We Are Not So Different: Why China’s Recent Hit and Run Tragedy Shouldn’t Shock You

Disclaimer: Viewers beware. Link to article also features graphic video of incident. You can stop the video in order to read article if needed.
A few days ago, a toddler was struck by two vehicles on a road in China and eventually died because no one stopped to help.

My initial reaction? Total shock followed by immediate outrage coupled with an attitude of “this would never happen where I come from.” It would seem from at least one article in the Washington Post that I wasn’t the only one thinking this was a cultural issue. A case where an American woman jumped to rescue a drowning Chinese woman was cited as proof that Westerners aren’t so selfish and interested only in their own success. (Unless of course they are part of the 1%. Viva OccupyWallStreet!)
Not only could this happen at “home”, it has. I am using “home” here to denote my cultural background in a broad sense. I am a Westerner albeit living in South East Asia. I can’t help but spend time comparing East vs. West: why do they keep their kids up so late? How can they treat their helpers that way? Why can’t kids in the West respect their elders? Why is the East so much more welcoming of children?
So when this happened, I felt the East had something to learn from us. That the estimated 18 people who did nothing should, Japanese executive-style, bow down in shame and apologize for their lack of action. I started thinking about the piece I would write, the examples I would use. When I write, I have to get inspired on a topic, think a little about it and then let it simmer in my unconscious. Usually an alarm goes off out of the blue and I am ready to sit down and write. I was really surprised to find that I had experienced a full 180-degree shift.
A British Story
A tradesman notices a toddler girl ambling along a major roadway. His immediate reaction is that he should stop and pick her up. But he doesn’t. A short time later he hears on the news that this same little girl managed to make her way out of her daycare and roam along a roadside until she came upon a lake and drowned.
These two stories make me want to weep. And if I imagine my three-year-old’s face for even a split second on either of these children, I am brought to my knees with the urge to throw up. I want to make my way to the parents of these angels and beg forgiveness on the behalf of the human race. How CAN this happen?
It is difficult for us sometimes to comprehend the repercussions of actions in cultures different from our own. In China, it turns out that if someone stops to help, they are often then stopped as the perpetrator. Well, wait a minute, surely once they explained what happened, they would be released. Undoubtedly the life of a child is worth a short period of detention. But we are talking about a radically different system, one in which citizens are not guaranteed a fair hearing or any hearing at all.
If stopping and acting is akin to a game of Russian roulette, would we act? I am sure we would like to think we would. But then it’s worth looking at our British driver. Why didn’t he stop? It turns out he was afraid someone would consider him a pedophile trying to abduct the young girl. And thanks to media sensationalism, even if he was stopped and cleared, everyone would always remember him as that bloke who was probably a pedophile but got stopped before they could prove anything. How many other people saw that little girl and didn’t stop?
The cases are clearly different and yet both resulted in unthinkable tragedies. I believe that Chinese need to take a good, hard look at themselves. But I’d argue that we in the West need to as well.


  1. I remember the British story. The reason the man didn’t stop was precisely because he feared that he would be accused of trying to abduct her. There is terrible climate of mistrust when it comes to adults and children. A father was recently arrested for photographing his own daughter in a shopping mall. A friend in Kent remarked that they don’t have any photos of their son playing cricket because photographing children in public is considered so unacceptable.

    I’m curious to know if there is a similar trend in China. A few years ago I heard a researcher from China give a paper in which she looked at one child families. She seemed to think that some broader these trends in parenting culture are also at work in China. I t would be interesting if that were true in this case.

  2. I always think back to a a series of pictures my mother took of me when I was about 3, beautiful photos naked standing up in front of the big window in my room. Had those been sent to be processed these days, she would have had child protective services knocking on our door. On a similar note, hubby wanted to take some pictures of a school we were visiting so we could send home to grandparents and we were informed, despite being shot at a distance of kids playing during recreation, it wasn’t allowed. The funny thing there is that living in Singapore, I have people regularly taking tons of pictures of my kids – seldom asking for permission. Once they shoved a giant lens right up to my newborn’s face and after about 7 shots I had to ask them to back off. I felt like we were animals in a zoo though really it is seems to just be this fascination with western children. I’d be curious to see what would happen if I were to try the same. There is definitely no issue at least in Singapore but I plan on checking with China on the fear of abduction/inappropriate contact here. It is actually the topic of my next post.

  3. This Globe and Mail article is the best response I have read to this tragic incident: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/asia-pacific/ignored-toddler-doesnt-tell-the-whole-story-about-china/article2206105/
    It’s also worth keeping in mind that for the dozens of people who walked by little Yueyue bleeding on the street, almost five million people (Chinese also) expressed their outrage and sorrow online and many are now donating money to support her family. The reasons for all of this are complex and cannot simply be blamed on a lack of moral conscience among Chinese people, which much of the media reporting I have seen implies and which is more than a tad racist. I appreciate this post here for raising these issues. But I don’t attribute the difficulty for Westerners to understand the situation to differences in culture so much as differences in political, legal, and social systems which frame these individual lives.

  4. Sophie,
    I completely agree with you. I guess I’ve always considered things like the political & legal system to be part of one’s culture broadly speaking but maybe I am stretching things. Thank you for the link. I had stopped reading articles because they were making me feel uncomfortable. It was a relief to see someone not jumping on the finger pointing bandwagon. The legal system plays such a strong role. I remember, at the time of Princess Diana’s death in Paris, reading about a French law that if someone is on the scene of an accident they are obligated to try otherwise potentially prosecution.

  5. I would like to add that in the past, Chinese people were always willing to help a stranger in need. It is only over the past 5-6 years that people started to fear getting involved, since it is probable that people will use you (backed by the current “legal” system) to milk all of the money out of you possible. The Chinese people I know are appalled at this change in the public conscience, but admit that they themselves wouldn’t dare get involved to help those in need. After all, the whole scene could be a scam set up by a kidnapper. Where money is tight, responsibilities are numerous (feeding your own family), people are in survival mode, scammers are numerous and the government is not on the good samaritan’s side, most people whether Chinese or from anywhere else, just wouldn’t have the guts to help out.


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