Odyssey in search of human kindness
In a project hatched by the internet giant Tencent to prove the mainland remains a warm-hearted place despite recent shocking incidents, 10 adults and a five-year-old boy recently travelled across the country armed with just 140 yuan (HK$172) each.
Labelled 'There are No Strangers in the World', the scheme saw the 11 hand-picked participants travel for three weeks in groups of various sizes. Their budgets were set in accordance with the 140-character limit on microblogs and they had to rely on Tencent postings to secure donations to cover transport, accommodation and food.
Tencent staff accompanied them but provided no assistance.
Chen Yu, an editor at Tencent who organised the campaign, said several recent incidents had led people to ponder mainlanders' apparent callousness and lack of compassion and the reasons for it. The most high-profile incident involved a two-year-old toddler in Guangdong who was ignored by 18 passers-by as she bled in an alley after being run over twice in October.
'We like to believe that there is warmth and kindness in the world,' Chen said. 'We wanted to put this to the test through this event, and we were delighted to find that our original notion was true.'
About 350 people applied in November to participate in the undertaking, and 11 were chosen, Chen said.
Feng Ying, a housewife from Guangzhou, said she hadn't come up against much opposition from her family when she decided to take her five-year-old son on the journey.
'My family is used to me travelling around with my son,' she said. 'Two years ago I took him to the United States and drove 8,000 kilometres across the country.'
The mother and son started out in Guangzhou and headed to Shizuishan in northwestern Ningxia province, 3,500 kilometres away, where she reunited with her husband and his parents for the Lunar New Year.
'I thought the journey would be interesting, and that we would see a variety of scenery and folk cultures in different regions,' Feng said. 'We weren't worried about our safety, as Tencent's staff went along to keep an eye on us.'
Feng and her son visited 11 cities in seven provinces by hitching rides or boarding trains with tickets provided by online Good Samaritans. Sometimes they even stayed at the homes of internet users - on one occasion sharing a bed with a host. On other nights they stayed at hotels, paid for by followers of Feng's microblog.
She said four truck drivers in Pingliang, Gansu province, treated them to dinner one night. She was impressed by the migrant workers' enthusiasm and goodwill.
Meanwhile, her son was stronger than she had expected and full of energy every day, she said. She had wanted to show him the real world and hoped he would come to understand that friendliness is a more common reaction than fear and indifference.
Liu Gongchen, a university student, said he had been inundated with calls from strangers offering to help within minutes of blogging that his group had met with a problem.
The groupchose a route from Shanghai to Liu's hometown of Zhanjiang in Guangdong.
In remote mountainous counties, where they were unable to enlist help on the internet, they stayed in shabby hostels for less than 20 yuan.
For the latter part of the trip they mostly hitch-hiked, and Liu said that two out of every five drivers were willing to pick them up.
Zhang Guifeng, a 28-year-old white-collar worker in Quanzhou, Fujian province, was one of eight locals who treated Liu's team to dinner when they arrived there on January 14. The next day, the locals offered them breakfast and rode 20 kilometres with them to the outskirts of the city.
Zhang said he was excited by the venture and said the participants were doing something that many others had only dreamed of. He said it was a pleasant experience talking with the three travellers.
However, he said he wouldn't have been so eager to help the strangers if they hadn't been endorsed by a big-name company. 'I think most people will feel all right if they are asked to offer a meal, but they would frown on the idea of taking a stranger back home to stay,' he said. 'People will also hesitate to offer a ride if they are not sure of the passengers' backgrounds. After all, there is so much negative news every day.'
However, not everyone was impressed by the scheme. Shanghai University sociologist Gu Jun called it 'entertainment' and said it wasn't a proper measurement of society's compassion. Not only that, but it risked encouraging swindlers to take advantage of helpful people.
'We should help the people who are really poor, but these participants are not in that category that we are supposed to show love to,' Gu said.