After falling in a downtown street and lying on the cold pavement, face down, for half an hour, during which no passers-by moved to help him, an 83-year-old man died. Hearing this story, what would you call this society? Cold-hearted?
In fact, the pedestrians in the southern China city of Fuzhou wanted to help when they found the old man lying on the ground last Wednesday. Two women tried to help the old man up. But one of the onlookers said: "Better not touch him. It will be hard for you to put it clearly later on."
The two women hesitated and finally stood up. Using their cell phone, they called the police and first-aid center. But by the time the ambulance arrived, the old man had died.
The case is not exceptional. A similar tragedy happened just 13 days earlier, in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. A 78-year-old man was found on the rain-soaked ground, face down in a residential compound, none of the onlookers took any action except to call the police. Despite the efforts of first-aid personnel to save his life, the man died. Had anybody turned him over and lifted his head up, the old man wouldn't have died. When questioned by the man's son, one of the community's guards said: "We dared not touch the old man because we would not be able to put it clearly should anything untoward occur."
The phrase "hard to put it clearly" may sound odd to foreigners, but everybody in China nowadays knows its meaning. When you try to help someone who falls to the ground injured or in coma, that person may allege that you caused the fall. You will then find it difficult to clear yourself of suspicion if the case is taken to court.
There was a precedent for this. On Nov 20, 2006, an old woman fell to the ground and broke her leg after jostling at a bus stop in Nanjing, an eastern China city. A young man, Peng Yu, helped her up and escorted her to hospital. Later the woman and her family dragged the man to court, which ruled that the young man should pay 40 percent of the medical costs. The court said the decision was reached by reasoning. The verdict said that "according to common sense", it was highly possible that the defendant had bumped into the old woman, given that he was the first person to get off the bus when the old woman was pushed down in front of the bus door and, "according to what one would normally do in this case", Peng would have left soon after sending the woman to the hospital instead of staying there for the surgical check. "His behavior obviously went against common sense."
This "reasoning" horrified, and angered, the whole nation. From then on, the number of pedestrians helping old people in need has dramatically decreased. Using search engines online, one can get dozens of stories of old people left lying on the ground without any passers-by giving a helping hand. Netizens have even coined a new phrase for it - "sequel of the Peng Yu case".
In the wake of this case old people also learned the way to get help was to shout a disclaimer for the would-be helpers. On Feb 22, 2009, a 75-year-old man fell to the ground when disembarking from a bus, also in Nanjing. Once again, nobody dared to touch him. In desperation, the old man shouted: "It is not anybody's fault. I fell by myself." At the words, everybody nearby came with all kinds of help.
In fact, most people feel compassion for the weak. But the frequent occurrence of extortion and blackmail after a passer-by has offered help has deterred people from acting as a Good Samaritan. Something has to be done to change the situation.
We may learn from the US experience.
In a 2004 traffic crash, a woman pulled a coworker from a car fearing a possible explosion. The injured person later filed a lawsuit against the rescuer, claiming that the improper way she was pulled from the car caused her paralysis. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff. The ruling got "condemned from coast to coast" for its obvious unfairness. In June 2009, the California legislature passed the Good Samaritan Protection Act, which immunizes Good Samaritans from liability when they assist others at the scene of an emergency. The plaintiff withdrew the suit.
We Chinese also need such a law so that "Good Samaritans should never again have to second-guess the consequences of helping", as said by one California senator after the law was passed.
The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily. E-mail: liushinan@ chinadaily.com.cn