Wang Yue

by hannah song & yifan zhang

Is this a sensationalist story or an example of Chinese attitudes?

Wang Yue, the toddler who was run over twice and ignored by 18 passers-by in Foshan, Guangdong, China, died of brain failure after a week in critical condition. The resulting uproar on both American and Chinese media networks has sparked an international debate about the state of Chinese morality.

Such a debate deals with tricky and sensitive topics. Yue Yue’s story is dangerous because people could easily oversimplify the issue and write it off as an expected repercussion of the heartlessness of Chinese people. This could taint American perception of Chinese Americans. Much in the way Chinese immigrants were demonized upon their arrival on American shores, Yue Yue’s preventable death could, as Associate Professor Michael Omi of the Ethnic Studies department said, “enforce the older, persistent narrative that life is cheap in Asia.”

This is destructive to Asian / Pacific Islander Americans and would take us a step backward in the fight to be seen as “real” Americans. Yet at the same time, we cannot afford to ignore the implications that Yue Yue’s death holds for the Chinese people as a combination of many factors, not simply a result of a heartless community.

Thus far, news sources have generally avoided the pitfall of pinning the incident solely on Chinese people’s ostensible heartlessness and apathy. Instead, journalist fingers from all around the world are pointing blame to many different factors of Chinese society for Yue Yue’s death, including the lack of Good Samaritan laws, fear of fraud, and the speed of economic development. However, common opinion is wandering close to the dangerous assumption that the people just plain didn’t care about a kid lying in the street. This can be seen in the world of microblogging, where both Chinese and Americans have been criticizing the 18 passers-by as morally depraved since the video hit the internet.

But we can’t and shouldn’t forget that such an incident is not the first. Five years ago in Nanjing, Peng Yu helped an elderly woman to the hospital after she was injured on the street. The woman accused him of pushing her over. In court, the now-infamous “Nanjing Judge” ruled that Peng Yu was guilty because “common sense” dictated that “only the guilty help the injured.” Peng Yu was ordered to pay her medical costs.

Who, after hearing such a cautionary tale, could blame the Chinese for being a little apprehensive about the ulterior motives of their neighbors? This precedent is a major reason as to why, according to an online survey by Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, fewer than 7 percent of 20,000 respondents said they would stop while driving to offer help. Forty-five percent said they would not help at all, and 43 percent said they would help only if there was a camera.

The question of Chinese morality is not new. This theme can be seen in American missionary Arthur H. Smith’s 1894 book Chinese Characteristics. Smith wrote, “Unwillingness to help others…is a trait that runs through Chinese social relations in multifold manifestations.”

This observation captures perfectly the racist views that Americans held towards the Chinese in the 19th century. We cannot view Yue Yue’s incident through this unequivocal assumption about the Chinese people; instead, we must maintain a broader view of the factors that comprise Chinese society.

Yet, how far back can we trace this perceived apathy among the Chinese people? To say that the Chinese people are intrinsically selfish is a ridiculous statement. There are a myriad of historical and economic factors that contributed to this incident.

Urbanization has changed how the Chinese act with one another. While once smaller rural communities helped each other in times of need, today’s Chinese need to rely on self-perseverance to survive. With China’s rapid urbanization and its greater reliance on nuclear families due to the one-child policy, the strength of interpersonal relationships has declined in this new century. Due to the demands of a modernizing China though, the need to care about the welfare of strangers is more urgent now than before, whether that be reducing littering, public spitting, pollution, or rescuing children from the middle of the street.

Another factor is China’s Cultural Revolution. What the Cultural Revolution destroyed was thousands of years of common moral standards. The Chinese Communist Party replaced traditional altruism and civility with communal altruism, exemplified by the slogan “Serve the People.” Whether the Chinese population actually made a sincere attempt to “serve the people” like they did with their network of friends and family is dubious.

However, with the advent of market capitalism during the 1980s led by Deng Xiaoping, slogans like “Serve the People” were replaced by an urgency for accelerated economic development. The combined destruction of traditional moral codes and the decline of Maoism have created a moral nihilism in China. In an urbanizing society, there is more contact with people but less responsibility for others. The decision to rescue a toddler deformed into a cost-benefit analysis of rational self-interest when it should have been a simple case of doing the right thing.

These factors in no way justify the death of a young child, but blame should not be applied solely to the intrinsic characteristics of Chinese culture or people but the cruel amalgamation of traditional culture, Communism, and market capitalism. More than half of these influences did not even originate in China. These “Chinese” characteristics are mirrored in American history, from the selfishness of the Robber Barons, to the materialism during the 1950s, to the Kitty Genovese case. The bystander effect is not exclusive to the Chinese.

The overwhelming support from the domestic Chinese online community for Yue Yue and her family illustrates a more accurate sentiment of the Chinese people. The Chinese author Yu Hua has said that looking at the video, “you would believe there is no hope [for the Chinese people], but there has been an outpouring of support online.” Many such incidents have happened before but never with such a large media reaction.

As Americans, Asian or not, we are limited in the things we can do to prevent ourselves from oversimplifying the issue. We need to understand that it’s not an inherent characteristic of the Chinese to care less about human life and that this kind of thought can take us several steps back in the API movement. We also need to understand that culture is influenced by economic, social, psychological and historical factors. Professor Omi put it simply.

“Think about how the media has framed this issue,” he warned. “Be very cautious.”