In China, Don't Dare Help the Elderly: Adam Minter

On the morning of Sept. 4, in the riverside boomtown of Wuhan, Mr. Li, an 88-year-old man, fell in the street and injured his nose. People passed him by, but no one raised a hand to help as he lay on the ground, suffocating on his own blood.

This week, China’s netizens have expressed an outpouring of sympathy -- for the bystanders. This is nothing new here. In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of elderly men and women who have collapsed or suffered accidents in public spaces who then sue the good Samaritans who have tried to help them. These cases have created a genuine and widespread fear that helping a person in need will lead to personal financial loss.

In the wake of the Wuhan incident, People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, ran an online poll that asked if people would help a collapsed elderly person on the street. More than 80 percent of respondents said that they, too, wouldn't help for fear of extortion. A poll on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, showed a similar result: 43 percent said  they wouldn’t help, 38 percent said they weren’t sure what they would do, and only 20 percent said they would “definitely” help.

The Chinese have long prided themselves on their traditional, Confucian reverence for the elderly. And these incidents have generated an exceptional outpouring of public concern over the decline of social ethics and morality in Chinese society.

This phenomenon essentially began Nov. 20, 2006, when Xu Shuolan, a 65-year-old woman, fell and broke her hip while attempting to board a bus in Nanjing. Peng Yu, a 26-year-old, was the first to help her. He gave her 200 reminbi and escorted her to the hospital, staying with her until her family arrived. In thanks, Xu sued Peng for 136,419  reminbi, or $18,000, claiming that he was the one who knocked her down.

In one of the best-known, most important Chinese judicial rulings of the last decade, a court decided that Peng owed Xu  45,000 reminbi, or $6,076. The court didn't have any evidence that Peng committed the crime of which he was accused by Xu. But the court, controversially, used the “daily life experience to analyze things” standard and claimed that the aid Peng gave to Xu was sufficient evidence of guilt. It wasn't, as many outraged Chinese at the time felt, a simple act of decency.

The Peng Yu case has been a precedent for lawsuits filed by seniors against everyday citizens. This includes a notorious case where a court awarded an old woman compensation for collapsing out of fear that she might be hit by a car –- a vehicle that  was, both parties agreed, 4 to 5 meters away at the time of her collapse. According to a columnist at China Daily, a similar incident in Jiangsu Province recently caused a spike in sales of cameras fitted for cars at a Beijing electronics market.

The most solid proof of the corrosive effect these cases have had on China’s reverence for its elderly, however, emerged in 2009 when a 75-year-old Nanjing man fell at a bus stop and reportedly yelled out to the bystanders: “I fell on my own, you all do not need to worry, it had nothing to do with you all.” Then, and only then, did anyone offer to help him.

Falls are a leading cause of injury and death among China’s elderly. This fact was surely behind the Chinese Ministry of Health’s decision this week to issue the 41-page document, “Technical Guidelines for Preventing and Treating Falls by the Elderly.” According to Chinese state media reports, the document had been in the works for a few years; it was also released with guides detailing technical protocols for helping drowning victims and children involved in automobile crashes.

But the timing of the dcoument's release, just days after Mr. Li suffocated in the street, was terrible. The vast majority of Chinese netizens and editorialists interpreted it as a tone-deaf, technocratic response to what many perceive as three decades of decay in traditional Chinese values that began when the county embraced capitalism.

In an editorial on, China’s leading financial news portal, Chi Jingrui wrote:

It is generally believed by the public that if we go back thirty years, it’s no more difficult to help a senior citizen when he falls down than to offer a seat on the bus. But then what has made us lose our "loving heart” and social morality over the last thirty years?

Usually the answer is money. “In China, helping a fallen senior is a risky investment and its overall rate of return is usually negative,” tweeted Time in Words, a user of the Sina Weibo microblog.

By early afternoon on Sept. 7, “Ministry of Health” had become the second-most popular trending topic among the 200 million users of Sina Weibo (this weekend’s Mid-Autumn Festival was no. 1). The online discussion often was contemptuous, especially about the length of the state guidelines for helping the elderly and their inapplicability to real-life circumstances.

Shui Yinhe, a freelance journalist, tweeted on Sina Weibo:

What a guideline. If the senior citizen falls, he should be accompanied by their family members to the hospital. But if we can't get in touch with them, what can we do? Let them wait to die?

Where others saw the Ministry of Health's incompetence, some saw humor. The topic of the guidelines became a platform for the spontaneous gallows humor that is characteristic of China’s microblogging masses.

A Sina Weibo user who goes by “Textbook” took the popular approach of offering some of his own guidelines:

1. Call 120 [the Chinese emergency number]. 2. Look around to see if there’s a watchdog or wait for more people to come, and then help the elderly person. 3. Take photos using your cell phone in case tragedy happens … 4. If you are in areas outside the mainland, you don't have to do any of this and you can act normally.

But the award for the most cutting set of additional guidelines for helping the elderly goes to the editorial writers for the Qiangjiang Evening News, a Hangzhou-based newspaper. They proposal includes:

3. Equipment such as still cameras and video cameras are all indispensable to saving people … 4. Call 110 or 120. Remember not to leave your name and use a phone booth ... After finishing the call, return to the site (Note: Just watch, never make any conspicuous speech or action).

Despite all the humor, the unsettling -- even tragic -- subtext to the discussion is this: There’s been such deterioration in the Chinese social contract that the elderly can no longer count on their fellow citizens for help.

Jiang Changjian, an associate professor in the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Shanghai’s Fudan University, bluntly summarized the depth of the problem on Sina Weibo: “...if there’s no willingness to offer help to a fallen senior citizen, whatever technical awareness and ability we have is rendered useless.”

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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