China and 'uncommon' acts of goodness

A video of strangers ignoring an injured toddler stirs China to debate its level of empathy toward strangers. The solution? More models of altruism.

Measuring an entire society’s level of empathy is difficult, although researchers try. One easy gauge is public reaction to a tragic event, as China is experiencing right now.

Bloggers and other Chinese media are ablaze with social outrage over an incident in which some 18 people walked past a toddler struck twice by two vehicles in a market on Oct. 13. The hit-and-run in China’s richest province, Guangdong, was captured on video, revealing not only cold indifference but also, fortunately, a redeeming good-Samaritan moment.

A trash collector finally came to the aid of the severely injured girl, named Yueyue. “I dragged her to the side of the road and shouted for help,” said her rescuer, Chen Xianmei. “But nobody showed up.”

The tragedy, which ignited a media storm and millions of comments on the Internet, came only weeks after an elderly man in Hubei was ignored for 90 minutes after he fell and lay dying in a crowded street. “Is the virtue of helping others lost so easily?” the man’s son asked later.

China is hardly alone in debating how to reduce apathy toward the plight of strangers and to increase a society’s ability for selfless acts toward those in distress. But China does stand out for the current intensity of its hand-wringing over how to fix what is seen as a widespread moral failing.

The Chinese were surprisingly proud in 2008 when thousands of volunteers rushed to help victims of a massive earthquake in Szechuan. Few could remember such spontaneous charity. That outpouring of empathy was then reflected in a visit by the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, who consoled and helped people in the rescue effort, earning the tag of “China’s grandpa.”

Researchers in the West, such as Dr. Karl Aquino at the University of British Colombia, confirm in studies that people exposed to reports or images of uncommon acts of goodness – not just positive stories – generally respond by doing the same. This “moral elevation” would occur more often, they say, if the media frequently reported on such acts rather than playing to negative emotions such as fear or focus on tales of suffering.

Studies of altruism try to pin down a genetic or evolutionary origin to such behavior. But it is difficult for researchers to probe the role of spiritual ideas in shaping a person’s identity to the point that compassion and trust are conscious, immediate responses, much like a mother reacting to a child’s cry.

China is now looking at removing barriers to personal compassion. One is a common fear of being sued. In 2006 a man had to pay a fine of more than $7,000 after helping an elderly woman off a bus. The woman’s family later claimed he pushed her, injuring her. In the West, so-called good-Samaritan laws try to protect people who act to help someone but end up in court instead.

The ruling Communist Party realizes that China has a deep cultural problem with selfish behavior, driven in large part by a materialistic drive for wealth and Mao-era social devastation. On Tuesday, after a meeting of the Central Committee, party leaders pledged to “enrich the people’s spiritual lives.”

If they succeed, “uncommon acts of goodness” won’t be so uncommon anymore.

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