By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal
Why do passersby in China ignore accident victims?
Why do some accident victims in China demand damages from their rescuers?
Would a law change this behavior?
These are questions that confront some Chinese who have begun to debate whether the role of the Good Samaritan should be introduced into China ’s changing society.
The Good Samaritan first appeared in the New Testament as a man who rescued a crime victim lying by a road, even though religious officials walking past him had ignored him. Since then, “Good Samaritan” denotes an unselfish and sometimes heroic person who rescues another who has been harmed either through an accident or a crime.
The latest debate over scant legal protections offered Good Samaritans in China flared up last week after a legal team in Guangzhou announced that it would be taking up the case of Wu Sundong, a young man in Zhejiang province who was ordered by a local court to pay roughly 70,000 yuan ($11,000) in compensation to an elderly couple he had taken to the hospital after discovering they had fallen off their electric bicycle (story in Chinese). While police said there was no evidence to show Wu was at fault, the court appeared to accept the argument of the elderly couple’s family members that Wu wouldn’t have taken the couple to the hospital if he hadn’t been at fault because, as they said, “people that good don’t exist.”
Even more controversial, however, was a grim hit-and-run accident in October in the southern city of Foshan . In that case, caught by security cameras, a two-year old child was run over by two separate trucks over the course of seventeen minutes while eighteen people walked or cycled past her without helping. The child, Wang Yue, was finally rescued by a scrap collector but died of her injuries a few days later, launching a nationwide round of soul searching about the state of Chinese society.
In November, officials in the city of Shenzhen drafted a regulation that would protect rescuers from legal liability for harm suffered by a rescued victim of crime or accident and published it to invite public comment. If such a law were adopted to protect rescuers of victims of accidents or crimes from extortion, would that change the behavior of Chinese passersby?
An opinion poll in Beijing found that 87 percent of respondents said that when people do not help old people who have fallen, it is because “they want to avoid trouble.”
What is the cause of such behavior? Some have suggested that one factor is the influence of traditional culture. As Dorothy Solinger of the University of California, Irvine told the Christian Science Monitor in October: ”Chinese people are so concerned with being part of a network of personal relationships that that is all that matters… What goes on with a stranger is not their business.”
A more specific reason for not wanting to intervene is a concern that the victim might claim damages from the rescuer. The most famous such case occurred in Nanjing in 2007, when a young man named Peng Yu was sued after he escorted an elderly woman who had fallen and broken her leg to the hospital. As happened with Wu Sundong, the court ordered Peng Yu to pay 40% of the woman’s medical bills, explaining that “according to common sense” he wouldn’t have helped her if he weren’t in some way responsible for her fall.
UCLA anthropologist Yunxiang Yan, who wrote on Chinese cases of extortion by victims of their rescuers for the journal Social Anthropology in 2009, places such conduct in a larger perspective. He reminds readers that “rapidly transforming societies” experience “radical changes” and speculates that perhaps there has been a shift from the somberness of communist society to “consumerist hedonism.” Chinese are now dealing more with strangers, he notes, and their pursuit of self-interest interest can result in extreme antisocial behavior.
Yan concludes by commenting on the challenge that Chinese face in cultivating trust beyond the personal networks that have been the traditional basis for significant personal relationships. At the same time, Yan cites studies that show a continuity of traditional values, and he finds a strong social reaction to victims attempting to extort money from their rescuers. He also finds signs that values are changing , and writes that Chinese who do aid victims do so entirely out of “free will.”
Issues over the failure to rescue and the duty to rescue are not unique to China, and have been debated for centuries in the West. The complex legal and moral questions related to the Good Samaritan have long been the subject of litigation and law-making in the West, where legal systems have addressed them very differently.
Some European civil law countries such as Germany and France have adopted laws creating a duty to rescue persons in need of assistance. In contrast, in common law countries such as the U.S. and the UK, in principle there is no duty to rescue, although a few American states have enacted statutes creating such a duty and a number of others impose it when crime victims are involved. Even in common law countries a duty will be found by a court if a “special relationship” exists, such as parent-child or employer-employee, just to name several. (The common law doctrine is succinctly discussed in Melvin A. Eisenberg’s “The Duty to Rescue in Contract Law.”)
While common-law jurisdictions have been hesitant about legislating a duty to rescue, many have adopted rules that protect rescuers from civil liability for injuries caused by the rescuers’ negligence. Typically, too, such rules do not protect rescuers whose conduct is “grossly negligent” or “reckless.”
Opinion is divided over whether rules forcing passersby to help should be imposed in China. In its report on the draft regulation issued in Shenzhen, the South China Morning post notes that the tragedy in Foshan “prompted intense debate about whether the government should introduce a legal responsibility to rescue,” and a lawyer is quoted as favoring such a duty because “apathy had become a problem endangering society.”
It is clear, as Professor Yan concludes, that “China is currently undergoing a rapid transition without a clear direction.” Laws could provide some direction otherwise lacking in a confusing new social order. The Shenzhen draft regulation suggests that even without imposing a duty to rescue, a law protecting rescuers from extortion would serve a useful social purpose in China these days.