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Bystander effect prompts call for Good Samaritan law in China

Updated: 31 Dec 2010
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A fallen man pleads in vain for help in Hefei, capital city of Anhui Province, on September 13.
 
It took Chongqing middle school student Wan Xin a year to prove his innocence.
 
When he saw the 77-year-old grandmother groaning on the ground on November 14 last year, Wan said he decided to help her. No sooner had he reached the woman mainland media refer to as "Granny Zhang" than she grabbed Wan and declared him responsible for her pain.
  
Wan's mother Mo Xiufen, a nearby street vendor, came to the scene to find Wan arguing with Zhang. To prevent a bad situation worsening, Mo took Zhang to the nearest community hospital in the village of Gaosheng.
 
Diagnosed as having suffered a broken leg, Zhang was transferred to the district hospital the same night thanks to Mo.
 
For the next 19 days, Mo spent 20,000 yuan on medical fees for Zhang. That's where the story should have ended, but Zhang's relatives wanted more.
 
Wan's parents refused to pay any more, so Zhang took Wan to court on March 3 demanding 30,483.5 yuan compensation including medical, nursing, board and nutrition expenses.
 
The Wanzhou district court dismissed Zhang's motion for compensation.
 
Its ruling was based on the fact that the prosecutor had no witnesses or further evidence to support Zhang's claim it was Wan Xin, the defendant, who had knocked her over.
 
After losing the court decision, Zhang appealed. Media coverage escalated and Zhang did not show up at Chongqing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court on August 3.
 
Instead she sent her grandson who submitted a legal paper with her fingerprint abandoning the appeal.
 
"Zhang still claimed it was all Wan's fault, but she could not find any evidence to support her claim," Judge Lan Guanghua told the Chongqing Evening News after visiting the prosecutor in person for verification.
 
"So she decided to withdraw the lawsuit and get away from the controversy."
 
He felt awful about the whole sordid affair, Wan Xin told the Chongqing Evening News. His age has not been reported in any media.
"I couldn't help thinking about it day and night. I couldn't focus in class, sometimes couldn't sleep at night," Wan reportedly said.
 
"I did a good thing, but I was afraid people would think I was a bad person. This society is too complicated."
 
Wan's school grades suffered last year, the paper reported, and he had become a more subdued character.
Phone calls to the Chongqing Evening News reporter Chen Guodong went unanswered. A director of the paper who refused to give his name told the Global Times that the report had got Chen into trouble, but declined to release more details about the controversy. 
 
A man suffering from a high blood pressure attracts a photographer and a crowd in Chongqing on January 9, 2007.Photo:IC
 
Controversy
 
Wan's hard luck story struck a chord on the Chinese mainland, spreading to major web portals and drawing more than 27,000 comments on sohu.com.
 
"Being a virtuous man is very difficult now," wrote Huixieren.
 
"There are so many petty people in China," wrote a Shenyang user.
 
"I told my kids not to do good deeds anymore," commented Heixiaohaogou.
 
Many tied this case to another famous accident in Nanjing: "This is the evil left over from the Peng Yu case" wrote Zhagentudi.
"If Wan winds up in Nanjing, he would be convicted too," quipped Xiaosajianke.
 
Peng Yu on November 20, 2006 allegedly helped an old woman, Xu Shoulan, who had also been knocked down.
 
Xu was diagnosed as having suffered a fractured hipbone later at the hospital.
 
She then claimed Peng did it and took him to court for compensation. What shocked people was not that the court found Peng guilty and fined him 45,876 yuan on September 5, 2007.
 
What amazed most readers was the explanation for the decision. The judge claimed "Peng was the first to get off the bus, and according to common sense, it was likely Peng had collided with Xu."
 
Guilty conscience?
 The court's rationale was simple: If Peng wasn't guilty, why did he help? He should have left Xu alone to "wait for relatives to take her to hospital" or, as many other commentators observed, die.
 
Peng's alleged selfless choice to help Xu was thus "unreasonable," and evidence of guilt.
  
This controversial logic made national headlines and the lawsuit took on a politically sensitive life of its own.
 
In response, a worried Nanjing government "harmonized" the case by forcing both sides to reconcile privately, far from prying cameras or the rule of law.
 
The public may think these two cases are similar, but they are in fact quite different, said legal scholar Xu Xin of the Beijing Institute of Technology.
 
"The ruling on the Wan Xin case is based on evidence while that of Peng Yu is based on an empirical interpretation, which makes the two cases of a different nature," Xu said.
 
The Nanjing government had worried the image of Nanjing would suffer, Xu explained, pressurizing both parties to settle. Settling the case without proper legal procedures - a political fix - had been a big mistake, he believed.
 
Most of the evidence in the Peng Yu case suggested Peng had indeed knocked down the alleged victim, Xu said, although public sentiment tended toward believing in Peng's innocence.
 
"If the judge had found Peng guilty in the end based upon sound reasoning and solid evidence, it wouldn't be a problem," Xu said.
 
Wan Xin's victory was credited to a witness, Tan Xiangxuan, who was willing to travel from Xinjiang in support of Wan's account.
 
"The Wan Xin case was a good ruling based on the evidence," Xu said. "It gives the public a definite signal that a good deed goes unpunished."
 
One day after Wan Xin's second trial, a 78-year-old man surnamed Kang fell down crossing the street in Handan, a prefecture-level city of southwestern Hebei Province, the Yanzhao Evening News reported.
 
Asking for help for half an hour, nobody stopped to lend him a hand.
 
"Thank you. Please rest assured that I fell on my own and I won't accuse you," Zhang reportedly told Wang Tiejun, a taxi driver who was the first to volunteer help.
 
"After the Peng Yu case, I was afraid of being accused of something I didn't do," Wang told the paper.
 
Cold feet
 
Peng's case indeed seems to have chilled feet across the nation: An old man surnamed Ding in Hangzhou suffered a heart attack and fell on his head December 6 last year, reported the Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News.
 
Dozens of bystanders called the 110 and 120 emergency numbers, but no one dared do anything else. Ding died in the ambulance. 
 
Social psychologists cite "Genovese syndrome" as an important factor in weighing such interventions.
 
Through experiments, social scientists have established that the more bystanders involved in an emergency situation, the fewer feel obliged to act.
 
As China is rarely short of bystanders, this might account for any apparent disparity between Chinese behavior and the behavior of bystanders in other countries.
 
"I think the case in China is very different from the Genovese case," said Hou Yubo, a social psychology professor at Peking University. "It's got nothing to do with apathy. People just worry about their own future too much because they cannot rely on societal support."
 
The public understands the mores of a market economy "in a very warped way," said Chen Lidan, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing who studies communication and public opinion.
 
"Credibility is the foundation of a market economy, but now many people believe money is everything. Without norms of behavior and basic trust, it costs us so much to verify truth from falsehood."
 
Society pays too much attention to material wealth development, Chen said. "Managing humans is different from managing machines. This lack of faith is also the reason for our credibility crisis.
 
"The moral level of our citizens is quite low. Since our society transformed to a market economy, money and profit have become the only goals people pursue."
 
While some experts tout the solution of a Good Samaritan Law, Xu begs to differ.
 
"I think this has more to do with establishment of societal credibility than the legal system," he said.
 
"Volunteering has nothing to do with laws, but the function of law in motivating good behavior and giving guidance should not be neglected.
 
"Within the current system and social environment, people who volunteer to help others need to think about protecting their own rights by recording evidence." 
  
Good Samaritan law
  
Good Samaritan laws have their origins in the famous parable told in the Bible's Gospel of Luke 10:25- 37 when a Samaritan finds a Jewish traveler left half-dead, beaten and robbed by bandits on the road. Other Jews had already passed by on the other side before the Samaritan helps the victim, even though Jews and Samaritans at that time did not exactly get along.
 
A modern Good Samaritan law refers to a law or act protecting those who render aid in an emergency to an injured person on a voluntary basis. They are intended to reduce bystanders' hesitation to assist for fear of being sued or prosecuted for unintentional injury or wrongful death.
 
Bystander effect
 The bystander effect refers to the social psychological phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely they will act in an emergency situation. Another name for the term is Genovese syndrome, named after Kitty Genovese who was stabbed to death near her home in Queens, New York on March 13, 1964. Re-searchers Bibb Latane and John Darley posited the theory to explain why Genovese's repeated cries for help went largely ignored. 
 
SOURCE: Global Times
 
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