forget the firestorm that followed after a 2-year-old girl in the southern Chinese city of Foshan was hit twice by vehicles while more than a dozen passersby did nothing to help? Equally jarring are the dozens of stories that have hit the web over the past few years of victims of car accidents suing the very people who have helped them, accusing them of injuring them in the first place.

This distrust of strangers is common, my friend told me. They’re wary that in a society where morals are sometimes subverted by economic pressures, people will do anything for a quick buck. China’s done a lot of soul-searching in the past few years, so are things about to change? A quick Google search reveals that Shenzhen, a major city in China, is poised to pass the country’s first Samaritan law designed to encourage residents to help each other. Those who falsely accuse helpers of causing their injuries will face consequences. But as with many things in China, cultural perceptions cannot be changed with a mere introduction of laws.

I have no answers. And this is not to say that the “bystander effect” isn’t alive and well in many American cities. How many of us pass by the same homeless person on that street corner without a second (or first) glance everyday? I know I am guilty. I avoid eye contact, and tell myself that someone else will come along and help them.

Three days later, I still think about that man on the ground. I hope someone came to his aid. I also hope that one day, I will have enough courage and faith to be that person. It’s an extraordinary paradox — even though we, even as strangers, are more interconnected than ever with modern technology and globalization, we are more distant than ever. 

Yuying Luo ’12 (yuying@post.harvard.edu) is doing some soul-searching herself. She is on the Alexander G. Booth ’30 Fellowship this summer in Beijing and Shanghai.