A speeding taxi knocks the pedestrian off her feet, sending her hurtling through the air. Dozens of people stand gawking or walk past as if the young woman sprawled in the busy intersection simply doesn’t exist. A full minute passes, and another speeding vehicle, this time an SUV, tramples the prone woman. Her unconscious body churns under its large wheels like a lumpen sack. After a grainy video of a traffic accident in the city of Zhumadian surfaced on Chinese social media this past week, the initial reaction was one of outrage directed at the more than 40 pedestrians and drivers who passed within meters of the woman, all failing to offer help. But for much Chinese, the video was something more: a 94 -second reminder of their society’s deep rot. Even as China presents itself outwardly as a prosperous rising power, around kitchen tables, and in private WeChat groups, Chinese citizens routinely grumble about a nation that’s gone bankrupt when it comes to two qualities: “suzhi,” or “personal character,” and “dixian,” literally “bottom line” or a basic, inviolable sense of right and wrong.
Here, the common refrain goes, is an unmoored country where manufacturers knowingly sell toxic baby formula and fraudulent children’s vaccines. Restaurants cook with recycled “gutter oil” and grocery stores peddle fake eggs, fake fruit, even fake rice. Much Chinese say they avoid helping people on the street because of widespread stories about extortionists who seek help from passers-by and then feign injuries and demand compensation perhaps explaining the Zhumadian incident.
“It’s a problem with the entire country: our moral bottom line has fallen so low,” Tian You, a novelist based in the southeastern city of Shenzhen, said by phone. “If I’m truly honest, I wonder, would I myself have dared to help the woman?” After the Zhumadian video surfaced this week, garnering more than 5 million views in its first 24 hours before being censored, local police were forced to disclose that the accident took place weeks earlier, on April 21.
The woman surnamed Ma, died, while the two drivers who hit her were held under investigation, police said, without giving further details. The news swept through social media and even state media outlets. The Communist Youth League, an influential party organization, circulated the video on its Weibo account, urging its 5 million followers to “reject indifference.” An opinion column on china.com, a state media organ, asked citizens to “reflect” on the tragedy. Others used the episode as a starting point to vent about social ills. “Like the polluted haze facing our country, we see boundless corruption, left-behind children, medical disputes and so forth,” a columnist in the Chengdu Economic Daily wrote. “Have our society’s morals gotten better or worse in the last 10 years? What about our future, are you confident about that? Don’t ask me, because I’m not.”