Old man falls down. Who can you trust?

A few years ago I remember I was walking with a friend on the street here in Copenhagen. Next to us, suddenly, a drunk that we were passing collapsed (?) or fell down on the ground. ‘So what’ I thought. This country has liberal alcohol policies and a generous welfare system. Who wouldn’t expect to see drunks falling over on the street?

I continued to walk on but this particular friend of mine rushed back to the guy to put him back on his feet again. When he came back he asked me”Didn’t you see that guy? He might have been in trouble”. “Sure, I saw him but, generally speaking, drunks falling over are not my problem. Next time I see one I will do the same.”

If I see a person bleeding on the ground or in an epileptic fit or something like that then I will most certainly act by calling an ambulance. Or, as a minimum, ask him there is something I can do. There are probably even some rules on ‘criminal neglect’ that cover this area. Or we could just call it ‘common decency’. When the incident is over, that will be it and I will never hear from it again. But drunks falling over? No. People fall over all the time and it is not a particularly big deal.

Except if you live in China.

The other day an old man in Henan fell off his tricycle and hit his head. Read the news story below:

(Netease) Yangze Evening news reported, on July 11 at noon, an old man fell on the ground while riding a tricycle on the Xinghua Yangshan Bridge. He lay on the ground and could not get up. For as long as 15 minutes, many people passed through there, some even stopped by and watched, but not one person gave the old man a hand to help him up. Why is that? According to explanation, the main reason why many people are reluctant to help is because fear of being framed for their good intentions. However some people also said, if they were at the scene, they would create the “evidence of being innocent” and at the same time help the old man.

Yesterday afternoon, a forum post titled “Elderly falls in the middle of the street, many passerby do not dare to help” appeared on Xinghua City 400 (400.com.cn) website. The poster “Peng Peng” said, on the same day around 12 pm, he was riding a motorcycle home from the local fruit market, when passing by Xinghua Yangshan Bridge he saw a old man lying in the middle of the road, next to him was a small tricycle. The old man was lying on the ground motionless, with blood seeping through his left eyebrow, probably had lost control of his bladder also because his shorts were wet.

Many people watching the scene, but on one was helping the elderly. Someone even reminded the others at the scene, “Cannot help him up, it will ‘stick’ to your hands”. “Peng Peng” dialed 110 and 120 and then took these pictures with his camera. The old man lay in the middle of the road for about 15 minutes then was picked up by the ambulance.

“Peng Peng’s” post caused many local internet users’ concerns. Hundreds read the post in short time and many left comments.

One Internet user witnessed the scene said it happened in front of his shop. He went to look after many people gathered. At the scene, he heard someone was reminding people, “Don’t help, be careful later his family blames all on you.” Sure enough, the crowd of people at the scene just “watched the excitement” and no one gave a helping hand. He saw no one was helping and thought of the “Nanjing old lady Xu incident” so he returned back to his shop.  (On November 26, 2006, in Nanjing, a man helped an old lady who felt on the floor to get up on a bus ended up being accused for causing her injury. He was sued by the old lady Xu’s family for 130,000 yuan of medical cost. The incident caused great debate on the Internet at the time. Later they settled on an agreement after negotiation. The exact amount was not publicized but was rumored to be 40,000)

Another Internet user said, a university student in Henan also helped an elderly up who felt on the floor, but he ended up being sentenced to pay 80,000 yuan as compensation for causing the injury. Therefore when people see this kind of things, the only thing they will do is calling the police. But he said if someone was willing to record the entire process with a video camera, he would consider helping the old man.

In the comments, reporter saw many different views. Someone said, we should not doubt everyone in the world just because of the “Nanjing old lady Xu incident” and the “Henna university student incident”. Imagine how you would feel if the person lying in the middle of the road was our family member. We should always help. Of course, while doing a good deed we should also use our head. For example, in order to give self the “evidence of being innocent”, you can talk to the old man, and record the conversation, or record the process on video with your cell phone.

The interesting thing here is not the gathering onlookers and inaction. That could probably happen anywhere in the world. What is interesting is the reasoning that people apply for not acting. For fear of attracting a lawsuit, several witnesses and commenters say that they will only act if they have video evidence that they did not cause the accident.

My analysis in this particular case is that a poor legal system and the deliberate decades long destruction of trust and social morals by Mao, followed by a society where each is increasingly left to his/her own resources is to blame for the paranoia exhibited by the onlookers.

People in China expect no leniency, justice or even rationality from other people with even the slightest inkling of power. In case of doubt, force through your version of reality, seems to be the parole. This goes both for private citizens and for official authorities.

When 100 tons of Benzene flooded down the river heading for Harbin, a city of millions in the North of China, the gut reaction of those responsible was to stay silent. Benzene is a highly poisonous toxin that is also carcinogenic. It took the authorities a full week before they started acting on the threat and in the beginning they even claimed that shutting down water supplies was only a routine maintenance check and refrained from warning the farmers downriver who use the water for flooding their farm produce. The leak was caused by an explosion that killed six people and wounded 70 others so it is not like they didn’t know about it.

With an 80 kilometer slick of highly poisonous chemicals heading down the Amur River towards one of China’s largest cities you have to be pretty stubborn not to think that someone will notice.

Similarly, when Chinese authorities found out that a previously unknown and deadly disease had broken out, the initial reaction of the local authorities was to try and suppress all knowledge of it. The disease would later be dubbed SARS and was the cause of global panic and billions of dollars in losses.

Another example is the frequent police beatings of migrant workers and petitioners. China has a centuries-old tradition of letting common people voice their grievances directly to their rulers. In the olden days it meant the emperor but today it means the Communist Party and the central administration. The current regime is, however, not too keen on listening and officials therefore do their best to ignore petitions and the police regularly beat up random people whom they suspect are about to file a complaint. They may even go so far as sending petitioners off to mental hospitals or labor camps. A lot of people are just forcibly sent home to their villages and will then literally spend decades playing a cat and mouse game with the police or hired thugs in their attempt to get their cases heard without getting their heads bashed in. Some settle semi-permanently in so-called petitioners’ villages while they try to push their cases.

Not so long ago Chen Yulian who is the wife of an important party cadre, was the victim of a vicious beating on the stairs of a public building in Wuhan when she was on her way to make a petition. When the police found out who she was married to they did something very unusual: they apologized. Not because they had beat up someone but because they had beat up the wife of someone important.

This is the kind of justice Chinese have to live with.

(For the best in Chinese news coverage go to ESWN or ChinaDigitalTimes).


  1. Very interesting and sad article. It is also SAD because I understand their point of view from my experience in Vietnam.

    First, it is a shame that we as human beings are reluctant to help others at times. One would think if we see someone in distress we would always want to help out. Unfortunately it is not that simple. In order to keep my comment short here are my scenarios

    1. Drunks – Yep, I see a lot of this as I'm close to the Tenderloin in San Francisco. There are often homeless people on the sidewalk. I know what "normal" looks like and I walk by. If I see something "abnormal" however like someone lying in the middle of the street I will check on them and call the police.

    In Japan as you know, there are a lot of drunk salarymen on the trains at night. The trains are also often very crowded and I've helped more than a few stay on their feet. On one occasion a salaryman was having a hard time holding onto the ring and almost feel flat. I grabbed his wrist and put his hand back on the ring.

    2. Asia (3rd world) – The basic rule is as a foreigner, do not get involved at all costs. A foreigner can at times be a target and if you get involved the crowd might start blaming you. Even if they do not, the police might detain you anyway and try to extract a bribe. They will take you down to the station, ask for papers and not let you leave until you cough up some money.

    Again, it is very shameful that this is the way it is but it is a reality.

  2. Another Chinese example of (missing) reactions from people in the street when something unusual and possibly critical happens:

  3. There was a very old story in "Nanjing China ", we call it "Peng, yu Case" .
    Actually, it is not a story because it is true!
    One day, a young man with the name "Peng, yu" was walking in the street of Nanjing.
    Suddenly, he saw an old woman was laying on the ground with badly injury!
    Then the young man took the old woman to hospital…..
    But after few days, the young man was impleaded by this old woman , she said the young man ran down her at that day!
    And the most amusing thing is: the judge believed this old woman!
    The judge ask a very interesting question to Peng, yu the yound man:
    "If you had not run down her, Why did you take her to hospital? why did you help her???"
    HAHA, could you give the answer to the blamed judge ?????
    What I said is NOT a stoty, it was a very famous NEWS and we can read it in almost all portal sites of China!
    After that, few Chinese people dare to help other people without evidence!

  4. Another story describing the state of civil society and (lack of ) trust in authorities in China:

    Quote: "A recent article in the International Herald Leader, published by the state-run news agency Xinhua, reflects on this growing problem.

    "We once used to trust everything – our leaders, revolution, the collapse of capitalism and communism's bright future. But now it seems we don't believe in anything," said the report."

  5. I was a Chinese and I live in Australia right now. Honestly, if the same thing happens, I’ll probably just call the police in a place where no one can find me. Otherwise, what can I do if they sue me and the judge says “if you did not hit the old lady, why did you help her?” I know this is really selfish and cold-hearted, but Pengyu’s case left us no choice. We don’t have 40,000 RMB to pay for something that is not our fault. The judge of Pengyu’s and other similar cases should go to hell. It left such bad effects on so many kind people. No one wanna be a good person anymore.

  6. Yet another story of hit-and-run / no civil morality makes waves among Chinese Netizens.

    Chinese media and internet users have voiced shock at a hit-and-run incident involving a two-year-old child left injured in the road as passers-by ignored her.

    The toddler was hit by a van on Thursday in the city of Foshan.

    After the van drove off, several pedestrians and vehicles passed the girl without stopping. Several minutes later she was hit by another vehicle.

    A rubbish collector finally helped her, but she is said to be seriously hurt.

    The incident was captured on surveillance cameras and shown on local TV.

  7. The ancient San people of the Kalahari believe that compassion is what makes the difference between men and animals.

    So I think you are fooling yourself if you think this could happen anywhere else in the world. In every country in Europe, without exception, I’ve seen people fallen in the street helped. I’ve helped two car accident victims; comforting them and protecting them from the traffic until the ambulence came. Each time other people were there to help too; warning off traffic, finding a blanket, talking to them to prevent shock.

    If you have some confidence in yourself as an individual, you’re bought up to regard yourself as equal to all men and you don’t live in fear, then, well, my street and my neighbours and my city are part of my world. And in that world, no one aquires more rights or power simply by being in a uniform. So therefore if I see someone needs help and I can help them, then I help them. Just as I’ll tell someone off for dropping litter; it’s just natural. But if you’ve grown up believing the state is responsible for public order and that individuals have no power to influence their world then these travesties happen.

    Would the people of China like to have more democracy? Well, the simplest way to achieve that is to start taking more responsibility for what goes on around you. After all, no one ‘gave’ the first north American setters or the ancient Greeks or the English barons of 1215 democracy: these people were just humans who felt that the benefits of life come with a duty towards your fellow citizens.

    As for drunks: surely you could have just checked the drunk was OK? Anything less is simply shameful. A good friend of mine slipped on the ice in Boston while putting his rubbish out and broke a leg next to the bins. He lay on the pavement for 45 minutes in dangerous freezing temperatures before someone he knew came along. So think of that next time you use the ”he’s only a drunk” exception.

    There’s only one thought for a sane man when confronted by suffering: I have to help because one day it could be me.

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