Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What does Yueyue's death tell us about China?

Two weeks ago in China's Guangdong province, two-year-old Wang Yue (nicknamed Yueyue) was run over by a car, ignored by passersby and later died in hospital. Thanks to the presence of security cameras pointed at the street, the hit-and-run and the subsequent indifference of eighteen people to the plight of a bleeding two-year-old was captured and seen by the world.

This isn't quite a case of China-bashing, because reaction within China has been as critical as the reaction outside of China, but both Chinese and non-Chinese seem to be treating this as proving, among other things, that China or the Chinese have no soul because they sold it to get rich. For years, people have felt that China's meteoric rise economically was coming at the expense of its people's well-being (as though hundreds of people being lifted out of poverty isn't well-being). Now, they seemingly have their proof.

But, as is so often the case, an event in China tells us what we think of China instead of telling us something about China. We would never think of India as the world's ninth-largest economy, but China is the world's second-largest economy, its second superpower and future ruler. All sorts of expectations are levied on China, when talking about daily life rather than its military or diplomatic capabilities, that would never be expected in other countries with per-capita incomes of 7,000.

It's likely that in other countries, this wouldn't have happened, but even if this had been an anomaly by Chinese standards, this would have confirmed our gut feeling that the Chinese can't be trusted. All it takes, of course, is one example, and if the example had come from CCTV in Thailand, Syria, Ecuador or Slovakia, it probably would not have had the same impact.

Much was made of the absence of Good Samaritan Laws in China, which meant that passersby would have opened themselves up to legal risk had they touched Yueyue, but the reason no one stopped to help her was more likely indifference rather than fear of a lawsuit. We have all seen instances of people in need that get no help from those around them. It happens in Canada, it happens in America, it happens here in Korea and it happens around the world for a number of reasons.

The social issues in China are immense, particularly in Guangdong province where much of your worldly possessions, especially the sort you value, are made. There are 150 million migrant workers in China, representing about one out of every eight Chinese people, who travel from villages to southern cities like Foshan, where Yueyue lived. The issues raised by this movement of people are complicated and difficult, both for the towns they leave and the cities where they congregate.

It's entirely possible, yes, that a city made up of a floating population of people who work too much don't care too much about each other, but what if the same thing happened in Los Angeles or Tokyo or London? When the Chinese state media spun some nonsense about the perils of democracy and declining economies, would it not be equally nonsensical?

The death of Yueyue clearly doesn't prove anything about China, nor does it give us any justifiable reason to look into China's soul beyond the question of whether the poor and vulnerable are treated well, which is a question each country should ask itself. Far too often in China, the answer is no, moreso than it is in the wealthy country where you are reading this, but that doesn't make Yueyue's death any more or less a single, horrific instance of human indifference.


Anonymous said...

I think the important point s, that the video was not posted by private citizens with a smartphone. It was a state media report run during a CCP Central Committee conclave. This episode seems more like a local or municipal council meeting holding a hearing on an event criticized in the local news. Either its a cynical attempt to mimic openness and debate, or a legitimate internal insurgency that has used the video, to express its position at the conclave. Either way, poor Yue Yue is a true victim twice over.

Adeel said...

Ah, I didn't know that. I think you'd go broke fast betting on an insurgency within the Chinese state, so I'll bet on an "open debate" guided by the state.