Indifference, sad to say, crosses borders

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 12:00am


First there was Yueyue, the two-year-old Foshan girl who died last Friday after being run over by two cars as passers-by ignored her plight. Now, a rape victim in Dongguan, who lay half-naked on a busy road with no one coming to her aid for two hours.

Such incidents have sparked anger, outrage, despair and soul-searching across the nation. Many Chinese are wondering if the country has sacrificed humanity for materialism. The central government even sponsored a Taoism conference this week in Beijing in hope of finding moral guidance from ancient wisdom. All this is necessary and good.

But there is a danger of misrepresenting such callousness as particular to Chinese people. A New York Times report on the Yueyue incident, for example, quoted a book by an early 20th-century Westerner who claimed it's characteristic of Chinese to be cold about others' misfortunes.

Rather, bystander indifference may have more to do with behaviour in crowded urban settings - in any nation. Call it China's Genovese moment.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese, a New York woman, was dragged by an assailant along the pavement and eventually stabbed to death near her home. Many neighbours saw the attack or heard her screams, but no one came to her rescue. As with Yueyue, the incident sparked a national debate across the United States. Its study became an academic industry.

Out of this came the so-called bystander effect. This phenomenon occurs in life-and-death situations when strangers assume others will act and/or think there is no problem, so become less likely to take responsibility.

We must not deny the moral challenge posed by Yueyue and the rape victim. But we need to understand it in a cross-cultural context.