Bystander Apathy 2.0 – Chinese Edition

By now, this video has made the rounds. Don’t watch if you don’t have a strong stomach. What is in there is a 2-year-old getting run over by a truck. The driver stops, then starts again and drives away, running her over a second time with the rear wheels. Then, a whole bunch of people just walk by (18 as filmed by surveillance cameras), swerving to avoid her body but nobody stops until a garbage worker does and the girl’s mother shows up, picks her up and walks away.

The scene took place in Foshan, one of these growing industrial cities in the Guangdong province. Of course, as reminiscent as this is of the Kitty Genovese case, that is often related to bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility (the lower probability of individuals offering assistance as the number of bystanders grows), this particular case is more shocking due to the fact that it’s a 2-year old.

Most explanations for this have actually centered on the fact that this area is populated with a lot of workers uprooted from rural areas and recently urbanized. So, we are getting an updated version of Ferdinand Tönnies’s idea of different modes of social integration: Gemeinschaft (the community mode of integration where ties are based on personal knowledge and similarities and where community needs might take precedence over individual preferences) as opposed to Gesellschaft (the association mode of integration, based on impersonal ties and where individualism is more likely to prevail).

The argument is that as people are uprooted from their rural communities and move on to the development zones of China, their Gemeinschaft ties disappear, to be replaced with more impersonal Gesellschaft ties where individuals are more likely to pursue their self-interest. This includes the relative indifference with which the different bystanders treat the dying / dead girl even as they acknowledge her presence, by swerving to avoid her body.

This phenomenon is not culturally specific. This bystander effect is constantly at work in many place, from the unconscious homeless people we step over, not stopping to check if he’s asleep, passed out, or dead in European cities, to the mentally ill woman, left to grovel on the ground in the middle of a busy market I witnessed in Livingstone, Zambia.

2 thoughts on “Bystander Apathy 2.0 – Chinese Edition

  1. Having grown up in a rural area, as a child I was aware that domestic problems,disputes,were not to be interfered with, only gossiped about
    When I watched this video from China, I was reminded of what I believe the use of the automobile has done to us : it has demoralized us. We have given automobiles the right of way in our society. Our habitats are designed to serve them. Drivers are impatient, selfish, and see the passageway as belonging to them: pedestrians, as well as cyclists are generally a nuisance to a driver and even a source of irritation.
    Though millions are injured or killed from automobiles each year, we continue to support their uses and abuses, as well as tolerate their noise and toxic emissions.This is a psychological and environmental malaise.

  2. Interesting post. Whilst noting the gemeinschaft and gesellschaft argument, I disagree that what happened is not also culturally relative.

    Having lived in China, the Chinese public are very wary about getting involved with any form of officialdom. This stems from the cultural revolution. The general public are afraid to deal with the police over anything because of what might happen to them. As a result, many people prefer to keep themselves to themselves and deal with any issues internally amongst families and communities, because they know that if they referred criminal matters to the police, they could end up detained themselves.

    Moreover, corruption is rife in China. Reporting a crime does not necessarily mean that the incident will be dealt with by the officials in charge of justice. For westerners, there is a very fine line between legality and illegality in China. For the Chinese populace, criminal gangs help solve criminal problems that the corrupt elite in China would rather not deal with. In fact, on many occasions, such problems are ‘outsourced’ to criminal syndicates. Consequently, the line between legality and illegality is blurred.

    In China, ‘loss of face’ is a massive cultural taboo. Coming forward to refer matters of criminality to the police is tantamount to a ‘loss of face’, because China and its people have always been very proud of their crime rates. Of course, it does not mean that these crimes, as well as many others, have never been committed before. Many go, and have gone, unreported, for the sake of national pride.

    Linguistically, the word ‘question’ is the same as the word ‘problem’ in Chinese. Students rarely, if ever, question their teachers, tutors or lecturers. Education is delivered in a very dogmatic way, and to raise a question is to raise a problem. Equally, when anyone takes a problem to the police, culturally, they are questioning the police. And questioning authority in China is not the done thing.

    Perhaps one reason that we know about this crime is because the expansion of a capitalist free-market system. I have not watched this video and I do not know who has recorded it. In any case way, it is either a case of policy transfer (e.g. from the western juridical premise for the use of CCTV) or somebody has had the financial power to purchase either a camera phone or camcorder. Neither would have been available had the Chinese government not relaxed its economic policies, and I doubt very much that this tragic event would have been news.

    Finally, we are also talking about the killing of a little girl as opposed to a little boy. In Chinese society, which by and large still maintains the one child policy, unless you have money and power, little girls are less wanted than little boys. By families and the state. Hence, the comparative oversubscription of little girls in Chinese orphanages available for adoption. I am not saying that the same crime would not have been committed, or that people would not have reacted in the same manner. However, I have my doubts as to whether the ‘bystanders’ would have been as apathetic had the child been a little boy. And it is in respect of violence against females, and its toleration in these societies at these times, that there are similarities to the Kitty Genovese case.

    In support of my argument for the consideration of the local context, I would like to draw the following studies to your attention:

    Sun, I. Y. and Wu Y., Chinese Policing in a Time of Transition, 1978-2008, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Feb 2010; vol. 26: pp. 20-35

    Wu Y. and Sun, I.Y., Citizen Trust in Police: The Case of China, Police Quarterly, Jun 2009; vol. 12: pp. 170-191

    Zhong L. Y. and Broadhurst R. G., Building Little Safe and Civilized Communities: Community Crime Prevention With Chinese Characteristics? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology February 2007 51: 52-67

    Zhong L. Y., Bystander Intervention and Fear of Crime: Evidence From Two Chinese Communities, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, April 2010 54: 250-263

    What happened to Wang Yue, and those close to her, is truly awful. I hope that her parents, family and extended family are able to obtain some form of solace in their future lives.

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