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Home  /  Inside China  /  "zuo shi bei e" – The fear of extortion as the dilemma of the Good Samaritan in contemporary China
"zuo shi bei e" – The fear of extortion as the dilemma of the Good Samaritan in contemporary China print version
Last October, China and the world were staring with outrage at the incident of little Yueyue, a girl toddler who was hit by a car and later ignored by 18 pedestrian passengers. Society and policy-makers suggest changing relevant legal regulations and promoting acts of 'Good Samaritan', but there is need to understand the dynamic social landscape in China and the factors that hinder providing aid to strangers.
In a 2007 legal case, a middle-aged man named Peng claimed to have helped the elder Mrs. Xu who was lying on the ground as he had got off a bus. Peng took Xu to the hospital and even paid for her initial treatment. Mrs. Xu claimed to have been pushed when she had got off a bus by no other than Mr. Peng. She based such statement not on her memory or evidence, but with the rhetoric that 'why would he help me if he had not felt responsible, if he was not guilty?' The court agreed and Peng was set to pay a compensation of ¥46,000 to the elder witty lady.

In his 2009 article about the trouble of The Good Samaritan's in China, Yan Yunxiang explores different stories of extortion that took place in recent years in China (some stories more well-known in the Chinese public sphere than others), including the one above. Yan attempts to find out what moral and legal circumstances design a reality by which doing a good deed is dangerous and can result in false accusations and high expenses. Yet unlike to story of Peng and Xu, as most stories do not involve victims who have been severely injured, the compensation expenses normally do not exceed several hundreds of RMB. But even when the financial stakes aren't so high, the frustration on the side of the extorted aid provider is terribly intense. Reported stories are often echoed with vivid public debates that tend to sympathize the extorted side and reinforce the idea that Chinese society doesn't encourage Good Samaritans.

Legal conditions that don't punish the extorting side (even when their scheme is revealed), social gaps that lead to compassion of the legal system towards the weak elder (the typical 'extorter') rather than the young middle-class individual (normally the helper) and a general assumption that 'why would someone help a stranger hadn't he/she share responsibility for the felony?!' all lead to this bitter reality, according to Yan. Furthermore, although a crowd normally witnesses the incident (weiguan 围观), when police officers arrive few people actually volunteer to serve as witnesses.

Yan introduces the concept of bao (报) - 'reciprocity' - as important in traditional Chinese culture. In the cases of Good Samaritan acts, practice of bao would be having the aided side show great gratitude and repay the good-hearted helper generously. While the current reality demonstrates that values are changing, I can suggest that perhaps bao still exists to some extent; it is possible that the extorters are not only devious but also scared to feel a need to reciprocate. In such case, they refuse to believe that the helper is an innocent soul and convince themselves of their victim narrative.

An aspect of these dynamics that Yan does not explore is the fact that public debates tend to assume that extortion lies in the basis of many stories. Even Yan himself takes for granted studied cases involve extortion, rather than acknowledging the possibility that in some incidents the victims are indeed... victims. The public discourse that appears on the media and internet social networks is mostly directed by middle class members, who easily identify with the profile of the aid-provider. This results in a perceived reality in which extortion is prevalent, even though some facts remain debatable. Furthermore, even if extortion does take place, does helping a wounded low-income elder and even paying he/she ¥200 make the generous 'Good Samaritan' a victim? Isn't a poor elder, even a potential extorter, still the one deserving compassion?

The public discourse that discusses this phenomenon is normally giving the angle of the young and of the middle class. Furthermore, this discourse reflects new values of individual responsibility, which often dictates ignoring the problems of strangers. Particularly in the age of the single-child families, parents wish to protect their kids from unwanted encounters with strangers and the 'extortion stories' are a good tool to keep the children's hands 'clean'. 做事被讹 'zuo shi bei e' - "being extorted for doing a deed" is the common saying that represents the risk in helping strangers. Although the aid-provider is not always a youngster or a middle-class member (in the story of little Yueyue it was an old lady who eventually picked her up), but Yan presents such profile as the common case. This also seems to 'fit' well the public narrative of these stories which contrasts between the greedy old 'peasant' and the young educated good soul. 

Chinese often associate acts of 'Good Samaritan' with the mythic story of the soldier Lei Feng, who served the communist party selflessly (dying in 1962), not fearing injury and cherishing his self-sacrifice. Lei Feng is a hero, but his story does not truly reflect the idea of 'Good Samaritan'. Lei Feng served the party and the state, while 'Good Samaritan' indicates helping innocent strangers in need. Today, with the Chinese society becoming more individualistic yet also more aware of universal morals, some new voices are trying to promote Good Samaritan's or altruistic deeds, while the modern lifestyle is discounting them to some For the modern 'Good Samaritans' such acts are seen as a manifestation of individual morality, rather than caring for the greater collective, as it was the case during the Mao years. Yan states that even when thousands of Chinese volunteered to help the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, they did not see it as a national duty, but rather as a compassionate self-satisfying human behavior. Well, at least they were confident that they had a good alibi for not causing the natural disaster and could feel secure that extortion would not come their way...

The sad Xiao Yueyue story has reinforced the social notion that compassion is necessary and that helping a wounded soul is more important than any egoistic calculations. It is unclear though, whether such conclusion will be realized by future witnesses and whether aiding a stranger will become the default approach, even when it is not a life-or-death question.

Source: Yan, Yunxiang. 2009. "The Good Samaritan's New Trouble: A Study of the Changing Moral Landscape in Contemporary China." Social Anthropology.

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