Selfish mainland Chinese society needs good Samaritan laws, critics say

Critics say good-Samaritan laws are needed in a nation where bystanders leave accident victims to die, and those who do step up face lawsuits

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2012, 9:59am

A young man jumps into a river to save a family of three who are drowning. He helps them reach the river bank but becomes trapped in the water and cannot climb out. As his strength fails, bystanders urge the family to help the person who just rescued them. But they walk away, with the woman in the group saying it is none of their business as the man drowns.

That series of events transpired in Loudi, a city of 3.8 million in southern Hunan, last month as reported by legaldaily.com - another example, some observers argued, of society's descent into selfish indifference.

The mainland has no law governing good Samaritans. Whether it needs one has been debated with renewed intensity after Xiao Yueyue, age two, was hit by two vehicles and ignored by a dozen people as she lay bleeding in Foshan , Guangdong, last year. She died in hospital.

Since then, national lawmakers have had the opportunity to draft a law that specifically addresses good-Samaritan acts. They declined to do so, and in its place, the State Council issued a circular last month that laid out stronger protection of the rights of citizen rescuers.

Academics expect the circular will help standardise the patchwork of regulations that exist at the local or provincial level. More than 60 provinces and cities have issued their own rules or guidelines in recent years on rewards for people who are injured while trying to help others, according to The Beijing News.

But local regulations were often poorly implemented, said Jiang Mingan , a law professor at Peking University. Good Samaritans sometimes ended up disabled and without a job after being hurt while helping someone, Jiang said. "Our heroes are hurt not only physically, but also mentally," he said.

According to a survey cited by the Workers' Daily last year, 70 per cent of 3,000 people who had been recognised by authorities in Guizhou for meritorious acts continued to struggle financially.

The State Council's circular lists subsidies that a recognised good Samaritan should receive. They cover daily living expenses, any hospital treatment needed, job security, assistance with property purchases and preferential policies for their children's education. The circular also addresses the matter of compensation if the person who extended help is killed or injured.

According to the circular, the rescuer should not be responsible for paying related medical bills. Instead, the person at fault for creating the dangerous situation should pay. If no one is to blame, in acts of nature for example, then the medical-insurance company should bear the cost.

Zhu Yongping, director of the Guangzhou Datong Law Firm, said the circular offered a template that local jurisdictions could use to draft or amend their own laws. Improvements were needed, Zhu said, because even with encouragement from propaganda, people were largely ignoring others in distress.

He argues existing rules do not go far enough. "Helping others is a moral issue. But in this era, only legal measures can lift the level of morality of the public."

Zhu backs the approach favoured by several European nations, where bystanders have an obligation to help, so long as the rescuer is not putting his own life at undue risk. Ignoring that duty is criminal.

China could introduce penalties along these lines for people who fail to extend help, such as issuing a verbal warning, notifying employers or publishing names. Police would decide through investigation whether a person should be held accountable, he said. The mainland's omnipresent security cameras could determine who is to blame.

In North America, the opposite approach is used, making people who intervene in an emergency immune from later prosecution or lawsuits. The Canadian province of British Columbia, for example, states in its Good Samaritan Act: "A person who renders emergency medical services or aid to an ill, injured or unconscious person, at the immediate scene of an accident or emergency, is not liable for damages for injury to that person."

In China, fear of being sued - either by the person needing help or their family - can deter people from getting involved. There have been several high-profile cases in which the court has found a rescuer responsible for worsening a person's injuries and ordered compensation.

Just the threat of financial liability can have a powerful effect. Earlier this month, a fish vendor in Xiangtan , Hunan helped send an 83-year-old woman to hospital after she fell down on a street. Her family hounded the man for a 200,000 yuan (HK$242,000) payment. Panicked, the vendor committed suicide by drinking pesticide.

Wang Zhongxing, a law professor at Sun Yat-sen University, disagreed that penalties should be introduced to foster a good-Samaritan culture. Wang said the first step should be to tighten loopholes in existing laws. The definition of good-Samaritan behaviour under criminal law was too narrow and should be reworded, he said.

Jiang said the legislature had not passed a good-Samaritan law because the central government did not deem it a priority.

Zhu said the Xiao Yueyue incident had perhaps forced an official refocus. "Only bloody accidents will make them realise the severe decline of morals."