Amid Anger Over Grisly Collision, China Recognizes a Humble Hero

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This image from video shows a girl just before she was hit by a van in a market in the Chinese city of Foshan on Oct. 13. (Photo: Reuters)

If there is a bright note to the sad storyof Wang Yue, the two-year old who was ignored by more than a dozen passers-by after a hit-and-run collision, it is 57-year-old scrap picker Chen Xianmei, who stopped to help the gravely injured toddler. The incident has prompted a vast outpouring of online anger and soul searching as to how so many people could be so callous towards the suffering of a child.

Wang Yue was hit by a van in hardware market the southeastern city of Foshan on Thursday. The van that ran over her didn’t stop, and a second van that also hit the child didn’t stop either. Security camera video of the incident shows multiple people walk or drive past the girl on scooters and three-wheel carts.

Chen arrived about 10 minutes after the girl was hit, and can be seen in the footage dropping her bag of recyclables, straining to move the child out of the path of oncoming vehicles and then calling for help. The child’s mother, who was hanging up laundry nearby, came rushing to the scene after hearing Chen’s calls, which had been ignored by others, according to state media. On Monday night the child’s mother posted an online update that said Yue Yue remained in intensive care and could not breathe on her own, but that she had gained some feeling in her limbs. The drivers of both vans have been arrested.

Chinese press reports said Chen had moved to Foshan from a smaller city in Guangdong, and that she spent her mornings working as a cook and collected bottles and cans in the afternoons. In video and photos online Yue Yue’s sobbing parents can be seen bowing before their daughter’s rescuer, a skinny woman who appears not much bigger than a child herself. In an interview with the Southern Metropolis Daily, Chen sounded flustered at the response her actions have received. The local government gave her a $3,000 reward, and a businessman reportedly offered another $15,000. “I only did a simple thing,” she told the newspaper.

But her actions have raised complicated questions. Recently China has seen prominent cases of bystanders ignoring injured people. In Wuhan last month an elderly man who had fallen in a market died after he suffocated from a nosebleed. While a large crowd had gathered, no one had offered to help, and he was only taken to the hospital by family members who arrived more than an hour later, according to the official China Daily. As my colleague Hannah Beech reported, one explanation is that many Chinese fear the liability they might incur, because Good Samaritans have sometimes seen the people they intend to help turn on them. In one famous 2006 case in Nanjing, a young man who helped a woman who had fallen while getting off a bus was later sued. The woman claimed that he was the one who pushed her, and a court ruled that he was partly responsible.

Other explanations include the so-called “bystander effect,” in which crowds make people less likely to help injured people. Still others discuss a decline of morality that has shadowed China’s dramatic economic reforms. But it is worth noting that such questions have been around since before the People’s Republic was founded. In his 1939 work Peasant Life in China, Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong examined how social obligations were determined by the closeness of relationships. Fei “called this a concentric pattern of social relations with positions measured by how close one stood in relation to the actor,” Linda Wong wrote in her 1998 book Marginalization and Social Welfare in China. “The more distant the location from the centre, the weaker the claim, so that ultimately one did not have any obligation to people unknown to oneself.”

There are direct echoes of that description in Chen’s description of events. She told the Southern Metropolis Daily reporter that many of the people she asked for help responded that if it wasn’t her child, she shouldn’t bother with it. Thankfully, Chen had the decency to ignore that advice.