China has been soul searching after the release of video footage showing two van drivers running over the two year-old Yueyue and eighteen pedestrians nonchalantly leaving her for dead. One microblogger Reissent1987 exclaimed "Where did conscience go... What has happened to the Chinese people?"
Unwillingness to help strangers is often blamed on a culture of compensation. In 2006, a young man named Peng Yu helped an old woman to the hospital after she fell running for a bus. Later, a judge concluded that Peng must have been responsible for the fall, and was ordered to pay 40% of the woman's medical fees. Although that took place in Nanjing City, Jiangsu Province, some netizens have blamed the judge in that case for the death of Yueyue in Foshan City, Guangdong Province over 1000 kilometers away.
But there is evidence that the problem of Chinese, especially in urban areas, failing to help strangers goes back much further. Lu Xun wrote about the problem in his 1933 essay, "experience." China has historically suffered from what Hong Kong University research student Trey Menefee called the "Confucian blind spot." China is made up of institutions, such as the family and the work unit, that depend on personal relationships and every person knowing their place.
Within families and friendship circles, extremely selfless behaviour can be seen every day. Author Xue Xinran described Chinese mothers as candles, burning themselves out to give light to children. It is common, maybe even expected, for young people to financially support their parents as soon as they are earning their own money.
It is clear however, that as Chinese people change their object of worship from Mao to the market, a moral vacuum is being left. And as G.K.Chesterton put it, the problem with people ceasing to believe in God is not that they will believe nothing, it is that they will believe anything.
Zhou Jun, a dentist from Hunan Province, once boasted to me that he was the only person who did not cry at his grandfather's funeral in 2010. His grandfather was a practising Catholic who had fought for the nationalist army in the 1940s. Zhou explained that in his own belief system, Nazism, men were not allowed to cry. When I left Hunan I gave him, as a gift, a translated copy of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. Confucianism teaches us to respect one another but not "the other." That is partly why Zhou, an upstanding husband, father and dentist, does not sympathize with the victims of Nazism.
There is an argument to say that public morals have declined in China since the days when Lei Feng was held up as an icon of self-sacrifice and stoicism. But there is evidence to the contrary. Public executions are a thing of the past, eating dog and cat meat is increasingly frowned upon, and people who express unfashionable opinions are lambasted on their microblog instead of being forced to wear a dunce cap and whipped in public.
Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but it is also a trick of the brain.