We Are All Yueyue

Why would 18 people let a toddler die on the street?

Posted Oct 19, 2011

In China, a 2-year-old child wanders away from her mother and is hit by a car on a narrow, trafficked road. The driver is clearly aware of what he has done by the time he has run over her with the front wheels of his white van. Yet he continues forward, running over her prone body with his back wheels as well. And drives on. In the ensuing moments, several cars and pedestrians pass by, clearly notice her tiny, bleeding body in the street, and proceed on their way. Soon she is hit by a second vehicle. In the seven terrible and inhumane minutes that pass before someone pulls her body over to a pile of garbage and calls for help, 18 people pass her—scurrying on foot and by car, slowing down for a look and continuing on, one motorocyclist even circling the child's body without dismounting to help or even stopping.

The story of Yueyue, a horror show that transpired and continues to unfold in Foshan, Guandong province, has sparked outrage, soul-searching and despair across China since the story of the accident and the accompanying security camera video that shows her being struck down and ignored went viral.

Why, the Chinese ask themselves on blogs and Internet boards and on news shows, did this happen? How could this be? Yueyue lies in a coma and a doctor recently predicted that if she survived, she would likely be in a vegetative state for the rest of her life. Her mother is reported to sob by her bedside and call, "Yueyue, give your mother another chance to love you."

Why indeed. And how? We are moved by Yueyue's story, all of us. Who would not be devastated by witnessing a child left so callously, so incomprehensibly, for dead, by so many who could have helped before one finally did? But in the U.S., where we are in a dizzying economic decline and where we read predictions of China's rise daily, where men and women now travel to Beijing to search out deals that are not happening in the U.S. and we fret that we should learn Mandarin if we want to stay relevant and keep up with the tides of change, Yueyue is both an innocent child-victim, and a symbol of our rising anxiety about What's Next.

As the world hopes and prays for Yueyue, some "explanations" emerge. But they perplex as much as they clarify. 

Classic bystander effect.  Western psychologists asked to comment on the incident have largely portrayed it as a classic case of "bystander effect." Witnesses who could potentially help do not feel responsibility or take action, presuming that "someone else will step up" and "it's not my issue/problem." Like turtles, witnesses, potential heroes, retreat by pulling into their shells. Similarly, social psychologists tell us, in large groups such as gangs, the superego gets punted around and terrible acts may be committed because the mindset of each individual perpetrator is, "I didn't do it—we all did—so nobody did." In a front page piece about Yueyue, the New York Times gingerly suggested that some believe a certain brusqueness about the fate and misfortune of others, a certain indifference, to be a "Chinese characteristic." Perhaps, but the bystander effect is powerful—and it is a term that came about when an entire building of people wrote off the fate of Kitty Genovese as "someone else's business" in 1964, giving rise to the notion of "diffusion of responsibility" in social psychology.

Gwonxi. This term and concept are central in China but relatively new to the Westerners who do business with them. Gwonxi is something like a network of personal relationships and can roughly be translated to "old boy's network." However, the concept of gwonxi and of acting in the interest of one's own extended family and group of close peers is not limited to the business world. China is a huge place, with a population of over 1.3 billion. The concept of gwonxi is important for navigating such a world. But might it subtly or not-so-subtly affect the ability to feel compassion for all? 

Yueyue is a girl. While it isn't clear whether bystanders were aware that the toddler they were choosing not to help was a girl, it is not unlikely they would be less apt to help a girl. In China there has been an historical preference for male children, virtually institutionalized by the one-child policy in 1979. Female infanticide, abandonment of baby girls and sex-selective-pregnancy-reduction (aborting female fetuses) are unsavory but acknowledged facts of life in China.

Compensation culture.  According to The Shanghaiist, the driver of the first car to hit Yueyue placed a call to the toddler's father, telling him that he would not surrender but offering to pay him compensation for the accident. Reportedly, the driver said that he realized it would cost him more to stop and help the child he had nearly killed than drive on and risk apprehension and prosecution. His actions are hardly off the map. In China, good Samaritans have in recent years been heavily penalized. In 2006, a man stopped to help an elderly woman who had slipped--and was promptly sued for most of her medical are. The judge in the case ruled that only someone who had perpetrated an injury against someone else would then help that person. Come again? Helping is a sign of guilt? In January, according to the Washington Post, China Daily called for a law to protect good Samaritans from liability. Until then, many Chinese fear they will be penalized for lending a helping hand. It is not hard to see how this can affect one's reserves of altruism and compassion long-term. "Nobody else dared touch her," one woman who passed Yueyue by was quoted as saying. "How did I?"

Rampant materialism. Many Chinese bloggers and commentators worry that "hunger for things and wealth" has replaced moral codes and guidelines such as Confucianism in the transition from Maoism to today's "Socialist Market Economy with Chinese Characteristics." Numerous economic experts and social commentators within China have viewed Yueyue's tragedy through this lens, starting a national conversation, the topic of which seems to be turning from "why?" to "how can we change?"

Perhaps China will become, as many predict, The Global Superpower. Perhaps it will succumb to a real estate bubble. Its rise may be an inevitable, given. Or far from inevitable. Western commentators and analysts have been making predictions about China for years, and these predictions have reached a kind of frenzied din in the last months as the U.S. fails to resuscitate itself from a lingering recession. Until China sorts out its Yueyue problem—and its baby formula problem, and its poisoned dog food problem, and its lead paint on toys problem, and the rest--westerners will remain deeply uneasy about China's future, and ours.