Confucius said righteous men are those who care for the young and the aged. To Mencius, no one is indifferent to the suffering of others. Not any more. Two high-profile tragedies in 2011 speak volumes about the moral dilemma facing Chinese society today. The first concerned a two-year-old girl who succumbed to a hit-and-run car accident at a Guangdong backstreet in October 2011. Her injured body evaded the sympathy of 18 passers-by except that of an elderly lady, albeit too late. Her plight reverberated through cyberspace. Many blamed the bystanders for their callousness.
Contrast this. A month earlier, an 88-year-old man was left to die on a busy Wuhan street when he collapsed. But when news of that spread, many took the side of the indifferent bystanders, saying they would have done the same. One reason: over the past years, there have been cases in which people, many of them elderly, accused the good Samaritans who helped them of causing their injuries and demanded compensation.
The governments of Shenzhen and Shanghai were the first to respond, in the form of a draft law dubbed the "good Samaritan law" in the West. Aimed at encouraging people to rescue others in emergency situations, the proposals included providing good Samaritans with legal immunity, medical cost reimbursements and financial rewards. In Shanghai's case, the government contemplated granting non-local resident rescuers bonus points to boost their chances of securing local household status. At the same time, tough penalties would be imposed on those who faked an emergency.
Public response was mixed. Some hailed it as a law long overdue. Others believed it would help change behaviour. But more doubted whether the law should be used at all. They asked whether people would be compelled to assist in circumstances beyond their control, and what counted as an emergency was not always clear, not to mention the difficulty of ascertaining the real intention behind an apparently altruistic act. To others, it came down to one basic issue - the freedom to choose whether and how to act in a situation not of one's own making, a rationale behind English tort law's "no duty to rescue" principle.
Then, what about using the role model of an ordinary man? For half a century, the Chinese government has elevated a humble soldier, Lei Feng, to the rank of national hero for his allegedly selfless sacrifices before he died at age 21 in 1962. Not only is there a Lei Feng Day on March 5 on which the community is called to do good deeds, his name was also mentioned with the likes of Karl Marx and Mao Zedong in the recent National People's Congress meeting, during which comrades were urged to learn from Lei's love for the party and country in building "the socialist core value system". But many doubted how the state could have captured those private moments when the supposedly anonymous solider was on his altruistic missions, in the form of professionally taken photos.
A series of state-sponsored films commemorating 50 years of his death reportedly received a poor response.
Meanwhile, seven government ministries issued a joint policy guideline last July recommending preferential treatment to good Samaritans in terms of health care, employment, education, and housing. All good ideas if implemented. But it remains to be seen whether such policies would make any difference. Above all, to help or not to help a fellow countryman in need is largely a question of social fabric, something that requires no price tag.
Dr Karen Lee is an assistant professor with the Department of Law and Business at Shue Yan University